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I, exploding, bullet-riddled robot

Do summer sci-fi films have to be so dumb?

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Will Smith in "I, Robot"
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(CNN) -- Like most people, all I've seen of "I, Robot" is the trailer and some commercials.

And they worry me. Based on the ads, the movie looks like Will Smith plopped down in a bunch of cool computer-generated images, speeding along darkened streets in his cool car, and shooting and blowing up things.

Pardon me if I've seen this before.

It's almost every other summer science-fiction movie ever made, and it's certainly not what I expected of a film based on a classic Isaac Asimov work. (I may be -- I hope I'm -- wrong; "I, Robot" was directed by Alex Proyas, who made the fascinating "Dark City.")

But then, to paraphrase an old George S. Kaufman theater saying, intelligent science fiction is what closes on Sunday night.

Hollywood isn't interested in intelligent science fiction, because intelligent science fiction seldom makes money -- at least, not in these days of "let's make planets and androids blow up good" blockbusters.

Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's version of "Solaris" earned respectful if mixed reviews, but disappeared within a month. "A.I." and "Donnie Darko" (which had its fantastic elements) also crashed at the box office.

There are some exceptions, of course: the "Matrix" films did well (though I'd ascribe that more to the chopsocky elements and choreographed violence than anything deeper) and "Minority Report" was a box office success.

But could you imagine if "2001: A Space Odyssey" were released today? Studio executives would be calling for a techno soundtrack and a laser-beam armed HAL. So much for the majesty of space and the wonder of creation.

All this is probably the reason you don't see any films based on books by Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joe Haldeman or Harlan Ellison, to name a few, in theaters. (Some of these authors have had their works made for television, with often positive results.) There's just too much humanity and not enough technology.

Eye on Entertainment hits the magic button.

Eye-opener

"I, Robot" is based -- loosely based -- on Asimov's story collection that told tales of the development of robots. But the movie also draws from a script by Jeff Vintar, "Hardwired," which was slated to be a John Woo film for a long time. John Woo is good at staging violence, but his films aren't exactly the most thoughtful things going -- which offers an idea of what "I, Robot's" studio, 20th Century Fox, had in mind.

Anyway, in the version that's premiering Friday, Will Smith plays a Chicago cop, Del Spooner, investigating the murder of a scientist at U.S. Robotics (and I thought that company just made modems). It's 2035, and robots are very much a part of everyday life -- usually doing scut work.

The murderer appears to be a robot, but that would violate one of the Three Laws of Robotics, which says that a robot may not injure a human being -- or follow an order that would injure a human being.

So Spooner, who doesn't like robots, digs deeper. He's assisted by Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a psychologist who specializes in robot psyches. James Cromwell plays the dead scientist, Bruce Greenwood plays the head of U.S. Robotics and Chi McBride plays Spooner's boss.

So have robots gotten out of control? Or does the murder have human roots?

"I, Robot" opens Friday.

On screen

  • "The Door in the Floor" is based on the first part of John Irving's novel, "A Widow for One Year." The movie concerns a married couple, played by Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, emotionally damaged by the death of their sons in a car crash. Into their life comes a high school student who eventually begins an affair with Basinger's character. The Associated Press' Christy Lemire called the movie "a film that couldn't be more complete." It opened in limited release Wednesday and will expand through July and August.
  • "A Cinderella Story" is a modern take-off on the old folktale, starring Hilary Duff as Sam Martin, a clumsy high school girl exploited by her wicked stepmother and evil stepsisters. Then she finds out about Austin (big sigh), and everything leads up to the big Halloween dance. Opens Friday.
  • "Maria Full of Grace" follows a Colombian girl who becomes a mule for heroin traffickers, smuggling their drugs to New York. It stars Guilied Lopez and Catalina Sandino Moreno. Opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • If the soap opera is "The Days of Our Lives," then these are simply "The Days" -- a new series about a family with the last name "Day" centering on the eldest son, Cooper (Evan Peters). Cooper keeps a journal and each episode illustrates 24 hours in his family's life. Sunday, 9 p.m., ABC.
  • Sound waves

  • You don't hear much about the Faces anymore, if you ever did. After all, the band had only two American hits -- "Stay with Me" and "Cindy Incidentally" -- and is better known for its individual players, including singer Rod Stewart, guitarist Ron Wood, bassist Ronnie "Plonk" Lane, keyboardist Ian McLagan and drummer Kenney Jones. But while they were together in the early '70s, the Faces made some of the sharpest, toughest rock music around. A new boxed set devoted to the band, "Five Guys Walk into a Bar ..." (Rhino), comes out Tuesday.
  • Maria Mena's new album, "White Turns Blue" (Sony), comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • Brian Burrough co-wrote one of the great business histories, "Barbarians at the Gate," the story of the RJR Nabisco free-for-all. His new book, "Public Enemies" (Viking Penguin), a history of the early FBI, is out Thursday.
  • Alice Hoffman, probably best known for her novel "Practical Magic," is back with "Blackbird House" (Doubleday). The book concerns several characters whose lives intersect at a farm on Cape Cod. Comes out Tuesday.

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