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I, Robot (2004)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

I, ROBOT (2004)

Starring: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell

Written By: Jeff Vintar (also screen story), Akiva Goldsman, Isaac Asimov ("suggested by the book")

Directed By: Alex Proyas

The Short Version

Isaac Asimov’s classic stories finally meet Big Hollywood.

Well, the title of one his collections does, anyway.

Flat performances fail to puff up flat characters inhabiting a story that should have been better.

The CGI is weightless, too, and yet…

I, Robot could be and should be so much better… but it could also be worse.

The Long Version

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“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 to 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 Law.”

-The Three Laws of Robotics, as declared by Isaac Asimov


The Three Laws: there few serious literary science fiction fans who can’t quote them by heart.  They are the foundation (cough) of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, which in turn are the foundation for nearly all of the robot/android characterizations we know today throughout the genre that go beyond “dumbot” and “murder machine” types.  And yet, despite Asimov’s influence and despite the fact that so many of his tales would seem to lend very well indeed to cinematic interpretation, decent adaptations of his work are hard to find.

There had long been talk of a feature film taken from Asimov’s initial signature short story collection, “I, Robot” – there is no single Asimov story by that name, by the way (though there was a story called that written by someone else beforehand), and the collection got that title from the publisher over Asimov’s initial objections – but it never quite happened during the great man’s lifetime.  Harlan Ellison famously wrote an adaptation that earned Asimov’s personal blessing in the 1970s, but the studio balked, and it was never made.  (The screenplay has since been published and is widely available from your favorite bookseller.)  More than half a century after the stories were first published, it had started to look as though a few television treatments of individual tales were the closest the world would ever come to a film.

But then along came a screenplay called “Hardwired.”  Flash forward through several writers, a change in attached directors, and the casting of Will Smith, and voila: something with some actual relationship to Asimov’s work called I, Robot finally got its turn in Hollywood.

Note the “some relationship” qualifier there, which is what tends to happen after several writers, a new director, and a retool to accommodate the casting of Will Smith.  With that said, the results could have been worse.  And better.  A whole lot better.

The screenplay for I, Robot draws inspiration from several of Asimov’s works, recognizable only in bits and pieces while being overwhelmed by a larger invention that’s been peppered with tropes.  The ‘father of modern robotics’ (James Cromwell, Star Trek: First Contact) is found dead, and though it looks like a suicide, the facts suggest that it could only be a murder committed by a robot, which should be impossible.  Thanks to an automated message sent by the newly deceased, Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith, Men in Black) – who seems to be the only cop in all of Chicago if not the world predisposed to distrust robots – gets the case.  Needless to say, the seeds of a conspiracy are slowly uncovered, and of course, the inviolability of the Three Laws gets strongly questioned along the way.  There are also many action sequences, and, because this is the 21st Century, lots and lots of CGI robots that look like they weigh maybe ten pounds until they start smashing through concrete.

I want to like this movie.  I really do.

I’m okay with the speculation about how the Three Laws might be stretched or possibly circumvented; that’s a popular science fiction pastime that Asimov himself was fond of playing at. (Indeed, he starts right away within the “I, Robot” story collection, with some of that influence directly thrown in here.) There’s wonderful potential there, and buried inside of this screenplay, there’s a riff being played on the theme that a literary science fiction fan could dance to. Unfortunately, it’s nearly drowned out by flattened characters and way too much discord.

In a proper adaptation, the primary human character of note would be Asimov’s own early protagonist: Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan, The Recruit).  (Yes, a female lead in early 1950s literature.  Hell, any science fiction literature.)  Unfortunately, Asimov’s interesting, multifaceted character has been flattened into a generic “intellectual ice queen” stereotype, written away from the front and closer to the margins, except when she’s required as a plot device.  Nearly everything that made Calvin one of the great characters of classic science fiction is gone, and Bridget Moynahan’s plastic performance only makes things worse. 

Usurping the hero’s role is, of course, a “burned-out cop” stereotype that looks and sounds like Will Smith, only without the liveliness, style, and charisma.  Sure, Asimov wrote his own distrustful human cop in the form of Elijah Bailey (“The Caves of Steel” and its sequels), but Del Spooner takes the prejudice angle and stretches it beyond the point of reasonability.  (And hey, aren’t the writers brilliant for regularly pointing out that Spooner is both a black man and prejudiced?  Answer: No, not really.)  The plot logic behind forcing this trope is questionable at best, and doesn’t play well at any point during the film.  And as enthusiastic as Smith was supposed to have been for this flick, it sure doesn’t show on the screen.  Like the wrung-out Calvin, Spooner is an annoyed one-trick pony, and his actor does not seem to be having any fun with the trick.

So much for the standoffish humans.  (The rest of movie’s human contingent consists of cardboard cut outs and plot devices with dialogue, so… yeah.)

As one might suspect or even hope from a movie called I, Robot, the one glimmer of character-oriented hope comes from the picture’s lead robot, Sonny (motion-capped and voiced by Alan Tudyk, Serenity).  Sonny is the one character that develops in an organic fashion (yes, I know), and despite his CGI avatar having a nearly featureless face, Tudyk’s performance is the most expressive and engaging of anyone’s, reminding the audience that there are still characters in play even when everything around him has degenerated into little more than effects candy.  The CGI rendering might make Sonny look like he has the mass of an average housecat, but in all other respects, he’s the most solid thing about this flick.

As for the eye candy, it’s better than the standard tentacle cartoons one tends to find in CGI-heavy films, and the robots do mix well enough with live action people and sets, but no one’s going to be mistaking said robots (which seem to draw a lot of inspiration from the battle droids of the Star Wars prequels, only softer) for “real” anything.  They look “all futuristic and stuff,” but their lack of gravity makes the action sequences less intense than they could or should have been, and puts everything else at something of a distance.  Fair eye candy, sure, but not the engaging action extravaganza this often-sleepy picture needs to make the audience forget about all of the one-dimensional humans who aren’t having any fun.

It’s too bad, really, because that patched-together story with the little riff on testing the Three Laws that’s got enough of a beat to dance to deserves better.  At least one of the misdirection elements even works fairly well… except for the part where the movie becomes even more annoying for the sake of what that misdirection asks the audience to believe, which is Yet Another Awful Trope.  And then there are the missed opportunities and the one-trick ponies and the shredding of Susan Calvin’s character and… hmm… why do I really want to like this movie again?

Oh, right.  Because however much I, Robot does to stray away from Isaac Asmiov in favor of less inspirational fare, Asimov is never the less still there.  The Three Laws are there.  Curiosity is there.  A spark that the filmmakers didn’t create is, somehow, there.  And so, disappointed though I may be in I, Robot, I can’t say that I’ll never watch it again… though all things being equal, I would prefer it if another screenwriter or gaggle thereof took a fresh crack at the Asimov robot stories and tried again, preferably with Susan Calvin back in the lead.

Bottom line, I, Robot could be and should be much better than it is, but even with its overwhelming flaws, it could also be worse.  Call it rainy day material for when you need a sci fi fix, but if you really want to experience Asimov’s robots… go pick up a book.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2014

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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