July 26, 2004 12:00 PM

Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Chi McBride, Bruce Greenwood

Where’s an oil can when you need one? Though the fast-trotting robots are way cool and the vertical parking for cars (they hang in rows in a garage, like sides of beef in a meat locker) seems like a worthy innovation, the clanking plot machinery in this souped-up futuristic thriller could use a hefty squirt of Valvoline.

Based loosely on a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, I, Robot is set in Chicago in 2035. Robots are everywhere, functioning as all-purpose servants to make life cushier for mankind. Manufactured by a single giant corporation, the robots are programmed to help humans, never to harm them. But when a respected scientist (James Cromwell) who developed them winds up dead, homicide detective Del Spooner (Smith, see page 65) suspects one of these walking mounds of metal has turned lethal.

The problem with Robot is that it keeps reminding you of better, edgier flicks, notably Blade Runner, The Terminator and Minority Report, not to mention director Alex Proyas’s own Dark City. The film wants to pose Big Questions (What is the essential difference between man and machine? Can machines have feelings?) while serving up frequent fiery chases and gun battles. In the end, there are far more of the latter than the former—and it’s soon clear that there are only so many ways to blow off a robot’s head. Smith settles into standard action-hero mode, never stretching himself any farther than he has to to reach for his gun. As for Moynahan, playing a scientist who aids Spooner and serves as his halfhearted love interest, the lead robot shows more emotion than she does. (PG-13)


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