"Suggested by" Isaac Asimov's robot stories—two stops removed from "based on" and "inspired by," the credit implies something scribbled on a bar napkin—Alex Proyas' science-fiction thriller I, Robot sprinkles Asimov's ideas like seasoning on a giant bucket of popcorn. The morsels are occasionally tasty: Rarely does an excuse for big-budget, gun-blazing mayhem have anything to do with a thoughtful treatise on the limits of rationality and law. But with Will Smith chewing scenery in his patented wisecracking-cop role, poor Asimov never had much of a chance, and the result is a cluttered, awkward blockbuster that's just smart enough to get itself into trouble.
Much like the superior Minority Report, to which Proyas and his screenwriters owe much (though not enough) of their inspiration, I, Robot takes place in a future city that looks like a glossy overlay of a familiar skyline, rather than a metropolis created from whole cloth. In this case, it's Chicago 2035, where progress takes the form of self-driving cars, single-bladed ceiling fans, and an arsenal of utilitarian robots. Though the latter operate under a set of laws designed to prevent them from harming humans, detective Smith suspects foul play when the robots' chief manufacturer (James Cromwell) apparently commits suicide before the latest model is released. Smith initially has reason to finger the company's nefarious CEO (Bruce Greenwood), but when an aggressive, free-thinking cyborg (voiced by Alan Tudyk) stokes Smith's anti-robot paranoia, he wonders about ghosts in the machine.
Asimov's simple and seemingly foolproof Laws Of Robotics, designed to protect human beings and robots alike from harm, are subject to loopholes that the author loved to exploit. After all, much of humanity agrees in principle to abide by the Ten Commandments, but free will, circumstance, and contradictory impulses can find wiggle room in even the most unambiguous decree. Whenever I, Robot pauses between action beats, Proyas captures some of the excitement of movies like The Matrix, Minority Report, and A.I., all of which proved that philosophy and social commentary could be smuggled into spectacle. Had the film been based on Asimov's stories, rather than merely "suggested by" them, Proyas might have achieved the intellectual heft missing from his stylish 1998 cult favorite Dark City.
But this is The Will Smith Show, and it comes with all the baggage that implies. Drumming up zero chemistry with sexy robot psychologist Bridget Moynahan, who seems destined to become the Claire Forlani of the moment, Smith gets a couple of high-speed car chases, escapes a demolition robot, shows off his Matrix moves, and improvs PG-13 quips that would make Eddie Murphy blush. Only in Hollywood could Asimov's robot theory somehow get processed into a sassy grandmother with sweet-potato pie at the ready.