Isaac Asimov would surely have hated I, Robot, which was "suggested by" his 1950s short-story collection of the same name. While scribbling those 470 books that tore a path through the Dewey Decimal System, the sci-fi visionary carried on a lifelong love affair with robots, which he considered both mentally and morally superior to us carbon-based nincompoops. And now some carbon-based nincompoops have taken Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics - allow no harm, obey all orders, protect yourself - and broken every one of them. The whole point of Alex Proyas' movie, which stars Will Smith as a police detective investigating the mysterious suicide of a robotics-industry guru, is that if you give a robot an inch, it'll take a mile; give it a brain, it'll take over the world. Sound familiar? It should. It's been the rap on robots since they first sprang from our machine-age imaginations. Although "Battlebots" appears to be the height of their achievements thus far, we're terrified of the things. Asimov be damned.
And Proyas be praised, because, by cobbling together spare parts from such movies as 2001, Blade Runner, AI and Minority Report, he and the rest of his team have come up with a shiny new product. I, Robot is slick, sleek and surprisingly dark for what is essentially a popcorn movie. (Proyas fans won't be surprised, given 1994's The Crow and 1998's Dark City.) Even Smith, whose weapon of choice in Independence Day and Men in Black was the one-liner, has reined it in somewhat, absorbed the movie's noir atmosphere. His Del Spooner is a retro kind of guy, beginning each day by lacing up his vintage All Star Converses. He's also, for personal reasons, suspicious of robots, which have insinuated themselves into everyday life, performing menial tasks like walking the dog. Somewhat reminiscent of C-3PO, only without the creaky joints, these hyper-polite androids have milky skin that allows us to see their mechanical innards. And the new generation that's about to be unleashed, the NS-5, have piercing blue eyes.
They also have the ability to mentally and physically kick ass. Spooner spends the first half of the movie trying to convince everybody that the robots are a threat, the second half warding off an army of them. That's a familiar story arc, but Proyas keeps us entertained every step of the way. The dialogue is sharp and funny, with Smith scoring off the repressed white people who cross his path, including Bridget Moynahan's robot psychiatrist, who seems a little robotic herself. And the movie's vision of Chicago a mere 30 years from now is a pleasing mixture of the familiar and the strange, all done up in silver chrome, black leather and gray concrete. In the way of gadgetry, we get self-driving cars, holographic projections and voice-activated computers - not exactly cutting-edge technology, but it doesn't seem to matter. I, Robot isn't a new generation of robot movie. It's an old generation of robot movie, the kind that might once have completely blown us away but now must settle for working like a charm.