Tougher than silicon

Will Smith shows those nasty robots what’s what

Niels Strandskov

The dream of robotics is to remove drudgery from human experience.

This dream dovetails well with Hollywood’s stated intention to take us away from our mundane lives, if only for two hours at a time, and give us a glimpse of glamour, luxury and desire realized. Alas, for both filmmakers and robot-builders, reality can fall depressingly short of the fantasy.

However, although the robots in Alex Proyas’ adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” are bent on crushing human independence, the film itself does a good job of constructing an artificial world for in which the audience can escape.

Luckily, the script owes more to the past twenty years of science fiction literature than it does to Asimov’s sometimes clunky descriptions of the future as seen from the vantage point of the Buck Rogers generation.

Del Spooner (Will Smith) is that most common of movie cops, the neurotic loner with a crushing burden of guilt that makes it impossible for him to follow orders. (Apparently, in the future, no one uses the MMPI to screen these types from joining the police in the first place.) In this story however, it’s robots – rather than serial killers or drug lords – who are to blame for the cop’s dementia.

Spooner is called upon to investigate the apparent suicide of the creator of artificially intelligent robots, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). He is assisted, at first reluctantly, by another robot scientist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan). Although it’s never explicitly stated in the film, it’s crucial to our understanding of the story to recognize that while Spooner and the lieutenant on the Chicago police force that he reports to are black, everyone else is white. Even the robots have white faces.

Most of the white characters accuse Spooner of being “prejudiced” against robots at some point in the film. Never mind that his so-called prejudice is actually based on his well-reasoned discomfort with the way robots are programmed.

It’s not too surprising to see a Hollywood movie address race in a profoundly ambiguous way. Since “Birth of a Nation,” and all the way up to “Cookie’s Fortune,” Hollywood movies tend to distort the politics of race in America rather than investigating them.

Except for this strange detour into serious matters, “I, Robot” functions almost perfectly as a modern SF film. The plot rolls along smoothly with few significant holes. The special effects are impressive, although Spooner’s vehicle, an Audi concept car, manifests that weird jiggling you get in mocked-up movie props whenever it stops.

“I, Robot” can efficiently remove you from your drab little life for a couple of hours. If only the resources used to make it were spent on fixing the social problems it alludes to, we might not need robots to make us happy.