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:
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!).
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".)
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
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 . . .
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)