by Marty Demarest

At first I thought the title of I, Robot referred to its star, Will Smith. When we first meet his character, Detective Spooner, he's waking up from a wet title sequence with a gun in his hand, just like every other tormented cop in movieland. Then he's showering without a curtain (the gun's still handy!) and pulling on his new product-placement shoes. Everything he does, while looking photogenic, has the feel of soulless motivation. Spooner-bot goes from sleep mode to street mode, eats some pie and sasses his granny, before reporting to work in homicide. During none of this do we get the feeling that he's, well, feeling.

Until he starts working with robots. Robots, it turns out, do everything that people in the world of I, Robot don't want to do. They walk the dogs, take out the garbage, run errands and treat people politely. They also, Spooner is convinced, are untrustworthy killing machines, despite the fact that not a single robot has ever committed a crime. And so when he's called in to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the world's leading robotics researchers, his feelings kick in and he immediately suspects some silicon hand behind the death.

Since I, Robot is a relatively short film, it doesn't take long for Spooner to find a robot whose behavior seems suspicious. Sonny, who looks like an i-Pod crossed with a crash-test dummy and talks like KITT meets HAL, is a passionate robot who can get angry and have dreams. He was made by the suicide victim, in the victim's room when he died, and will probably either kill Spooner or help him with his investigation.

At first this seems about as credible as a case in Scooby Doo, with Smith's eye twitching every time he spies a clue, and secret entrances to major corporate buildings turning up under stairs. Prophetic dreams are mentioned, and red-colored robots start killing people. And who could be behind the professor's mysterious death? Could it be the multi-billionaire CEO who is so evil that he snaps his fingers at his minions? Perhaps it was the beautiful scientist, the one who's always babbling about important plot points. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the robots.

Yes, I, Robot is a Hollywood extravaganza -- a triumph of volume and slow-motion that makes sure every product is in place before it's blown-up. But underneath, it tries to be a better movie. Will Smith has toned-down his Fresh Prince grinning; on one occasion he's even believably emotional. Occasionally a refreshing, satirical tone enters the movie. (At one point, people are urged to stay inside for their "safety" while the evil robots open up a can of freedom 'n' democracy on everyone else.) However, while a director like Bryan Singer (X-Men) or Tim Burton (Batman) could balance a blockbuster like this, Alex Proyas seems to lack the confidence to develop the better moments. And so I, Robot arrives in theaters with an identity, but a soul that's still a work in progress.

Publication date: 07/22/04

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