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Robot nerds will likely be up in arms over the bastardization of Isaac Asimov’s classic 1950 short-story collection, I, Robot, into a popcorn-friendly Will Smith vehicle. But there’s a bigger issue here, people, one that’s apparent to even the SF-illiterate among us. In fact, it’s obvious to anyone who’s seen the trailers: The robots look kind of stupid.
Pearlescent and rheumily blue-eyed, I, Robot’s NS-5s, marketed in 2035 Chicago as “tomorrow’s robot, today!,” come across—metaphor alert!—less like machines than humans gone horribly wrong. And it’s not only their lack of eyebrows or mere hint of mouth that makes them look so weird. Slender but randomly bulbous, the ’bots have the emaciated cheeks of Michael Jackson and a torso that’s part Iron Man, part Southern belle. To moviegoers weaned on red-eyed Terminators, the NS-5s will probably seem too damn delicate to be scary.
But HAL-like gentleness turned malevolent can be pretty creepy, and though director Alex Proyas never quite achieves the inkily evil atmospherics he perfected in The Crow and Dark City, I, Robot is occasionally chilling—at least to the extent a Smith flick can rightly be. Our man plays the musclicious Del Spooner, a homicide detective burdened by his hatred of robots and nightmares that can only be erased by curtainless, ass-to-the-camera showers. When Spooner isn’t lolling about half-naked in his apartment, he’s investigating the apparent suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the head of U.S. Robotics and creator of the latest NS-5s—which, according to the most advanced of the group, Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), have been programmed to dream and feel emotion.
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Spooner immediately suspects Sonny, who attacks him with a ninjalike spring from the depths of Lanning’s quiet, dark lab. But because robots have become such a trusted presence in society, ingrained with three seemingly infallible do-no-harm laws that allow them to perform a variety of drudge work without posing a threat to humans, Spooner is accused of letting his prejudice turn into paranoia. Even Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), robot psychoanalyst and witness to Sonny’s violent episode, insists that it’d be impossible for a ’bot to have killed Lanning. Very proto–Blade Runner—except, y’know, we’ve already seen Blade Runner, and those replicants really were effed in the head.
Though I, Robot isn’t a complete disaster, it’s also far from the exhilarating summer blockbuster it might have been. Smith is remarkably subdued as man-with-a-secret Spooner, and though he does manage to unleash an “Aw, haylll no!” before one particularly raucous action sequence, screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman refrain from giving the actor his usual slew of one-liners—fans looking for another dose of Smith’s outsized charm won’t find it here. Moynahan, who either deliberately modeled her character after the blank machines she works with or, more likely, just plain sucks, barely registers as Spooner’s sidekick.
That leaves Sonny and his gang to provide the fun—which they’re surprisingly good for. Visual-effects supervisor and Gladiator vet John Nelson gives his ’bots not only superhuman strength but also enough CGI’d agility that, by the time I, Robot gets to the inevitable machine-against-man insurrection, you can forgive their initial awkwardness. If only Proyas & Co. had borrowed more from Asimov and less from such cyberlightweights as Attack of the Clones, Terminator, and The Matrix—or, for that matter, from Freaks, whose “One of Us” chant is echoed by an army of freshly manufactured NS-5s. One of the film’s many attempts at Deeper Meaning—in addition to discrimination, there’s humanity’s mistreatment of the planet—the scene is well-intentioned but heavy-handed, and ultimately about as useful to the story as Smith’s six-pack abs.
OK, maybe the nerds will be pleased after all: Even lame robots can look pretty cool when they’re kicking ass. As for everyone else involved in I, Robot…well, to err is human.
Catwoman also suffers from an image problem, though it’s pretty much the opposite of I, Robot’s: Halle Berry’s feline vixen may be easy on the eyes, but her foxiness becomes less enticing as the movie tests the limits of head-smacking stupidity.
Written by a trio of scripters and directed by someone unfathomably named Pitof, this Catwoman presents a new incarnation of the classic Batman villain. Like Selina Kyle, Berry’s Patience Phillips is at first a meek and unremarkable not-yet-alter-ego, quietly suffering at the hands of obnoxious neighbors and the tyrannical boss at Hedare, the cosmetics company whose advertising Patience designs. Make that an evil cosmetics company: When Patience, obediently dropping off a redone ad before her midnight deadline, overhears a secret meeting in which a scientist is telling CEO George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) that his new anti-aging product will basically cause women’s faces to fall off, George’s goons—yes, the guy has goons—naturally murder her.
But thank God for a magical little kitty that, earlier in the day, Patience climbed out of her way-high apartment window to save. As Patience drowns, this feline, Midnight, is shown full-screen beside the water, yowling thrice at her passing. Soon Midnight, apparently king of the cats that are now circling Patience’s body, is standing on her chest, exhaling into her mouth the spirit that will give her “a freedom that other women never know.”
In the filmmakers’ vision, this freedom entails such behavior as breaking into your own apartment as well as barreling up walls and over buildings just like a certain well-sequeled superhero. Berry nicely mimics the sleek, close-in movements of a cat when she’s on or not too far above ground, but when the action gets frenetic, such as when Catwoman is robbing a jewelry store or going after Patience’s killer, this kitty pretty much starts to fly. (Admittedly, realism isn’t a primary concern in portraying comic-book characters, but c’mon—cats can’t fly! And there’s definitely a point at which a really, really long jump just isn’t a jump anymore.) In fact, except for a couple of green-tinged, full-moon-accented scenes, Pitof wholly ignores his comics model, opting instead to play up the kitty mysticism of the story with frequent shots of ancient-Egyptian-style maps and mummies and such.
Catwoman’s debilitating-face-cream storyline is padded by the underhanded plotting of George’s bitter wife, Laurel (a harsh-looking and unbearable Sharon Stone), a former Face of Hedare who’s angry at having been replaced by a younger model. Benjamin Bratt also co-stars as police officer Tom Lone, a love interest/nemesis who’s as dull as Catwoman’s former self. Each is saddled with painful dialogue, but the most laughable line by far goes to a handwriting analyst who claims that samples from Patience and Catwoman are definitely by different people: “If you put these two women in the same room, you’ll have one hell of a party!” Who knows? Graphologically speaking, the prediction might be accurate. But to judge by these gals’ work in another medium, it’s as wrong as can be.CP