I, Robot

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Will Smith is the king of the Independence Day cineplex, able to draw in crowds and entertain even tough critics with his wise-guy antics and action heroics. Fourth of July belongs to the Fresh Prince! Because this is 1997, right? What, it’s not? 2004? Oh. Well, then who does Will Smith think he is, barging in here like this?!

Gone are the days of “Independence Day,” “Men in Black” and even “Wild Wild West” (which, though scorned, made $114 million — unprofitable, but still watched by a lot of people). “Men in Black II” and “Bad Boys II” tried to recapture Smith’s hold on mid-summer movie-going, and each earned (well, made; “earned” is something else) well over $100 million. But discerning viewers noted that both films felt overly familiar. There was the strong sense that Smith was going back to the well too often, and that producers were creating movies to abet him in doing so.

This disappointing trend continues with “I, Robot,” which is yet another science-fiction story in which Will Smith makes yet another series of wise-cracks while shooting more guns and blowing more things up. Does he say, “Aw, HELL no!” in this picture? Obviously.

Based rather loosely on Isaac Asimov’s iconic short stories and adapted by Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Lost in Space,” “Batman & Robin”) and Jeff Vintar (“Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”), the film is set in 2035 in Chicago. Robots have become commonplace in American households, used as personal butlers, nannies and assistants, all identical in appearance and looking vaguely like Oscar statues. U.S. Robotics reports that with the rollout of the new models in a few days, there will be one robot for every five humans.

Smith plays Del Spooner, a police officer who doesn’t trust robots, even though one has never, ever, ever committed a crime or hurt a person (they’re hardwired to obey all human instructions and never to inflict harm). Spooner is so old-fashioned his CD player works via remote control, not voice command, and he loves “retro” tennis shoes like the Converse All-Stars. Coincidentally, his favorites are the 2004 models — the very year in which this film is being released! Why, you could probably go out TODAY and buy a pair of the very shoes he adores!!!

(He’s also so old-fashioned that he showers without a curtain and with the bathroom door open, though maybe that’s not so much old-fashioned as exhibitionist, as he knows a movie camera is liable to pan slowly across the open doorway while he’s in there.)

Anyway, Spooner’s mistrust of robots starts to seem more credible when Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), founder of U.S. Robotics, is killed, and the only possible perpetrator is a robot (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), the shifty head of the company, denies that any of his droids are capable of such a thing — but of course he’d deny it, what with the impending product rollout and all. Generally speaking, people don’t buy something if they think it might kill them (cigarettes and motorcycles notwithstanding). Could this one robot’s actions, if true, indicate a larger plan — an uprising, even?! As Will Smith would (and does) say, “Aw, HELL no!”

Spooner pursues the facts, against the wishes of his lieutenant (Chi McBride), who probably calls him a “loose cannon,” or at least implies it, and with the semi-cooperative help of the lovely Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a U.S. Robotics employee whose job is to “make the robots look more human” (i.e., creepy, and P.S. mission accomplished). The closer he gets to the truth, the more dangerous things get for him personally, and for his beloved grandmother (Adrian L. Ricard), and so on and so forth.

(I was amused when Granny said, of Spooner’s ex-wife, “When I was coming up, people didn’t get married, get divorced, then not speak to each other.” But this is 2035, and Granny looks like she was born around 1965 … which means that people did, in fact, get divorced and not speak to each other anymore when she was “coming up.” It happened a lot, in fact. This is an example of a curious syndrome you see occasionally in films set in the future, where the senior citizens act as if they’d been raised in the 1930s and ’40s, rather than in the 1980s or the 2060s or whenever. But I digress.)

Directed by Alex Proyas (“Dark City,” “The Crow”), this is a big, soulless action film. It made me feel a lot like “The Day After Tomorrow” did: It’s fun, sure, but uninspired. We’ve seen it all before — the glib cop, the spectacular pursuits, the ludicrous plot twists. All of these are entertaining elements, but they need some spark to them, some wit or innovation or freshness. “I, Robot” lets Will Smith do his old Will Smith thing yet again, with only the minimum level of actual entertainment to dress it up.

C+ (1 hr., 55 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, brief partial nudity, action violence.)

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