Nishan Fuard

I, Robot

11th August 2004
I, Robot Poster reviewer: Nishan Fuard
rating: 3 out of 5
directed by: Alex Proyas
written by: Isaac Asimov (book) and Jeff Vintar (screen story)
starring: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk
genre: Sci-Fi Thriller Action
released: 6th August 2004

“Sacrilege!” was my usual cry when another favourite book made the journey to the big screen. Then it was on with the sackcloth and off to the local cinema to daub “Murdering Bastards!” in lamb’s blood on the window of the box office. These days my threats are harmless bluster. Despite the misgivings I really do enjoy seeing ‘movie magic’ at work.

I, Robot boasts perhaps the coyest adaptation credit yet. The title is that of Isaac Asimov’s short story collection, but the film itself is merely composed of ideas “suggested” by the late author.

It’s debatable whether a film could be made from the book’s nine stories although writer Harlan Ellison, with Asimov’s blessing, completed a screenplay in the late 1970s. It’s rumoured that it was rejected because it didn’t fit with the popular image of robots encapsulated by two particular creations from George Lucas. Ellison’s work was eventually published and it would be interesting to compare it with the new film.

In this shiny new version, directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City), the focus is on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the hard-coded principles that define a robot’s existence. The film uses them to touch upon ideas regarding the intertwining of technology and humanity and bolts together a flawed yet enjoyable thriller.

Robots are common in 2035. They deliver packages, collect rubbish and even walk dogs. Yet their easy existence within society troubles Chicago detective Del Spooner (Will Smith). He favours the simple things in life such as antique trainers and is distrustful of robots despite the Laws and the facts: no robot has ever committed a crime. Yet they continue to intrude into Spooner’s life and even his dreams.

Spooner’s prejudice (the film hints that robots could almost be another race) makes him suspicious of the suicide of Dr Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the chief cyberneticist at US Robotics. He suspects a link between Lanning’s death and a prototype robot operating outside the Laws. Despite her disbelief Dr Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) decides to aid Spooner in finding the errant robot that calls itself Sonny (Alan Tudyk).

Spooner’s paranoia seems justified when he gets into further scrapes with robots breaking the Laws. But true disaster is only around the corner when US Robotics launches its latest model guaranteeing one robot for every five people.

I, Robot pushes all the right buttons for a summer blockbuster: secrets, revelation, red herrings, action and that all-important explosive climax. So far so predictable, but the familiar formula does allow the film to keep a lively pace.

Also familiar are the components that make up I, Robot. Whilst the robots, particularly Sonny, are noteworthy the film is constructed from parts scavenged from films such as Minority Report, The Terminator and Blade Runner. Gamers might spot ideas from Metal Gear Solid 2 and System Shock 2. Plucked from outside Hollywood are several well-known brands – easily recognisable because their insertion is none-too-subtle.

Smith is comfortable in action hero mode, but despite the quips seems subdued. Yet he is always watchable and has that attraction that appeals to any audience. Strangely, the most affecting performance comes from Sonny although we are sometimes shepherded into how we feel for the CGI creation. One scene in particular is nothing more than Dead Robot Walking.

My biggest complaint about I, Robot is that its more interesting ideas are quickly passed over. The narrative is determined to stick to providing a series of action-packed set pieces rather than straying and exploring more deeply. The film’s best scene concerns Spooner’s questioning of Sonny. It’s insightful with a touch of humour, but unfortunately it’s over all too quickly. Less eventful is the film’s Robo-Messiah conclusion.

The film isn’t sacrilege against Asimov, but it is guilty of not making more use of the ideas it proposes and piling on the action instead. It’s clunky with some glitches, but I found I, Robot to be enjoyable.