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I, Robot - Mark's Take

01/08/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy I Robot in the USA - or Buy I Robot in the UK

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In 2035 there is a murder at U.S. Robotics and a robophobic policeman, played by Will Smith, believes robots are responsible. Mixing animation and live action nearly seamlessly, I, Robot turns Isaac Asimov's robot world into the backdrop for a prosaic summer action film. It is not a film Asimov would have enjoyed much.

CAPSULE:

In 2035 there is a murder at U.S. Robotics and a robophobic policeman, played by Will Smith, believes robots are responsible. Mixing animation and live action nearly seamlessly, I, ROBOT turns Isaac Asimov's robot world into the backdrop for a prosaic summer action film. It is not a film Asimov would have enjoyed much. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10 Isaac Asimov wrote about psychohistory, which implied that there were certain tides of history that could not be avoided.

Had he lived long enough he might have extended it to psychocinematics which would include a theory that a summer science fiction film in the 21st century might even start with ideas from his stories, but eventually the forces of the box-office would make it a mindless action film. That seems to be what happened with I, ROBOT. In spite of frequent references to Asimov's laws of robotics, this is a rather prosaic story of a conspiracy involving robots.

iRobot movie review

The robots' behavior is examined and analyzed in terms of the three laws, but you could analyze a human slave's actions in much the same way. In the end the actions of the robots is sort of rationalized in terms of the three laws, but not very convincingly.

We are in Chicago in the year 2035. Del Spooner (played by Will Smith) is a stereotypical wisecracking good cop, but one with a bad attitude when it comes to robots. The reason why he hates robots is eventually revealed as being both well-intentioned and totally wrong-headed. But hate them he does though he is a good friend of one of their prime inventors, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) of the U.S. Robotics Corporation.

Lanning commits suicide by throwing himself through an unbreakable glass window and his less than objective friend comes in to investigate. The investigation leads Spooner to work with robot psychologist Susan Calvin (attractive Bridget Moyahan). Side note: in the book Calvin is plain looking but is the brilliant Mother of Robotics. In this film no mention is made of her seminal role in the development of robotics. Instead she is reduced to the role of corporate flunky.

I knew Isaac Asimov a little (as did most people in Massachusetts science fiction fandom in the 1960s). I am reasonably confident that if he had seen this film claiming to be based on his writing he would have cut it to pieces with a few quick but well-chosen verbal barbs. The film is really a travesty on his style of writing. He might have appreciated the rationalization that what is happening in the film is arguably consistent with the laws of robotics. But his heroes use brains and not brawn.

Spooner is just not a hero in Asimov's style. Like a James Bond he has an uncanny ability to get out of tight situations that would look ridiculous in a serious film. And he does it in ways that as Asimov would point out contravene physics. The cars are futuristic with spherical wheels that go in any direction, but even so, Spooner's control of these cars verges on the supernatural.

It is a sign of poor scriptwriting to make the main character too unrealistically skillful and Spooner is almost a superhero. Fans of CSI will look on in horror as Spooner vandalizes a crime scene under investigation, further undermining the believability of the action. It is a little surprising that director Alex Proyas, who previously directed DARK CITY, would not have held out for a better and less cliched script from Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman.

Much of what we see is simply impossible by the laws of physics, but then the filmmakers proudly point to the high degree of CGI in this film. I, ROBOT is one more film that blurs the distinction between live-action and animation. It is in large part an animated film with live-action elements and a realistic animation style. Like Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the major robots are actually played by real actors with images replaced by computer.

It is something of a surprise after years of discussion of how properly to do Asimov's world and of a never-produced script by Harlan Ellison, that when the first major film is made of the I, ROBOT stories, it is so mundane an effort. I, ROBOT is being handled as if it is a major film event.

A lot of attention may have been lavished on the production, but the script keeps the film a non-memorable, strictly second-rate production. It dumbs down Asimov and replaces the thought with special effects. I rate it 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.

Mark R. Leeper

(C) Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper

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