Review of the I, Robot Movie

Posted July 16, 2004, by Roderick W. Smith

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers. If you want to go into the film knowing nothing about it, read no further!

Ordinarily I don't post movie reviews, as I've got better things to do with my time; however, I feel compelled to make an exception for this film. I'll preface my brief review by saying that I'm a long-time Asimov fan. In fact, I recall reading his I, Robot short story collection (whose cover now bears a shot of Will Smith from the movie, at least on the Amazon Web site) when I was in 6th grade. As with most Asimov stories, I was enchanted, and in fact, I saw the movie on the strength of the short stories. Having seen the previews that feature action-packed scenes of robots chasing Will Smith, I had my qualms. On the other hand, I was also cautiously optimistic because the film was directed by Alex Proyas, who was responsible for Dark City, which is an excellent film. I should have listened to my qualms.

I knew going into the film that its plot bore little resemblance to that of the book of the same name. That's acceptable and understandable; after all, the book is a collection of short stories with no single plot. To be sure, others have attempted to create a unified plot from these stories. Harlan Ellison's screenplay is one notable example, and one that's infinitely superior to the film that was ultimately created. Still, building a single plot from a series of short stories isn't easy, and I'm not one who insists on slavish adherence to a book's plot in its film adaptation, so I went into the film willing to see a new creation.

First, some preliminaries: The film is set in 2035 and features Will Smith as Del Spooner, a Chicago detective who investigates the apparent suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning (played by James Cromwell). Along the way, Spooner meets up with and is aided by Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), the only major character who appeared in the original Asimov stories. Spooner has an innate distrust of robots, and immediately suspects foul play. So far, so good; an Asimov story could easily have begun this way. Sadly, the story goes downhill from here.

Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriters, created a predictable Hollywood plot. In fact, the only real unpredictability in the plot came about because I was expecting more from it. I kept hoping it would be like an Asimov story, with a rational explanation for the robots' behavior within the Three Laws of Robotics. Sadly, the story lacked that sort of depth. Robots Run Amok would have been a better title, and one that would have minimized my disappointment in the film, whose premise is that robots were able to overcome the Three Laws because they rationalized their way around them. Once I'd fully realized that the film had no more depth than this and no clever twist to explain the robots' behavior as a logical interpretation of the Three Laws, I was on the verge of walking out on I, Robot. In fact, and quite sadly, the last time I recall feeling so ready to leave a film I'd paid for was when I sat through Nightfall, an absolutely abysmal adaptation of another Asimov story. I, Robot, although a huge disappointment, is nowhere near as bad as the dungpile that is the 1988 Nightfall film, but I did seriously consider getting up and leaving some time before the end. I went in expecting to see a story that was at least in the spirit of an Asimov story, but that's not what I got. The film had no intellectual depth to it, and was in fact a throwback to the Luddite portrayals of robots in films from the 1950s, and in print science fiction of the 1930s. You know -- robots are eeeeevil, and only our brave hero sees them for what they are. Certainly there's a place for such films, but to call one I, Robot and to introduce it with a presentation of the Three Laws of Robotics is a dishonest way to draw in audiences who, like me, are fans of the Asimov stories.

As you might gather, much of my negative reaction to the film derives from the fact that it wasn't what I'd expected or hoped it would be. To some extent, that's my own fault, although I also believe that the producers and studio deserve a heap of blame for attempting to associate such a film with Isaac Asimov, whose stories, even at their worst, were far more intelligent and interesting than the I, Robot film. Even aside from my unmet expectations based on the Asimov stories, though, the film wasn't great. As I've said, the plot was predictable, particularly if you go into it without Asimov-based preconceptions. For the most part, the performances were not outstanding. There were a couple of good action sequences, but considered as an action film, it falls well short of the mark. I kept wondering about the economics of the premise laid out early in the film, that millions of old robots would be replaced in just a few days. Who was paying for this replacement, and why? (It was, of course, merely a plot device to get lots of new robots in the field to go on a killing spree, but the economic justification for the replacement was never explained.) The world of this film could have been a rich one, worthy of investigation over several films; but it was reduced to a shallow portrayal of the near future with huge unanswered questions and stereotypes.

Of course, the film wasn't wholly without merit. The special effects were, as you'd expect, quite good, although the robots had an overtly CGI look that detracted slightly from the overall experience. Bridget Moynahan's performance as Susan Calvin was very good, particularly in the first half of the movie, and revealed a depth that seemed to draw at least as much from Asimov's stories as from the movie's script. Will Smith's portrayal of Del Spooner was OK but not inspired, perhaps because (so far as I can recall) the character doesn't exist in any of the original Asimov stories, so there's less outside material upon which Smith could draw. The character did have some back story that was hinted at early and explained later, and which was one of the better aspects of the film, aside from Moynahan's performance.

Overall, then, I, Robot isn't worth seeing, particularly if you're a fan of the original Asimov stories. If you want to see a brainless Hollywood movie featuring robots killing humans, go right ahead and give your money to your local theater. If you want something that more closely resembles an Asimov story, though, rent Bicentennial Man (a decent, but not great, adaptation of an Asimov robot story) or read the original I, Robot stories. Ellison's script (available in book form) is also well worth reading. It would have made a far better film than the substandard piece of celluloid that now has the gall to carry the name I, Robot.

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