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Published: Friday, 7/16/2004

Movie review: I, Robot ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

One of us. One of us. One of us. Is there a creepier chant in all

of movie history? Say it to yourself in the best monotone you can

muster; better yet, stand behind someone and mutter it over and over

until you re slapped with a restraining order. It comes from Tod

Browning s great old horror movie oddity Freaks. It s what the

sideshow mutants chanted as they tore apart their nemesis and made her, well, one of them.

A decade ago, it got a knowing laugh in Robert Altman s The Player when Lyle Lovett chanted it to Tim Robbins in hopes of unnerving him. And now it s been pulled out again, to subtle, spectacular effect in a seemingly big dumb summer chase movie with Will Smith called I, Robot.

The robot of the title is the latest all-purpose household slave, the

NS-5 Automated Domestic Assistant. We re in Chicago, the year is

2035, and the new Microsoft is U.S. Robotics. The company is days

away from launching so many NS-5s, we re told, there will be five

robots for every human. We get an eerie glimpse into a warehouse, and it s a more than a vaguely fascist-looking vision: columns of

identical robots, their pale, thin, waxy synthetic faces covering

just enough nuts and bolts to provide a hint of an expression. They

look born from an unholy union between an iMac and a crash-test dummy.

The warehouse, though, is distinctly low-tech. This is a society

learning to love its robots, but the artifacts of the early 21st

century, from the cars to the first versions of these tin-can

butlers, haven t yet been retired. As the film zooms around Chicago,

in one of the nicest touches, we see the walking Versions 1.0 and 1.2

and 2.4 and so on, the way a 1974 Dodge might pull up next to a 2004 Saab. The evolution of our own laziness is right there on the street, like rings around a tree trunk, but you sense everyone is too happy with them to notice how evolved they re becoming.

Everyone trusts the robots but detective Del Spooner (Smith), a

Luddite in vintage Converse All-Stars and a black skull cap whose

aversion to these chipper, emotionless servants is given more than a

passing resemblance to racism. (But just a resemblance; the film

prefers its nastier subtexts, like its passing commentary on the

exploitation of immigrant labor, buried very deeply.) One of the

robots, Sonny, appears to have murdered their brilliant

scientist-maker (James Cromwell) and Del has cornered him in this

forest of frosty-faced replicants. Their artificial intelligence is

taken for granted; but then what sci-fi movie robot in the past 30

years, from the droll C-3PO to the brooding runaway replicants of

Blade Runner, hasn t been artificially intelligent? It s the

emotional intelligence raising an eyebrow here.

Do androids dream, as the sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick once famously

put it, of electric sheep? The question is still hovering over the

film when he hear that familiar refrain, intoned by a thousand robots

with voices like Anthony Newley One of us.

Hmmm.

Spooky.

Del, a standard-issue renegade movie cop who even has his badge taken away, is a step ahead of the tech-swoony bureaucrats who say he s crazy, a robot could never kill or plan to replace humanity. They re hardwired to operate on three laws: a robot can not harm a human being or allow a human being to come to harm; a robot must obey a human being s orders (as long as it doesn t conflict with the first law); and a robot must protect its own existence (as long as it

doesn t break the first and second laws). But Del, it s evident,

knows his science fiction movies, and he knows that rule one is be

suspicious of any Frankenstein creations: Just because you re

paranoid doesn t mean these robots are there to walk your Lhasa apso forever. The fun here is figuring out the loophole in those rules and you know there s gonna be one.

In other words: I have seen the future and it s an episode of Frasier

gone very wrong. The worst episode, actually. Not that I, Robot is a

bad film; quite the contrary, it s a shamelessly entertaining video

game of a narrative, directed with style and energy (by Alex Proyas

of Dark City), if not exactly brains. It s just that, this future

will be full of efficiency, and the voice of efficiency has the calm,

articulate, vague Victorian stammer of a National Public Radio

announcer. The bad part comes from trusting that disarming voice.

There s a reason, after all, talking cars never caught on. We never

wanted to feel cocooned in the web of a sentimental being, no matter

how artificially intelligent. This, you could argue, is the

foundation of great science fiction, maybe the best story sci-fi has

to tell: our fear of technology gone mad specifically, our fear

that hi-tech will become more efficient than we can handle and phase people out. Did a robot once put your father out of work? the CEO (Bruce Greenwood) of U.S. Robots sneers at Dell, a passing nod to the changes of the next three decades. You probably would have banned the Internet just to keep the libraries open.

I fear I ve made I, Robot sound more cerebral than it plays; though a

man behind me in the theater gave it the kiss death when he shrugged and mumbled, It s got a lot of slow parts. I suppose. What he was noticing was how the movie was suggested by the acclaimed short story collection from Isaac Asimov that explored and philosophized over how robots might evolve and develop a morality, how they might wonder eventually why they can t have emotions or dreams, or ambitions. The first half handles some of these ideas with a light pop touch. Trying to prove the limitations of robotic intelligence Del asks Sonny if he can paint a masterpiece, or compose a great symphony, and Sonny asks simply: Can you?

The answer is more ironic than anyone seems to recognize: Proyas

deftly juggles bold (if not especially original) ideas with a

patented Will Smith Summer Movie pace for far longer than the film s

dumb and loud trailers might have suggested. A few of the action

scenes, particularly a freeway chase, are little stand-alone

masterpieces; when the attack of the clones commences, they lurch

into action with an ominous grace (and even charm) that recalls the

skeletons from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

The irony comes in the second half when the robotic hand of generic

blockbuster filmmaking, like the robots in the film, increasingly

encroaches, until the solution to the murder, even the answer to how

Sonny breached his unbreachable laws, gets swamped by the steady devolution of generic special effects and slow-motion, sideways gun fights, leaps into space, whatnot, whatever. Smith doesn t phone it in, but the action-hero thing is starting to seem way below his promise, and don t think he doesn t recognize it. I, Robot is a stopgap measure, dazzling pop filmmaking that loses its nerve and eventually can t bear to stay so thoughtful, opting instead for

being a recognizable, synthetic summer product, betraying all its

lovely ghosts in the machine.

One of us, indeed.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.comor

419-724-6117.



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