Pop Culture

'I, Robot' malfunctions in the end

It’s been three decades since robots ran amok in “Westworld,” and considerably more years since a computer named HAL 9000 murdered most of his shipmates in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“I, Robot,” which was “suggested” by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 book of the same name, promises to go back to the origins of such stories. In the opening scenes, it prominently features Asimov’s three laws of robotics — all designed to keep robots from harming humans — and then proceeds to tamper with them.

The result is not so much sacrilege as it is a patchwork of scenes lifted from other science-fiction classics. From “Blade Runner,” it borrows the question of which characters are human and which are robots. From “Robocop,” it swipes a central character who is part human, part robot. From “Colossus: The Forbin Project” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” it steals the notion that robots may be better than humans at keeping the peace.

Directed by Alex Proyas, who made the entertainingly convoluted “Dark City,” the movie works fairly well as a murder mystery. The year is 2035 and the setting is Chicago, where the skyscrapers now threaten to wipe out all signs of the sun. Even more ominously, statues of giant robots litter the landscape, in expectation of a revolution in which robots will become daily companions to millions.

The death of a robot expert (James Cromwell) has been ruled a suicide. Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith), who is hostile to robots and regarded as something of a loose cannon, believes that he was murdered, and he enlists a robot shrink (Bridget Moynahan) to help him make his case.

The key to the mystery would appear to be a special robot named Sonny, who seems sinister at first, gradually reveals his personality and proceeds to steal the show. For all the charisma and dry humor that Smith brings to his role, he’s outfoxed by Sonny, who appears to have the voice of HAL 9000 (actually, it belongs to Alan Tudyk) and the manner of a particularly endearing pet.

Whenever Sonny’s out of the picture, the movie is forced to fall back on the forced chemistry between Smith and Moynahan and several computer-generated action scenes. One of these is a lulu: a chase scene with manic robots stalking and attacking Spooner in a tunnel, like the multiplying broomsticks who surround Mickey Mouse in Disney’s “Fantasia.”

But the overkill point is reached soon after this admittedly impressive set piece, and the movie begins to fall apart. The finale, which is clearly meant to be more spectacular and exciting than anything that has gone before, falls especially flat.

Although it’s called “I, Robot,” the movie began as an original screenplay, “Hardwired,” by Jeff Vintar, who co-wrote the computer-generated cartoon, “Final Fantasy,” and is now working on an adaptation of Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy. Akiva Goldman (“A Beautiful Mind”) worked with Vintar on the final script.

There may have been too many cooks here. But Proyas, who has a knack for visual extravagance that approaches poetry, remains a director to watch.