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FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: I, ROBOT



 

On Amazon.com one user recently mistook I, Robot starring Will Smith (do I even have to mention Men In Black and Independence Day here?) summer blockbuster vehicle as being a prequel to the Matrix trilogy. This is, of course, not the case. The movie is based on a novel of the same title by the legendary SF author Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) as any sci-fi aficionado will tell you.

However, it is an understandable mistake for anyone who has seen only the Animatrix movie (the animated shorts based on the Matrix “universe”) and the trailer for I, Robot (U.S. release date: 16 July 2004) and is unaware of Asimov’s novel since both feature violent uprisings by robots against their human masters.

To recap, the IMDb supplies the following plot synopsis of the movie version of I, Robot:

Set in a future Earth (2035 A.D.) where robots are common assistants and workers for their human owners, this is the story of "robotophobic" Chicago Police Detective Del Spooner's (Smith) investigation into the murder of Dr. Miles Hogenmiller, who works at U.S. Robotics (run by Greenwood), in which a robot, Sonny (Tudyk), appears to be implicated, even though that would mean the robot had violated the Laws of Robotics, which is apparently impossible. It seems impossible because . . . if robots can break those laws, there's nothing to stop them from taking over the world, as humans have grown to become completely dependent upon their robots. Or maybe . . . they already have? Aiding Spooner in his investigation is a psychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin (Moynahan), who specializes in the psyches of robots . . .

If you’ve read the novel (and just to make sure I had my facts straight, I recently reread it) all of this will come as a surprise. I, Robot is in fact famous in SF literature for introducing Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (which he though up in 1950!).

They are:

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Incidentally, you’d also know the Three Laws if you’ve been paying attention in the 1999 Robin Williams weepy Bicentennial Man (OK, that’s probably asking for a lot) which is also based on some of Asimov’s work.

Of course (judging from the trailer and the IMDb plot summary) there is little of Asimov’s novel to be found in the movie version besides one character’s name being kept. (The character’s name is Dr. Susan Calvin, and according to the IMDb her character in the original Asimov short stories was based upon Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, PhD. A computing pioneer, Hopper is credited with the invention of the compiler, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer. She is also credited with coining the term "computer bug".)

In fact there are no murders being investigated in the Asimov novel, even though the novel’s plot structure resembles that of a detective story. Or rather make that detective stories. I, Robot is in fact a collection of loosely related short stories tied together via a binding narrative. It is more honest to think of I, Robot as a collection of short stories instead.

All the short stories centre on the Three Laws of Robotics in some way or another. They are basically detective stories that follow the following pattern: robots malfunction in some mysterious way, humans can’t figure out why but after a while discover that they are somehow caused by a skewed (or rather non-human) interpretation of the Three Laws.

No, no character named Dr. Miles Hogenmiller who works at U.S. Robotics is killed or anything of the sort.

Fans of written SF shouldn’t be too surprised however at how much the cinema version of I, Robot will ultimately differ from Asimov’s original work. It is something they have grown quite accustomed to throughout the years. The end result of Hollywood adapting a beloved SF novel can be either unexpectedly surprising (Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? being turned into Blade Runner) or just downright disappointing (Kevin Costner’s The Postman). Unfortunately most of the time the results are disappointing.

To be fair, I, Robot doesn’t lend itself to a filmic adaptation. Asimov’s stories are structured more like intellectual Outer Limits episodes, and they are more concerned with being clothes hangar for Asimov to pin his ideas upon than telling the sort of thrilling or character-driven story that will make for a hit Hollywood movie.

Intellectualism and Hollywood do not go well together of course and in I, Robot the signs are ambiguous at best. The trailer and Will Smith’s “clever” one-liners doesn’t give one much hope. Neither does the fact that the screenplay is by one Akiva Goldsman, who single-handedly supplied us with two of Hollywood’s most brain-dead offerings in recent years namely the universally derided Batman & Robin and the dim-witted Lost In Space.

Style over substance then in a special effects-driven summer blockbuster? So what else is new then? One glimmer of hope though is the presence of director Alex Proyas whose Dark City proved that sometimes Hollywood and intellectual do sometimes go hand in hand.

However SF lit fans are not exactly holding their breath for a happy accident like the recent Minority Report . . .
 


I, Robot
by Isaac Asimov
Paperback: 288 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.83 x 6.86 x 4.18
Publisher: Spectra Books; Movie Tie-in edition (July 1, 1994)
ISBN: 0553294385
 


 

 



 

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