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Artificial Malevolence 

In one of my all-time favorite movies, Errol Morris' sadly little-seen documentary Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, MIT robotics engineer Rodney Brooks talks in an almost spiritual way about robots as our heirs. Because of his own success at building robots that can solve problems beyond their programming, learn, repair themselves and replicate, he ruminates with a sense of wonder about how robots are liable to survive us and how, when the age of humankind has run its course, they will be our legacy.

The "relationship" between humans and robots has been a consistent theme in science fiction. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (from Philip K. Dick's novel) concerns androids furious at their creator for making their lifespans so short. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey looses Hal the murderous computer on a starship of astronauts about to abort their mission. Now we have Alex Proyas' I, Robot, in which an army of machines meant to serve us is employed to enslave us instead. To paraphrase Laugh-In's Arte Johnson: interesting but ultimately not nearly clever enough.

Suggested by Isaac Asimov's book and written for the screen by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, I, Robot is set in 2035 Chicago, when robots have taken over most of the world's menial labor and basic service positions. Robots collect the garbage, sweep the streets, deliver the mail, clean the house, sling the burgers and pour you that cold, frosty one you need at the end of the day. The robots in operation look like the children of E.T. and the cartoon insects from Antz. They are long-limbed, oval-faced, bright-eyed and unfailingly polite. And despite this, there are a few curmudgeons who view them as a pox on the human race.

One such naysayer is Del Spooner (Will Smith), a homicide detective with inadequate backstory. Del is a buffed-up guy with an unexplained fondness for our own time (he listens to our music and wears our tennis shoes). He's handsome and funny, but his wife has left him for reasons that are never revealed. I might mention that it's become a cliche for homicide detectives to be failed husbands, but not everyone goes to a bunch of movies or watches several series of Law and Order. Del was raised by his adoring and adorable, sweet-potato-pie-baking grandmother (Adrian Richard), who might as well have "robot-bait" tattooed on her forehead from the moment we meet her. Eventually, we learn why Del hates robots so much, but even when the reason is reenacted for us, it doesn't make a lot of sense.

Summer action features (read Star Wars, Independence Day, Men in Black et al) don't really care that much about character or plot, and I, Robot is true to that indifference. Such films exist to deliver computerized mayhem with human heroes going mano v. millions with creatures that exist only in microbytes. The ho-hum plot of I, Robot proceeds from the apparent suicide of the world's leading robotics designer, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). Lanning was alone in his penthouse laboratory atop Chicago's tallest building when he plunged through glass walls to splatter himself on the marble floor of the atrium a gazillion floors below. Hurrying to the scene, Del already disbelieves the suicide theory because, and go figure this one out, he and Lanning were buddies. Isn't this somewhat like Albert Schweitzer being pals with Adolf Hitler?

So then we get the requisite scene where Del's boss (Chi McBride) tells him to lay off the case and the equally requisite set of scenes where he doesn't. Suspicions of foul play fall on three completely different individuals. Lawrence Robertson owns the robotics company and possesses a CEO's usual ruthless obsession with corporate profits. Moreover, he's played by Bruce Greenwood who specializes in white collar rats. Lanning's assistant, Susan Calvin, is also a suspect. As played by a stone-faced Bridget Moynahan, we keep thinking Calvin actually is a robot herself. The third suspect is a robot, Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), an experimental creature with human emotions and existential distress. Is Sonny a bad robot in the evil service of Robertson or Moynahan? Is he the Tony Soprano of robots? Or is he actually a good robot who just grew up on the wrong side of the robot tracks?

The screenplay pursues these questions with the energy of a garden slug, all the while devising situations where Del can do battle with hundreds of robots at once, sometimes speeding through a tunnel that must be 50 miles long (I lived in Chicago, and I missed that tunnel) and sometimes dangling from a catwalk at the apex of that gazillion-story atrium. In short, haven't we seen this all before? Why, yes, and as long as God keeps making summers, we'll see it again and again. For the robots have already established their foothold on our world. It's called Hollywood.

click to enlarge Will Smith battles millions of robots and a ho-hum plot in I, Robot. - AVA GERLITZ
  • Ava Gerlitz
  • Will Smith battles millions of robots and a ho-hum plot in I, Robot.


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