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I, Robot stories

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I, Robot
(2004, DVD)
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  2004 I, Robot
dir. Alex Proyas; writ. Jeff Vintar, Akiva Goldsman; featuring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell

I, Robot

I for one don't blame the creators of the movie I, Robot for departing from the characters and plotlines of the Isaac Asimov stories. The stories are intellectual puzzles involving intriguing androids and uninteresting humans. No less an honoured science fiction author, editor and screenwriter than Harlan Ellison tried and failed to bring them to the screen in the 1980s.

Perhaps the stories could have been adapted for a television series, similar to popular mystery series, but it's hard to see how they could have provided the framework for a single, large-scale, sweeping film. And the 2004 film I, Robot is indeed large-scale and sweeping, involving one man (played by Will Smith) with a woman (Bridget Moynahan of Coyote Ugly) by his side saving the world for humankind.

What I do blame the screenwriters for, though, is for wandering far from Asimov's vision and purpose. The author wrote the stories of I, Robot and later collections to counter what he considered the Frankenstein myth—the fear that humanity's creations would necessarily turn against us, a punishment for our pride of technology. If we could come close to creating life forms, we could also build into them the conditions that would keep them in our service, he thought. Hence the famous Three Laws of Robotics. The stories show the ramifications of these seemingly simple laws, and how humans deal with—and overcome—any resulting problems.

The film does cite the Three Laws and at some very general level it does fulfill Asimov's vision. The rebellion of the robots is caused by purposeful tinkering with their make-up to allow them to override the laws and attack humans, and even this rebellion can be seen as an attempt to help humanity—to save us from our own self-destructiveness.

But this subtlety is bound to be lost for most viewers amid the fights of our valiant human heroes against the hordes of tyrannical robots. Smith's character, detective Del Spooner (not based on any Asimov figure I recall), starts the film with a bias against robots and suspects them of murdering a leading roboticist. As in any other formulaic cop show, his theory of the crime is disbelieved, he's taken off the case and he is widely discredited, but he valiantly pursues the mystery on his own. In the course of solving the crime, he uncovers a worldwide robotic conspiracy to enslave humanity. Only Susan Calvin—based on Asimov's icily formidable scientist heroine but here reduced to a secondary, more feminine role—believes him. Thence follow the usual chase scenes and the penultimate confrontation of Spooner and Calvin with thousands of hostile robots. Somehow, despite the robots' ability to move at lightning speed and despite the fact that they could easily swarm over their prey in a matter of nanoseconds, they seem to take turns getting their butts kicked by the humans one by one. It's that kind of stupid action flick.

But still, I, Robot is an enjoyable stupid action flick. Perhaps more intelligent and thought-provoking than most. Slightly more.

But a movie or series as intelligent and thought-provoking as the Asimov stories it's supposedly based on has yet to be made. I understand that Harlan Ellison script is still kicking around somewhere and has actually been published as an illustrated story. As an Asimov adulator, the sci-fi maverick would have had both a more faithful and more interesting take on the questions posed by the original stories. I for one would prefer to read it rather than see the current film again.

— Eric

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© Copyright 2004–2005 Eric McMillan. All rights reserved.

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