‘I’ just O.K.

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 23, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Have we learned nothing?

Hasn’t someone figured out by now that anytime we turn our freedom over to robots, they always end up going nuts and turning against us, forcing us into a fight-to-the-death to destroy them? Didn’t HAL from &uot;2001&uot; or any of the Terminators teach us anything at all?


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Apparently not. That’s why films like &uot;I, Robot&uot; are still making money.

This time around, our hero is Will Smith, who evidently had his fill of the whole &uot;serious acting&uot; thing after his Oscar-nominated turn in &uot;Ali.&uot; He’s Del Spooner, walking the streets of 2035 Chicago, where the fans have one blade, Chuck Taylor sneakers are all the rage and beer runs $20 a bottle (oh, the humanity!). Across the land, robots aid in everyday life, working as butlers, bartenders, janitors, everything. But even though the robots are forbidden from hurting him (First rule of being a robot: they can’t harm humans), something about them just rubs Spooner the wrong way.

Roboticist Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) dies in an apparent suicide, and robot Sonny, Spooner suspects, is responsible. Neither the bombshell-in-disguise robot psychologist Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) nor robot-maker (Bruce Greenwood) take him too seriously, and neither does anyone else.

That’s basically the first half of the film, and not in a nutshell. We don’t see much of Spooner’s personal life, except that he lives alone and loves his grandma very much. It’s just his negative feelings toward the robots – sure, we know that there’s going to be a reason for him to feel this way, but we don’t find out why until an hour in. We also know that there wouldn’t be a movie if he was wrong, but the film seems to believe that we need to have things spelled out in stone. The tough-guy humor that pushed Smith into the big time in &uot;Independence Day&uot; and kept him there in &uot;Men in Black&uot; just isn’t around, and Spooner’s not very interesting without it.

Then we hit the second reel – and the action takes off (the turning point is Spooner’s explanation of his negativity toward the robots). Spooner’s fears are proven correct; the robots have a dark secret hidden in their artificial personas, and humanity’s in danger. Car crashes, motorcycle chases, and one-liners galore, and we’re back on familiar ground. The pedal is on the floor, and it’s time for the plot twists and turns to work their magic.

The robots go on the offensive, and there’s enough CGI effects going on to make it believable to the point that, like with &uot;Spiderman 2&uot; a few short weeks ago, viewers will forget that what they’re watching isn’t real. There’s a scene where Spooner’s in a tunnel and his car gets attacked by robots from both sides that absolutely defines the film once and for all – much like the final showdown in the top of Lanning’s office building.

Smith’s everyman persona connects with the audience like it always does, but it’s somehow Sonny, voiced by &uot;Dodgeball&uot; pirate Alan Tudyk, who steals the show. We learn of his ability to feel, to fear, to anger, to dream, and, in not so distance a future, to actually be one of those he protects. We feel he’s not so much tough as he is unsure of himself, and that he does what he does and feels what he feels because it’s the same thing that everyone else is going – and as the film winds down, he becomes a stronger person, undergoing the most extensive character development of the flick. Who would have ever thought we could say so much about the performance of a robot?

&uot;I, Robot&uot; doesn’t have much of a heart and very little sentimental value, except for Sonny. And, again, its first half moves like a quadriplegic snail. But once it gets going, we’ll be along for the ride.

Grade: B-