Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: it appears that part of Transformers: The Last Knight - the part that isn't about King Goddamn Arthur, anyway - is about a robot we thought was good turning into a robot who we think is bad. This being a particularly beloved theme of Isaac Asimov, one of our greatest robot authors, where could I possibly go, if not to the film that got Asimov so spectacularly wrong?

Chalk up another film on the list of movies that I'd never have expected that I could possibly be nostalgic for: 2004's I, Robot, a half-baked "adaptation" of Isaac Asimov's genre-defining 1950 short story collection. It's not very good, but is the not-very-good of a bygone age. Remember when crummy tentpole films had no franchise aspirations (there were plans for an I, Robot 2, but never very serious ones), and could be sold on the basis of a movie star? It was so recent, and yet feels so long ago, in our age of shared universes and God knows what.

None of which should be construed as claiming that time has been kind to I, Robot. The visual effects hold up, at least, and given what the movie is, I guess that's the only thing that time really needed to be kind to. The rest is a dreary action-mystery that spends far too much time mucking around a villainous plot that isn't nearly as difficult to unravel as the protagonist makes it, stopping by a few action setpieces that suck, a few thriller setpieces that are actually pretty decent, and wasting a lot of time gawking and gaping at the sleek iFuture production design that would have been a lot more impressive if ther was more to it than just skillfully copying the then two-year-old Minority Report. And that last bit is doubly disappointing, since I, Robot was directed by Alex Proyas, who had at the very least proven himself as a director of sublimely well-realised, atmospherically dense film worlds with 1994's The Crow and 1998's Dark City.

I, Robot's vision of Chicago in 2035 is perfectly fine, if a little blandly functional; it's one of those cinematic depictions of the future that only really has one technological change from the world where it was made, and that change seems to incarnate in literally every last detail of everyday life. So there aren't just divey local bars - there are divey local robot bars. And so on. For that, of course, is the big change the movie predicts will happen sometime in the 31 years between '04 and '35: the creation of humanoid robots who will be responsible for all of the blue-collar and service industry jobs, as well as non-humanoid robot cars. These robots are kept deliberately utilitarian: they have simulated personalities but no self-awareness, and they're very deliberately hemmed in by three programming laws introduced by the inventor of the positronic brain, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell):
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Getting those laws quoted in title cards at the very start of the movie, and having the characters keep shouting "but the Three Laws!" with brows a-furrow, is the closest the film will ever come to directly engaging with Asimov; the ten stories that make up the book I, Robot are basically hard sci-fi brain teasers, with the point being to figure out how a robot apparently violated one of the rules, while in fact following them to the letter. What's really galling is that the film I, Robot began life as much that kind of story: Jeff Vintar wrote a screenplay in the 1990s title Hardwired that was basically a locked-room murder mystery in which all of the suspects were different A.I. technologies. I haven't read it, but all I know makes it sounds like a much more engaging, thoughtful, Asimovian experiment than what the script got turned into, first by Vintar and then by the dread Akiva Goldsman, when the project was picked up as a summer tentpole Will Smith vehicle.

It's really not worth going over it in detail. Smith plays Detective Del Spooner, of the Chicago P.D., who had an initially-mysterious relationship with Dr. Lanning; he's also one of the last hold-outs with a big heaping distrust of robots, expecting at any moment that they'll go crazy and kill us all (the film doesn't exactly call our attention to "a black man is the metaphorical racist cop", but it does put Smith in a lot of situations where another African-American character yells at him that he needs to stop being such a bigot, in a manner that I suspect the filmmakers thought was clever; they were incorrect, if so). And when Lanning ends up dead of a suicide that doesn't quite add up, Spooner is convinced his Luddite paranoia is about to be proven right. For Lanning had in his company at the time of his death a super-advanced new robot named Sonny (voiced and motion-captured by Alan Tudyk), who has the ability to mimic emotions, and rather more disconcertingly, the ability to perceive itself - himself - as an autonomous, self-directed entity. With the reluctant help of robot scientist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) and Sonny, Spooner goes investigating, and what he finds is just not that shocking, though at least it's not the "evil C.E.O. causing mayhem for profit" route that the film spends a bit of time limply foreshadowing.

Calling I, Robot a mystery is therefore denotatively accurate, but it's also giving the film credit that it doesn't deserve. Somewhere along the line, I, Robot devolved into a series of scenes that Vintar, or Goldsman, or Proyas thought sounded interesting, and about half of the time, they're right. A sequence in the back half of the movie finds Spooner on the outskirts of a dumping ground for spent robots on the shores of Lake Michigan, constantly glancing back over his shoulder at the advancing red lights that are the only indication of where the robots are who might catch him; now that's a fine scene, using the heavy, gloomy atmosphere that Proyas does so well (you might say he turns Chicago into a... dark city), as the director and cinematographer Stephen Duggan, and whichever one of the three-man editing team was responsible for this scene all pool their resources to make a tense, drawn-out thriller sequence that effectively uses visuals to put across the story. Which happens surprisingly little, for a movie so eager to put its visuals front-and-center, either in the form of Patrick Tatopoulos's production design, or the sleek, Apple-inspired robots, brought to life by CGI that remains pretty solid even after a decade and change.

I suspect, but do not know, that that's the Goldsman coming through: it is a boring, talky, over-explanatory piece, the one aspect of mid-century prose sci-fi that it could just as well have left alone. Mostly, when it shuts up, it's to drop Smith into the middle of a largely generic mid-2000s action setpiece, none of which are terribly good (though the build-up to a robot battle in a tunnel is visually menacing). It deserves credit for being a bit ahead of the curve in having a climactic battle involving a giant ball of light and scientific gobbledygook that might as well just be straight-up magic. Or blame.

It's a loud, generic thing all around, the perfect candidate to be salvaged by Smith's movie star charisma, except that he's surprisingly sedate. Tudyk is the only actor who really gives the film much of anything, actually; from all appearances, he thought that this was actually going to be a thoughtful piece of speculative fiction, attempting to weigh questions of artificial intelligence and free will of both the human and mechanical varieties; a proper Asimov robot movie, in other words. The joke's on Tudyk, though at least his sensitive, precocious-little-boy routine gives the movie anything soulful and moving. If not for him, it would be nothing but drawn-out storytelling and a lot of popcorn movie clatter, and we'd have something even less compelling than the stunted mediocrity of yet another misfire from the exceptionaly bad summer of 2004.