I, Robot is perfectly titled, because it's about as mechanical and impersonal as Hollywood entertainment gets. That's not to say it's completely unenjoyable - Alex Proyas' sci-fi work, inspired by a series of Isaac Asimov stories, features some nifty set pieces, including an exciting mid-film sequence involving a hundred 'bots doing considerable damage on an underground freeway - but the film progresses with so little inventiveness that you'll have better luck tallying up the film's numerous influences (Blade Runner, A. I., Minority Report ... ) than finding an original idea.
Set in 2035, when robots have become commonplace as servants and menial laborers, a leading 'bot manufacturer has, apparently, committed suicide. Yet Will Smith's Detective Spooner, like all cinematic lone-wolf detectives, has a Gut Feeling That Something's Not Right, and suspects a robot of doing the murderous deed. As the robots have been specifically designed never to harm humans, no one believes him. Will anyone be surprised to learn that Spooner might, indeed, be correct, and that a full-scale, computerized revolution might be brewing? Haven't these people seen The Matrix?
Derivative though I, Robot is, it's amusing in fits and spurts, and the movie is fortunate to have Will Smith at its center. He's working with subpar material and obviously knows it, yet his hipper-than-thou coolness gives the film moments of much-needed levity, and God knows he's more welcome than Bridget Moynahan, who plays one of the most annoying characters this genre has ever seen. Like a pissier Scully from The X-Files, she spends nearly all her screen time pooh-poohing Spooner's contention that the 'bots aren't completely harmless; she's such a reflexive company yes-(wo)man that the script appears to be setting her up as a co-conspirator. (When that doesn't happen, it's just bewildering.) And Chi McBride, as Spooner's ball-busting superior officer, is nearly as obnoxious; he's as clueless as Moynahan in his blind devotion to the robot cause. (And yes, cinephiles, this walking cliché does, at one point, ask Spooner to turn in his badge.)
Oddly, the film's most persuasive performance is given by the robot accused of murder, who goes by the moniker "Sonny"; he's no Gollum, but this CGI creature's doe-eyed melancholy is almost touching, and he appears to be the only "actor" onscreen who's actually thinking about his line readings. (He's certainly more expressive than the film's Bruce Greenwood, who has officially done his oily-corporate-bastard number one time too many.) Yet even if the film featured humans you cared about, I, Robot would still be a mediocrity. The cinematography is bleached-out and fuzzy, as if the whole movie was done with CGI, and while several of the action scenes have a kinetic pop, the sight of metal clashing against metal eventually grows tiresome. (The film could have used some of the luxurious gloom of Proyas' The Crow and Dark City.) I, Robot plays like the blueprint for an action blockbuster, and like its mechanized antagonists, it winds up efficient, soulless, and hollow.
A CINDERELLA STORY
So far, I've managed to avoid most of the year's empowerment movies for the teen-girl set - The Prince & Me, Ella Enchanted, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen - but as a new one seems to get released every other week, I was beginning to feel a bit lax in my duties, so I acceded to sit through the Hilary Duff vehicle A Cinderella Story. (I also wanted to catch something besides I, Robot, yet my only other option was Sleepover, and I have no interest in watching Steve Carell debase himself in kiddie fodder.) Having seen the film, I can just imagine the pitch meeting: "It's Duff as Cinderella, only instead of a faraway kingdom, she lives in the San Fernando Valley! And instead of a Fairy Godmother, she has a sassy African-American co-worker! And instead of losing a glass slipper, she'll accidentally drop her cell phone! It'll practically write itself!"
This last part is demonstrably true; certainly, no one else seems to have written it (though a script is credited to Leigh Dunlap). Judged even by the lesser standards of current teenybopper fare, A Cinderella Story is a hopelessly lazy piece of work. Dunlap appears to be operating under the belief that by giving Duff's SoCal "servant girl" Sam a witchy stepmother and stepsisters, and blithely filling in the rest of the story's blanks, the Cinderella fairy tale will not only play but thrive in its updated setting. In actuality, Dunlap's reliance on the Cinderella structure just makes the movie's characters appear either certifiable or incredibly dense. Why would Sam's father, a genial, no-nonsense fellow, ever marry Jennifer Coolidge's shrieking harridan in the first place? (And, having done so, why would he go to such bizarre lengths to hide his will from her?) Why does no one recognize Sam when she arrives at the ball ... er, the homecoming dance ... even though her "costume" consists of a wedding gown and a tiny white mask? (This could conceivably work if no one at school ever noticed Sam, but throughout the film, the students go out of their way to verbally abuse our spunky heroine.) And why oh why does no one in the film possess an ounce of irony or self-awareness? When Sam's crush (the blandly earnest Chad Michael Murray) happens to arrive at the dance dressed as Prince Charming, and Sam happens to look like Cinderella, couldn't Sam have taken a moment to say, "Isn't that weird? I have a wicked stepmother and evil stepsisters!" This movie, with its stream of pop-culture references, pretends to take place in the real world, but it's as make-believe as any fairy-tale universe, and decidedly less magical. (A Cinderella Story is so insistent on making text-messaging look swoony and romantic that the film resembles a 95-minute Verizon ad.)
Only sharp comic performances could make this tripe bearable, yet there are none to be found. Hilary Duff, it's becoming clear, has charm but no personality. She's pre-packaged product, like Britney Spears, and so weightless that when her character is in anguish there's absolutely nothing at stake; her heartbreak is indistinguishable from being bummed about a D in algebra. (I certainly picked the wrong teen-empowerment flick to catch this year, as Julia Stiles, Anne Hathaway, and Lindsay Lohan at least have some spark.) Duff is pretty and certainly polished (in a Disney-TV kind of way), but not for a minute do you buy her as the unpopular victim she's made out to be, and the rest of the cast doesn't aid matters; poor Coolidge is grossly treated and stuck with bizarre running gags that have no payoff - What's with the salmon fetish? - and the actresses playing Sam's stepsisters are forced into excruciating physical comedy that no one could pull off. Hollywood, it seems, will never tire of adapting this particular fairy tale, but after a few more works like A Cinderella Story, will anyone still bother showing up for them?