Rise of the machines

Signs of intelligent life in the film of Asimov's 'I, Robot'

The word "robot" once seemed futuristic, but now that terms like "android" and "cyborg" pop up in everyday chitchat, it has a downright old-fashioned ring. I doubt it would be the title of a big-budget Hollywood production if the screenplay weren't "inspired by" the Isaac Asimov book that brought together an interconnected series of his "positronic robot" stories in 1950.

Be that as it may, the "I, Robot" movie is futuristic in ways the inventive Mr. Asimov couldn't have imagined during his heyday, which peaked before computer-generated imagery morphed science-fiction cinema into a form of high-tech fetishism that's often as soulless as the machinery it's obsessed with.

The worst episodes of Alex Proyas's film are the ones most similar to "The Crow," his most popular picture until now. I mean the scenes where Will Smith wallops a zillion robots while driving his supercar down an underground tunnel, or while clinging by a fingernail to a ledge so high it sets even his heroic nerves on edge.

These moments of phony-baloney action reflect rules of physics drawn more from Roadrunner cartoons than the actual world. Happily, they aren't all "I, Robot" has to offer. It provides a healthy amount of real-life psychology via Mr. Smith's portrayal of the hero, a cop convinced that a scientist's supposed suicide was actually a murder committed by a robot - which, if true, would expose a disastrous flaw in the "laws of robotics" that keep humans safe from their mechanical servants.

While it's hardly a philosophical film, the screenplay by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman does have an idea or two. If you think of the robots as a race of slaves, barred from higher human achievements by their authoritarian human owners, the story takes on much inner meaning - even if the ending is regrettably ambiguous on this score, suggesting that the filmmakers care less about resolving moral dilemmas than opening the door to sequels.

Less ambitious than "Blade Runner" but more coherent than "Artificial Intelligence: A.I.," which it vaguely resembles, "I, Robot" is best during homely moments when Smith shows his human side.

Rated PG-13; contains violence and vulgarity.

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