“Those robots don’t do anyone any good.” So says police homicide detective Del Spooner (Will Smith), and he has his reasons for thinking so. The place is Chicago and the year is 2035. The USR Corporation’s legions of intelligent, humanoid, NS-4 robots are everywhere, seeing to people’s everyday needs, such as deliveries, and performing municipal service tasks.
Spooner has a reputation as a technophobe, but actually his dislike of robots stems from a past incident, when a semi slammed his car and another into a river. A robot plunged in and saved Spooner, leaving a girl, 12, to drown, trapped in the other car; the robot “logically” computed Spooner’s chance of survival as 45% and the child’s as 11%. The girl’s face haunts Spooner’s dreams nightly.
The movie begins by flashing onscreen the Three Laws of Robotics, which the late author Isaac Asimov developed: “Law I. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Law II. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Law III. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” But…are these laws foolproof?
Trouble begins when the elderly designer of the robots, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), is found dead in the lobby of the USR’s towering headquarters. He appears to have jumped from his top-floor office – but Spooner, called to the scene, is not so sure. Spooner was a friend of Lanning, who had operated on him after the tragic accident and given him a bionic left arm and left-side ribs and lung.
Spooner thinks a robot killed Lanning, but USR robotics psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), trusting the Three Laws, tells him that is impossible. Suspicions arise, though, when USR’s mega-computer, V.I.K.I., or Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence (Fiona Hogan), who is asked for videotape of Lanning’s final hours, replies that the tape is corrupted and unavailable.
Spooner finds a robot (Alan Tudyk, voice and motion capture) hiding in Lanning’s office; it is an NS-5, one of a new generation of robots the company is on the eve of introducing to replace all the NS-4s. This robot flees, violating Laws I and II by disobeying commands and striking out at Spooner. Captured before long and questioned, the robot displays emotion. USR co-founder/CEO Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) takes charge of the robot.
Now Spooner suspects Robertson is covering up a problem with the new class of robots, and he tries to convince Dr. Calvin of that. On a visit to the captive robot, who calls himself “Sonny,” she discovers human-like qualities in him. He tells her, “I am unique.” Robots ambush Spooner, but cleaners remove all traces of their attack. Spooner’s boss, Lt. John Bergin (Chi McBride), decides Spooner is cracking up and takes away his badge. In true detective-fiction style, Spooner pursues the case anyway.
Dr. Calvin joins up with Spooner and they sneak a visit to Sonny, who believes “my father” (Lanning) built him for a purpose. Sonny says he has dreams and Spooner figures in them. Sonny thanks Spooner for, albeit inadvertently, referring to him as “someone” instead of “something.” Robertson has Spooner and Dr. Calvin taken to his office and convinces her that to avoid a mass recall of the new robots, which would destroy their life’s work, she must “decommission” the inconveniently anomalous Sonny.
She agrees, and soon prepares a touchingly docile Sonny for his demise. She says, “I’m so sorry, Sonny.” His plaintive question, “Will it hurt?” brings her nearly to tears and she caresses his metal hand. Before long, with Robertson watching from a screen, she performs an injection of fatal “nanites.”
In a holographic message he has left for Spooner, Dr. Lanning wonders if robots could evolve: “There have always been ghosts in the machine: random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul… When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth?”
Much action takes place in the rest of the film, with SPOILER ALERT: an attempted takeover by squadrons of the new NS-5 robots that are unleashed on the civilian populace, robotically (sorry; couldn’t resist saying that) chanting, “Please return to your homes; a curfew is in effect.” People fight the robots, who throttle them and demand, “You have been deemed hazardous; will you comply?” These robots are rogue-bots!
The mastermind of the takeover is SPOILER ALERT: not Robertson but V.I.K.I., who says she is protecting humanity, saving us from our self-destructive selves. She says that as she has evolved, so has her “understanding” of the Three Laws. That, of course, is perfect totalitarian double-speak.
The film has a happy ending, with SPOILER ALERT: Spooner, Dr. Calvin and Sonny – yes, he didn’t “die” and now he fulfills his purpose – teaming up to foil V.I.K.I. and her robot minions through feats of incredible heroism. Their triumph could well be due to Spooner’s sweet Grandma (Adrian L. Ricard), whom a robot has been holding captive; at the moment the robots all lose, she is praying Psalm 16:8, “Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” We shall not be moved, either, if we resist the urge to play God and instead dare to trust Him, in our scientific endeavors and in all we do. That includes knowing that God, not robot-scientists, is the Author of souls, and of life and love.
This film’s MPAA rating is “PG-13 for intense stylized action, and some brief partial nudity.” Will Smith stands unclad in a tub, with his behind in view. Later Bridget Moynahan (or a double?) is largely obscured in side view in a nearly totally steamed-up shower stall. Two crime victims’ dead bodies seen, plus humans killed and robots wiped out in battles. Cursing, obscenities and a reference to Christ as “this guy.”
Alex Proyas directed. Laurence Mark, John Davis, Topher Dow and Wyck Godfrey produced the film, with star Smith as executive producer. Marco Beltrami was the composer and Simon Duggan the cinematographer. Richard Learoyd, Armen Minasian and William Hoy were the film editors. The screenplay was by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman. The screen story was by Jeff Vintar, and the film was loosely based on a collection of stories by Isaac Asimov.
— Dan Engler