Dir: Alex Proyas.2004. USA.

Will Smithreturns to what he does best - kicking ass in summer popcorn movies- in the high-tech thriller I, Robot, a workmanlike sci-fi/action hybrid from dystopiandarling Alex Proyas that fuses the burgeoning artificial intelligence industrywith homeland security concerns, proposing a nightmarish scenario ofenlightened robots running amok through a sleek, angular and vaguelytotalitarian Chicago circa 2035. Smith's considerable fan base willlikely turn out in droves for this derivative but thrilling and engaging studiotrifle that boasts savvy special effects and the boisterous bonhomie of one ofHollywood's most reliable mainstream stars - provided that Spider-Man2's lingering reignat the global box office doesn't rain on I, Robot's less commanding parade.

Smith stars asunruly yet homespun Chicago homicide detective Del Spooner whose skepticism forthe modern age is announced moments into the film when the easily agitated,borderline paranoid cop tries to apprehend a purse-snatching robot -who's racing through city streets to bring his master an asthmainhaler.

In this vision ofMiddle America thirty years from now, a breed of automated domestic assistants-- glorified robot slaves, mass-produced for the consumer household market by acorporation called U.S. Robotics - have infiltrated everyday life,performing obsequious tasks ranging from babysitting to cooking to balancingthe checkbook.

But they aremachines limited to domesticity and prevented from acquiring sentience via theenforcement of three rigid laws: a robot may not injure a human being or allowa human being to come to harm; a robot must obey orders given it by humanbeings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law; finally, arobot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does notconflict with the first or second law.

The author ofthese consumer safeguards is Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), a brilliant,reclusive scientist for U.S. Robotics who winds up dead, falling fifty storiesto his death onto the company's sleekly polished reception area in whatis steadfastly declared to be a suicide by company CEO and founder LawrenceRobertson (Bruce Greenwood), whose Bill Gates-like dream is to place robots in everyhome.

Enter Spooner,whose investigation into Lanning's death conflicts with Robertson'stheories - he's certain the scientist has been murdered. Whileinterrogating comely robot psychiatrist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan),whose job is to ensure that robots obey the law, Spooner discovers an unlikelysuspect in the form of the rebellious replacement model for the existing NS-4household robot. The upgrade may have been given too much humanity by its'father,' Dr. Lanning, who has christened the creature Sonny andtaught 'him' how to dream.

Bearing photorealistic human qualities that might have been stunning had they not been soredolent of the fornicating robots in Björk's mesmerizing 'Allis Full of Love' clip, the NS-5 prototype Sonny escapes from companyheadquarters and leads Spooner on a chase across a rain-soaked Chicagocityscape. The detective soon unearths a conspiracy at the heart of U.S.Robotics: Sonny is not alone in his rapidly developing and highly suspect freewill. Rather he is one of thousands of more-human-than-human models ready to bedownloaded with source code and delivered into the households of America.

After the newmodels arrive on the market virtually overnight, forcing their way intoconsumers' homes and declaring martial law, Spooner and Calvin discoverthe existence of a 'ghost in the machine,' a sort of technologicalflaw within the NS-5s that has allowed the devices to naturally evolve intosentient beings. Spooner believes it's a totalitarian plot by Robertsonto create an unstoppable robot security force, something akin to alaboratory-bred S.S. But it soon emerges that a more insidious and complexforce is at work - something beyond Spooner and Calvin's expertisein law and science.

Although the filmis loosely based on the nine short stories comprising Isaac Asimov'sclassic collection of the same name, the movie version of I, Robot was forged by melding the Asimov sourcematerial with a dusted-off spec script by Jeff Vintar called Hardwired. The result was fine-tuned in the form ofa Hollywood polish job by Akiva Goldsman, whose fusion of science andpsychology earned the high-paid scribe an Oscar for his work on A BeautifulMind.

I, Robot is a schizophrenic work in its own right.If the film doesn't feel like its own distinct beast, it's notbecause it's spawned from one too many sources - it's becauseit blatantly cribs from previous works. The robot Sonny, a digitally renderedspecial effect, was modeled, Gollum-like, on the human attributes of creditedactor Alan Tudyk, who doesn't physically appear in the film, but commandsrecognition much like faceless talent Andy Serkis did in the wake of thesuccess of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The hand-to-handcombat sequences that develop between Smith and the self-regenerative robotsfeel eerily similar to the molten skirmishes fought by characters in Terminator3: Rise of the Machines.Plot conceits, lighting schemes, orchestral flourishes and cityscape renderingstoo often recall Minority Report, to which I, Robot owes a considerable debt, to say nothing of themoral conundrum at the heart of AI: Artificial Intelligence - whether robots lack the capacityfor free will - that makes Sonny come across as a Spielberg pretender.

But Proyas lacksthe aptitude for soulful spiritual inquisition à la Spielberg. Hisaffinity for highly stylized, doom-laden set pieces, like those on display inhis previous films The Crow and Dark City,often results in a benumbed emptiness that doesn't jive withSmith's trademark sass and flash. Proyas serves up one methodicalaction-packed set piece after another, including a car chase on the undergroundfreeways beneath Chicago that lacks the vertiginous thrill of the freeway chasein Minority Report towhich it pays homage - it's all crash and burn on overdrive. Alackluster street fight between robots and teen ruffians feels like a lavishlychoreographed Michael Jackson video replete with nattily attired teens thatseem to be channeling the child actor Corey Feldman.

Most ludicrous ofall is the explosive finale deep within the confines of the knife-shapedheadquarters of U.S. Robotics, whose exterior bears more than a passingresemblance to the architectural rendering of the Freedom Tower that will oneday stand in the footprints of the fallen World Trade Center in New York City.The beating heart of this nefarious corporation is a glittering disco balldisguised as a CPU - but instead of raining men, it's rainingrobots. Hundreds of them, rendered by computers in perfect linear form.

While most worksof science fiction purport to examine the future, in actuality they'redropping hints on how to grapple with present day issues. And whileAsimov's original short story collection was conceived during the1940's and '50's, during fascism's rise and eclipse,the bulk of the film version has been updated to reflect the War on Terror andits implications pertaining to homeland security - fascism all overagain. It's probably no coincidence that the insidious robot securitysystem that controls the infrastructure of U.S. Robotics - that discoball -- resembles nothing else than the mythical central hard drive of theNational Security Agency, the device allegedly employed by the U.S. governmentto snoop on its citizens.

But I, Robot is far less concerned with bellowing anOrwellian socio-political warning than with giving Will Smith enough robots tobash apart and send flying across elaborate sets. The muscled-up action herogives a swarthy, moody performance that won't disappoint his core fans -if he's less cocksure than usual it's because the writers tookgreat care to construct a multi-dimensional character that's ripped apartinside and out, a far cry from the swaggering loudmouths of Independence Day and the Men in Black films.

Throughflashbacks we come to learn that Spooner, like Sonny, is harboring acomplicated secret, one in which the late Dr. Lanning played no small part.I, Robot comes alive whenit's hinted that the skeptical lawman might be closer in construct to hismechanized foes than he'd care to admit. Indeed, it's this fusionof man and machine that renders the film so confounding: at it's heart I,Robot questions what itmeans to be human. But so many humans were involved in the film'sgenesis, and so many sources inspired its evolution, that the final productfeels robotic in its own right.

Prodcos: DavisEntertainment Co., Laurence Mark, Overbrook Films

Frdist: 20thCentury Fox


Prods:LaurenceMark, John Davis, Topher Dow, Wyck Godfrey

Scr:JeffVintar and Akiva Goldsman


Ed:RichardLearoyd, Armen Minasian, William Hoy


Costumes:ElizabethKeogh Palmer


Maincast: WillSmith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell, Chi McBride, ShiaLaBeouf, Alan Tudyk