I, Robot (2004) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, brief nudity and language
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride, Adrian Ricard, Jerry Wasserman, Fiona Hogan, Shia LaBeouf
Director: Alex Proyas
Screenplay: Jeff Vintar, Akiva Goldsman
Although it has the name of one of Isaac Asimov's great robot anthologies, as well as a nod in the "Suggested by..." of the opening credits, Alex Proyas' I, Robot is a completely different work than that of the master science fiction writer, retooled to incorporate elements of his work and certain characters. The original script by Jeff Vintar (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) was for a project entitled Hardwired, wasn't far off from the subject matter you'd find in the nine stories of the book, so with a little tweaking and adding of certain things, the movie emerged as its own entity. Purists may scoff, but it must be remembered that unfaithful adaptations can still produce wonderful results, as a very similarly plotted Blade Runner is evidence of. That said, unlike the original stories from which much of this film is inspired, I, Robot, the movie, is more derivative of many other science fiction films than it is to literature, and while it may not really be a pure and great sci-fi film, for a big budget summer release, it refreshes with an intelligent, fast-moving plot and some terrific action scenes that should entertain most people who don't usually like high-concept fare.
The setting is Chicago in the year 2035, in a time when robots and humans co-exist in a master/servant relationship. The robots abide by rules which don't allow them to harm humans, let them come to harm, and must obey human commands. Will Smith (Independence Day, Bad Boys) plays police detective Del Spooner, one of few who haven't bought into the theory that robots are benign creations incapable of doing harm. He is called in to investigate the death of a former associate, robot physicist Alfred Lanning (Cromwell, Star Trek: First Contact), who has fallen from his office window at the leading robot manufacturing company's headquarters, US Robotics. In a routine investigation of the office, he discovers that someone else is in the room, or rather, something, in the form of a sophisticated robot dubbed Sonny. Spooner suspects Sonny is the culprit, but the robotics laws that are hardwired in every unit prevent it from doing harm, and even if it had, murder laws only apply to human on human crimes, and anything a robot would do is listed as a mechanical error. With assistance from US Robotics' Dr. Susan Calvin (Moynahan, The Recruit), Spooner sets out on finding out what is at the bottom of Lanning's demise.
I could sit here and bemoan the fact that great science fiction is yet again reduced to standard action elements and special effects extravaganzas, but I have chosen to take a less skeptical approach to what is supposed to be a summer blockbuster. Yes, it's not nearly as intelligent as reading Asimov, but for the most part, his style of writing doesn't exactly smack of something studios would invest over $100 million to produce. To get the returns on that kind of investment, you need something to draw people into the seats. Therefore, you stick in a popular actor such as Will Smith, the necessary everyman that audiences will relate to when every other character is a nerdy scientist or a robot. You have a few action scenes, as the general public doesn't exactly want to sit there and watch talking heads expounding on artificial intelligence philosophy for two hours. Ratchet everything up with fantastic special effects and bits of humor, and you have something that should hit more than it misses for those not really exposed to hardcore robotic theory.
I didn't like everything about I, Robot, but the things I did like were strong enough to cover over any objections I might have about the production as a whole. Sure, it is somewhat predictable, but you have to remember that this kind of story is based on decades old and highly influential writing combined with standard action flick elements, so the chance of a wholly innovative work might be too much to hope for. Yes, Will Smith isn't exactly your typical Asimov protagonist, but this is a flick that intends to have heavy doses of action, necessitating a persona that you'd have to believe is a bit of a loose cannon, and strong enough to engage in some very physical confrontations, and Smith definitely fits that mold. In a time when slackly conceived vehicles like The Chronicles of Riddick and Terminator 3 passes for your typical summer action sci-fi flick, I, Robot is at least an intelligent and credibly executed attempt at populist fare.
© 2004 Vince Leo