In 2035, robots are commonplace, governed by three laws which prevent them from harming humans. Robophobic cop Del Spooner (Will Smith) investigates the death of a robotics professor, which seems to have been caused by one of his creations. Partnering with cientist Susan Calvin, (Moynahan), Spooner is soon deep in mystery...
From the early 1940s to his death in 1992, Isaac Asimov turned out a series of stories set in a future where robots were a part of everyday life, their conduct governed by his famous Three Laws Of Robotics - the first of which insists - a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Well aware that real-life robots are designed to inflict harm on human beings, Asimov concentrated on exercises in intellectual hair-splitting whereby the laws are circumvented in order to provide a plot.
Taking a title from Asimov's first robot collection, this movie uses the author's boffin Dr. Susan Calvin as heroine and cops some wrinkles from various vintage science-fiction stories while using a critique of the imaginary robotics industry to score points off all-too-real computer combines.
It's mostly an original conspiracy screenplay, dumping the 'three laws' angle at mid-point to deliver a more film-friendly melodrama leading to a mass uprising of red-hearted robots and some large-scale mecha-carnage. Alex Proyas tones down the Gothic-noir look of his spikier earlier features, The Crow and Dark City, opting for that smooth, silvery, slightly overcast urban future seen in recent Spielberg pictures (A.I., Minority Report), with gadgets in every frame and human mess still very much in evidence.
It's hard not to feel that this has been assembled rather than created, but like a good robot it does the job it was designed for. Will Smith, although operating in slightly more sombre mood than usual, is too early-2000s a figure to be a credible future cop, though his Spooner is depicted as a nostalgic who prefers a good old-fashioned remote control to a voice-activated CD player and wakes himself up with a blast of Stevie Wonder.
His backstory, which shows why he hates robots yet also keeps prodding the audience about an ingrained connection with them, is Screenwriting 101 Driven Cop, and his Willsmithian wisecracks feel like a late-in-the-day rewrite to fit the vehicle to the star. But a running joke about Spooner's insistence that Calvin rephrase her plot explanations in language he can understand usefully grounds the picture for anyone who wants to cut to the chase.
The real star, though, is Sonny (Alan Tudyk, transformed by CGI), the sensitive robot programmed to dream and accused of the murder of his human father (James Cromwell). This plot thread is tipped in from a book by Eando Binder, a less-well-known sci-fi writer, which has confusingly also been called I, Robot. With an expressive face that looks like a semi-transparent Richard E. Grant deathmask and the patented HAL 9000 cool, inquiring voice, Sonny is a marvellous creation, all the more so for refusing to go the A.I. / Pinocchio route and aspiring to explore his own highly-evolved robot identity rather than whine about not being a real boy.
Asimov began to write his stories in reaction to the 1930s cliche of the robot who rebels Frankenstein-style against his maker - but Proyas and company eventually embrace this for an ending that provides plenty of satisfying twists and turns. It's a creaky, ancient premise, but nevertheless stirring, helped by Proyas' whirligig direction, soaring almost nauseatingly around his set-pieces in an apparent effort to resurrect the summer movie 'rollercoaster ride' cliche.
The effects, arguably the best of the year, only add to the thrill as serried ranks of evil robots swarm up a building, pile onto a speeding car or slaughter the previous generations of helpful drones. If not quite the best blockbuster of the year - though it's a worthy contender - it certainly doesn't fail on effort.
There are awkward plot patches and you'll have to tolerate Will Smith at full strength - as well as some bludgeoning product placement - but this summer picture has a brain as well as muscles.