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The spirit in the machine 

The credits of I, Robot delicately state that the movie was "suggested" by the work of Isaac Asimov, one of the most famous and successful writers of science fiction back in the Golden Age of the 1950s. The picture, however, differs drastically from the original collection of short stories, especially in transforming some of Asimov's premises and situations into the basis for a combination of mystery story and special effects blockbuster, what might be called a high technothriller.

            At the same time, the script employs the moral and philosophical foundations of the stories in its use of the famous Three Laws of Robotics, all of which involve the controls that prevent robots from harming human beings.

            Set in Chicago in 2035, the picture stars Will Smith as a homicide detective named Spooner, investigating the alleged suicide of the scientist (James Cromwell) who invented the advanced robots that now replace slaves and servants in the home and workplace. Distrusting robots himself, for reasons the picture later explains, Spooner believes that machines somehow managed to violate the Laws and kill their inventor.

            Against the orders of his supervisor and in contradiction of all the principles of robotics, he pursues his chief suspect, a particular robot, a new and improved model, that his creator named Sonny (Alan Tudyk).

            In the usual manner of the blockbuster, that central cop movie plot fades in and out, often simply sinking into the background, overwhelmed by a series of wild chases, furious fire fights, and desperate hand-to-hand battles. While Spooner follows his case, to the detriment of his career, masses of robots, acting on the commands of some unknown person, attack him, providing those obligatory narrow escapes, near misses, explosions, and miscellaneous fireworks. All of those events, naturally, exist to provide opportunities for a variety of impressive special effects, the meat and potatoes of the summer blockbuster.

            More important for the picture's themes, Spooner, together with one of the scientists at the robotics company (Bridget Moynahan), inquires into the true nature of the new generation of robots. The latest models, produced to supplant the existing machines, violate the Three Laws, mounting a revolution against both humanity and their predecessors, and imposing a kind of martial law on the community.

            Since both the government and the private sector have apparently relinquished all important tasks to the robots, they have also lost the power to control them. True to the nightmare dreamed by a variety of writers of the past, mechanization takes command.

            Spooner's gradual comprehension of the nature of the new generation of robots grows out of his relationship with Moynahan and his communications with Sonny, who develops into a fully sympathetic and likeable character in his own right. Like any artificial humanoid in the great tradition of literature and cinema, from Frankenstein's monster to the little boy of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,the machine yearns, above all, to be human.

            Unlike any of his fellows, Sonny expresses a desire for life, feels emotions and, most important, he dreams. His vision culminates in a final moment of transcendence that raises the picture a degree beyond the usual flick about machines running amok.

            Given the premise of mechanisms that can perform a variety of complicated tasks, obey spoken commands and respond in speech, repair and perhaps even replicate themselves, the inventor in the picture raises the possibility that they can also evolve on their own, developing emotions, volition, and identity.

            The film provides some striking and quite poignant examples of his theories in one major sequence and in Sonny's words and deeds. Sonny himself not only succeeds in becoming a genuine personage, but rises to an unexpected level of existence, suggesting that the machine can even attain a kind of spirituality that may be entirely new in a robot flick.

            Beyond the fascinating philosophical and even theological implications, I, Robot handles its special effects with a good deal of skill, especially in its depiction of the robots in massed maneuvers, marching in step, moving in unison, fighting battles, mounting huge assaults. Their articulated, insectoid bodies, their precisely regimented movements, their relentless progress, their sheer numbers make them look very like hordes of ants, which may well be the real inspiration for their cinematic creation.

            As for Will Smith, his laboriously delivered (and entirely unfunny) lines and tiresome wisecracks, and his exaggerated performance impart very little in the way of energy or entertainment to the movie. Sonny the robot steals every scene.

I, Robot (PG-13), starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell, Chi McBride; suggested by Isaac Asimov's book; directed by Alex Proyas. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.

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