[box cover]

I, Robot

Hollywood always gets into trouble when it goes poaching on sacred science-fiction terrain. Nearly all of the genre's greatest works have been travestied in some crassly commercial manner or another, sometimes with gratifyingly guilty returns (e.g. Verhoeven's subversive profaning of Robert Heinlein's fascistic Starship Troopers), though mostly to horrifically wrongheaded, often imbecilic effect (The Martian Chronicles, Johnny Mnemonic, Solaris… the list is as long as it is depressing). Ergo, whatever hope sci-fi fans felt when Dark City's Alex Proyas got assigned to direct a 2004 adaptation of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot was instantly compromised, if not dashed altogether, by the casting of Will Smith, whose track record for lighthearted, crowd-pleasing entertainments seemed at odds with the steadfast seriousness of the author's legendary short story (as always, there was a racial element at play for some fanboys, who get uneasy with black actors not relegated to supporting roles). But the real proton torpedo in the reactor core of the Death Star was the involvement of Batman-killing screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, whose subsequent Oscar-winning reputation has done nothing to ameliorate the raging geek resentment. That offense aside, Goldsman still winds up being this lavish production's Achilles' heel because of his (ahem) robotic approach to scripting that worships tried-and-true formula above all else. What he's done here is structure his narrative around the literal minded application of a "bread crumb" device that forces Smith's detective character, Del Spooner, to follow a trail of carefully meted out clues on his way toward working out a mystery that most audience members have at least guessed if not completely worked out well ahead of the final reel.

Spooner is so old school he rocks Chuck Taylor Converse high-tops in the year 2035, where, aside from footwear being snazzily advanced, robots have become thoroughly integrated into daily human life. This might be disconcerting were it not for the three laws protecting humans from robots, and robots from harm to themselves provided their self-defense does not extend to inflicting harm on their human superiors. The only person not reassured by these laws is Spooner, who holds a grudge against all forms of artificial intelligence for keeping him from rescuing a drowning girl. He gets some unexpected ammunition for his one-man war to discredit robots when U.S. Robotics scientist Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) turns up dead after an apparent suicide. Spooner isn't buying it, and Lanning fuels his paranoia with a series of cryptic clues that has Spooner trying to hunt down Sonny (the motion-captured Alan Tudyk), a rogue robot who's part of a new series of A.I. soon to be installed in every home in the country. To be fair, Goldsman's script is mechanically efficient enough to give Proyas a fighting chance to make the whole endeavor moderately entertaining, which he generally does. A number of action sequences — particularly a car chase in which Spooner must fend off a swarming, ant-like attack by the new breed of robot — are downright sensational, while the tech-friendly director integrates the CG relatively seamlessly. Add to this another charismatic performance from Smith, and it would be disingenuous to claim that the movie doesn't work on a very basic popcorn level. But the picture so clearly yearns to be smart science fiction, and so thoroughly fails because of its pat resolution of Asimov's revolutionary themes, that it winds up being more frustrating than entertaining. Finally, the reiteration of heady sci-fi ideas without rigorous intellectual investment by the filmmakers proves insufficient to make this otherwise mindless sci-fi action spectacle thoughtful in its own right.

*          *          *

Fox's two-disc I, Robot: Collector's Edition updates the original single-disc release, including the original anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, as well as a new DTS audio option. Disc One offers the original feature-length commentary from Proyas and Goldsman (recorded separately), which lacks any interesting perspective due to being recorded several weeks before the theatrical release of the film. A new commentary with no less than 11 crew members is also on board, as well as a third track featuring composer Marco Beltrami. The original behind-the-scenes featurette (12 min.) is also included, along with a trailer for X2: X-Men United. Disc Two is packed with new features, and thankfully there is a "Play All" option for those who would prefer not to navigate the somewhat complicated index. Five main sections — "Day Out of Days: The I Robot Production Diaries," "CGI and Design," "Sentient Machines: Robotic Behavior," "Three Laws Safe: Conversations about Science Fiction and Robots," and a "Filmmakers Toolbox" — comprise multi-part featurettes, each detailing a vast amount of behind-the-scenes minutiae. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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