First things first: The movie version of I, Robot has
about as much in common with Isaac Asimov’s
classic science fiction work as it does with Gone With The Wind.
While a couple of characters have the same names as those in the
book, they are not the same people in any meaningful way. The film
depicts an occasional situation or scene that is reminiscent of
one from one of the Robot novels, but the universe of Asimov’s
books is not that of this film. Most importantly, the Three Laws
of Robotics, whose implications, exposition, and analysis form the
core of almost every Robot story, play a trivial role in this film.
Asimov began writing the Robot stories because narratives of robots
ignoring their programming and taking over the world were already
hackneyed and implausible 50 years ago. (Why would human beings
create tools that would do them harm? How could robots do other
than that for which they are programmed?) Now, in the unkindest
cut of all, one of these films bears his title. I dwell on this
point not to establish my sci-fi bona fides (which are weak in any
case), but by way of introducing what I, Robot is, and
what it is not. It is not the thoughtful exploration of the nature
of free will, personality, and mortality that its title might lead
one to believe. It is yet another mediocre but passably entertaining
action movie set in the future.
That future takes place in the year 2035, and
differs most markedly from our present in the
significantly greater concentration of robots.
These mechanical humanoids are programmed so
that harming humans is strictly verboten, and
people have found them an indispensable part
of modern life. Robots do manual labor that
people prefer to have done for them, as well
as complicated tasks that are beyond their ken.
One human, however, goes against the grain in refusing to trust
the robots. He is Del Spooner (Smith), a Chicago
police detective and Luddite of sorts. He enthuses about his vintage
Chuck Taylors (delivered to his door by the friendly FedEx robot),
listens to Stevie Wonder on his antiquated JVC
CD player, refuses to allow his Audi to drive itself, and hates
robots. (I, Robot is the latest in a parade of films to
feature blatantly obnoxious product placement. Someone should mount
a protest movement or boycott against this kind of thing; it really
could not be more annoying.)
Spooner’s anti-robot attitude quickly comes to the fore,
however, when the one of the early pioneers of robotics, Dr. Alfred
Lanning (Cromwell, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him
part) commits suicide by jumping through a window of a high floor
of the U.S. Robotics corporate headquarters. To aid his investigation,
the detective enlists the help of Dr. Susan Calvin (Moynahan),
a specialist in robot psychology who works for the company. Initially
cool to Spooner and his robot-hating ways, Calvin predictably loosens
up as the movie goes on, trading in her lab coat and pulled-back
hair for leather pants, beautiful wavy curls and a presumed attraction
to our hero.
The pair quickly discover that Lanning was actually murdered by
his specially designed robot Sonny (Tudyk), who
would be incapable of such things had he been programmed to obey
the Three Laws. Since presumably all robots are so designed, Sonny’s
existence sets off a chain of questions, the investigation of which
leads Spooner into a series of chases, fights, and near-escapes.
I, Robot is essentially an action movie posing as a mystery.
All of Spooner’s various clues and leads add up to little
more than something to do while waiting for the robots to take over
When they do, I, Robot proves to hold its own as action
movie. Considering how much the robots are onscreen, the CGI is
fairly convincing, and Smith’s Bruce Willis imitation is as
good as anyone out there right now. What else do you want? Spooner’s
allegedly wry asides often make him more of an asshole than a curmudgeon,
and it is hard to understand why robots who are shot by the dozens
will not pick up a gun and shoot back, but this film’s intended
audience is not one generally interested in clever dialogue or internal
logic. I, Robot is, as an old family friend used to say,
good enough for who it’s for.
Unfortunately, the people it is for are not Asimov aficionados
or science-fiction fans. Rumor has it that I, Robot is
based on a robots-take-over-the-world script that had been floating
around Hollywood for a long time, and that the Asimov elements were
only added at the last minute. The story, if true, would explain
a great deal. I, Robot visibly suffers from a “too-many-cooks”
complex, as director Alex Proyas (The Crow) is
trying to cram too many elements into one fairly weak script. The
results are less than impressive, but there’s little harm
done. Asimov died in 1992.