In movies nothing is more retro than the future. To look at old science-fiction films is to be reminded of the frailty of man's prophetic powers. Who would have guessed that some new ideas would fall out of favor (manned space travel) and some old ones would last (that 19th century gizmo the internal-combustion engine)? The fashioner of sci-fi Utopias or dystopias is advised to keep it simple and avoid embarrassment later.
Say this for I, Robot: it doesn't push the future in your face. Set in Chicago in 2035, the movie has a sensible, couple-of-years-hence look. Americans of the next '30s, the movie tells us, will still wear vintage sneakers (Converse 2004), drink Ovaltine and get home deliveries from FedEx. (We know this thanks to some of the most obtrusive product placement since Cast Away.) And morose gumshoes will obsessively patrol the streets for sophisticated robots that have an itch to be human. Yes, readers of future past, I, Robot--"suggested by" Isaac Asimov's pioneer collection of short stories published in 1950--is another gloss on Blade Runner.
The cop here is Spooner (Will Smith), investigating the death by defenestration of an inventor (James Cromwell) days before his company's new line of "automated domestic assistants"--home androids--is to be unveiled. Because he's the standard cop-hero sociopath and also because he just can't stand robots, Spooner suspects everyone. Dammit, he suspects anything modern. As the U.S. Robots boss (Bruce Greenwood) says, "You would have banned the Internet simply to keep the libraries open." Spooner focuses his skepticism on a prototype droid named Sonny, the only creature in the room with the inventor when he died.
Sonny, in the tradition of Jar Jar Binks and Gollum, was created by painting computer graphics over an actor (here, Alan Tudyk). It's a suave simulacrum that makes Sonny the film's most complex and human character--granted, by default--and sets him apart from the killer "can openers" in pursuit of Spooner. There's a nifty car chase, with the cop (in an Audi, its logo prominently displayed) set upon by a vicious android posse. Even if the scene is not up there with the 14-min. freeway free-for-all in the second Matrix movie, it's a smart, vigorous blend of live action and computer graphics.
Tough cops, car chases, killer bots--the sci-fi action-movie format is starting to rust. Director Alex Proyas used to be able to spiff up the genre; his Dark City and The Crow created vivid, lurid nightscapes. This time, even given a lavishly muscled superstar and a murder plot with a soft heart (Sonny is a member of a minority the prejudiced cop has to learn to love), the gifted visualist goes all pedestrian and impersonal.
In the end, I, Robot is just an assembly-line product of a not very advanced model. Can a fantasy fan dream a little and predict that by 2035 sci-fi movies will come up with inventive new ways of frightening us about the future?
--By Richard Corliss