Why, robot, why? A technophobic Will Smith investigates mechanical murder in 2004’s frustrating ‘I, Robot’

February 4, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 4, 2015

When the science fiction action film I, Robot was released in 2004, it received reviews that I remember as being tepid at best. So it was mainly by happenstance that I picked up the movie — it was part of a combo DVD with Independence Day, the 1996 action vehicle that helped vault Will Smith into stardom.

I, Robot is based on characters and situations created by Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), the phenomenally prolific science fiction author and science essayist. Asimov may be best known for creating the three laws of robotics, which I, Robot presents in title cards at the very beginning of the movie:

Law I: A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Law II: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.

Law III: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

Many of Asimov’s tales are puzzles or mysteries, wherein one or more of the supposedly inviolable laws of robotics has apparently been breached. Ultimately, however, the author, through his agent (in a few prominent tales, that would be 35th-century Earth detective Elijah Baley), reveals that the laws remain intact. For instance, in one case, as I recall, a robot’s arm was detached and used by someone to beat a victim to death.

This film adaptation, which bills itself as being “suggested by” the Asimov book, is hardly literal, and never was likely to be: The 1950 I, Robot is in fact a collection of Asimov short stories dealing with a variety of characters and situations. Still, elements of the book appear in the movie, notably the three laws, as mentioned; giant cybernetics corporation U.S. Robots; and the prominent roboticists Alfred Lanning and Susan Calvin.

But the movie is very unlike the writings of Asimov in that director Alex Proyas and co-writers Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman have made crafting an action vehicle and a special-effects extravaganza their top priorities. It’s telling that the picture’s third-billed actor, Alan Tudyk, appears in a motion-capture performance as the robot Sonny (and his identical brethren).

Which isn’t to say that I, Robot is a dumb movie — or at least, that it’s an entirely dumb movie. Its intriguing premise is that, days before the introduction of U.S. Robots’s new NS-5 model, esteemed cybernetics expert Lanning (the always reliable James Cromwell, in a part that I wish had been larger) has committed suicide in order to send a coded message to his friend. That friend is our protagonist, Del Spooner, a Chicago homicide detective in the year 2035.

Spooner is immediately suspicious of Lanning’s death. He first turns his ire on U.S. Robots’s oily CEO, Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood, wasted here in a two-dimensional part). He enters an uneasy partnership with the icy Calvin, a Lanning protégé who’s assigned to escort him through the company’s facilities. Spooner soon finds that his life is threatened — initially by “Sonny,” as Lanning called his robotic assistant, but later by a force that he finds harder to identify.

I, Robot has some fascinating concepts. Early on, a self-righteous Robertson (portrayed by a white actor) disparages the technophobic Spooner (played, of course, by Smith, a prominent African-American entertainer) for his prejudice against humanoid mechanisms. (The detective calls robots “canners.”) Some of the plot’s obvious suspects receive measures of redemption, to a greater or lesser extent. And the situation that prompted Lanning’s suicide is cleverly framed by the script.

The denouement also strikes an interesting note. Without giving away any spoilers, the movie suggests that one of the characters has been not entirely forthright, and that the story’s resolution isn’t quite as final as the heroes may have hoped.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters basically cheat Asimov by completely bypassing the three laws of robotics, which are supposedly immutable. This does Asimov a great disservice.

Another major problem with the script is that it neuters Spooner, establishing early on that he pines for his (never-shown) former wife and then acting as if he’s entirely devoid of romantic or sexual impulses. It’s true that the brilliant, rational Calvin has always (to my mind) been a rather asexual character — sort of a female version of Star Trek’s Spock. Also, Spooner is convincingly established as a damaged individual; he experienced a trauma that the movie reveals about midway through.

When the frosty Calvin starts warming up to Spooner, the script seems to be signaling a romance is on the way, but this goes nowhere — there’s not a kiss to be seen, or even remotely suggested, on the screen.

Spooner’s neutering reeks of catering to racial sensitivities. Smith, of course, is black; Bridget Moynahan, who plays Calvin, is white. One can imagine studio executives fretting that America circa 2004 was not ready for a blockbuster action movie with an interracial romance.

On the one hand, it’s fine to have an action flick without an obligatory romance. On the other hand, it feels as if the decision was made for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the script is that by the time I, Robot reaches its climax, it’s run out of fresh ideas, and we’re left with a bunch of machines-run-amok science-fiction clichés.

Let’s turn to the action part of this action movie. It’s…OK. The special effects and computer animation are a mixed bag: Some scenes are rather thrilling, while others seem a bit cheesy.

Proyas, a director with an international background (Greek, Egyptian and Australian, per the Internet Movie Database), has directed two other features that I saw years ago, and remember dimly: The Crow, a 1994 comic book adaptation based on a tale of supernatural revenge, which left me cold, and Dark City, a strange 1998 virtual-reality feature that I enjoyed. Neither those movies nor I, Robot suggest that Proyas has a great talent for staging large-scale action.

The two mid-picture set pieces — Spooner escaping a mansion that, ludicrously, is being demolished by a gigantic robot in the middle of the night and Spooner evading a battalion of rogue robots while zooming around a curiously deserted Chicago highway at speeds upwards of 100 miles per hour — are OK, nothing more.

The climax, set upon catwalks suspended in the vast hollow core of U.S. Robots’s immense skyscraper, shows a bit more flair: In some shots, the camera rolls 360 degrees to track characters or beams as they move acrobatically through the battle. (This isn’t recommended viewing for people who suffer from vertigo.) On the minus side, the nighttime backdrop for this scene seems about as lifelike as one of the backgrounds from Tron. Things are so cartoonish at this point that it’s hard feel emotionally invested in the fate of any of the characters.

In the end, I come here not to bury I, Robot but…well, not really to praise it, either. This is a mediocre film that shows some verve but could have been a lot better — and a lot worse. I can recommend it only for the most fervent fans of science fiction and/or action movies.

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