* * ½ (Guest review by the Friday & Saturday Night Critic) 

STARRING: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood, Adrian L. Ricard, Chi McBride

2004, 115 Minutes, Directed by Alex Proyas

The short stories that comprise Isaac Asimov’s
I, Robot barely qualify as science fiction. They’re more like math fiction or logic fiction. The characters are static and one-dimensional, the prose is direct, clear, and slightly smirking, and everything is pushed aside to make way for the central logic problem involving the Three Laws of Robotics. These are the Three Laws which every robot is programmed to follow with the core of its being, like physical laws, sort of how we have to obey gravity:

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 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.

And I love the stories because they’re such marvellous, concise little gems, all the fascinating stuff to do with logic and nothing flabby in the way. And because, like all stories from sci-fi’s golden age, you can get to far-off planets using a slide rule. Stories in I, Robot include what to do with a robot that can read thoughts but still obeys the Three Laws. How a robot would become locked in a cycle if you lazily told it to do something really dangerous. How to pick out a robot whose First Law has been reprogrammed from a group of identical looking normal robots. Trying to prove whether or not a mayoral candidate is really a robot (and whether or not that would improve or weaken his platform). And so on, culminating in the ultimate question, would the world be better off if everything were run by super-intelligent reasoning machines?

Not every book should be like I, Robot, but it’s good to have a couple around. Much of modern sci-fi is indebted to Asimov’s work, including The Matrix and vast chunks of Animatrix. HAL 9000 is perhaps the ultimate example of the reasoning machine that comes to run the world and Robocop’s Three Directives are a parody of the Three Laws.

I try never to evaluate a movie based on its fidelity, or lack thereof, to its source material. People who do that, I suspect, mostly just want to brag about how they’ve read the book. That the new film I, Robot, only uses ideas, names, and images from the I, Robot book and its sequels (like Robots of Dawn), and does not lift any direct storyline from the books, is not to its discredit. That the movie retreats into the safety of a police procedural is not necessarily to its discredit. When exploring futuristic and foreign worlds sometimes it’s best to do so from a place of familiarity, and nothing is more familiar to moviegoers than the Cop On The Edge (or COTE).

But the film I, Robot, puts the Three Laws front and center, instead of titles like “Starring Will Smith.” In effect the Three Laws are the stars of the movie, in the way they were the stars of the book. And maybe I wouldn’t know all that can be done and explored with the Three Laws if I hadn’t read the book. But I have a feeling that a lot of people who enter the movie unfamiliar with the Three Laws will leave feeling that more could have been done with them in place of quite so many car crashes and special effects sequences. The movie shows you what a big brain it has, and then tries impressing you with its brawn instead.

It’s the future, and US Robotics have put robots everywhere, emptying out the trash, bringing us mail, cooking our food, serving us drinks. The current, about to be obsolete model is the NS-4, with a robot face circa 1952. But the NS-5 is coming soon, all plastic, lithe, and with disturbingly human faces. Detective Spooner (Will Smith) is summoned to US Robotics when its founder (James Cromwell) is found at the bottom of a fifty-story drop. All the suits, including USR’s president (Bruce Greenwood), say “it’s suicide!” But the COTE is suspicious, especially when he and USR’s robopsychologist (Bridget Moynahan) find a robot named Sunny (voice of Alan Tudyk) who is apparently able to disregard the Three Laws. He looks like all the other NS-5s … but some things about him are different. He can joke. He can wonder. He has dreams. Throw in a super computer named VIKI and a trail of breadcrumbs left by the dead man and the game is afoot.

Will Smith is right at home in movies like this. He’s like that one really cool kid in the popular high school crowd who was willing to talk to snivelling proletarians such as myself and I was so grateful that I would never besmirch his kindness by trying to initiate a conversation with him. Like Harrison Ford, he inhabits special effects universe, but is not impressed by them; he lets us know which parts of the crazy sci-fi world are banal and everyday and which parts are bizarre and out-of-the-ordinary. He’s also funny as hell in I, Robot, in an obnoxious, suspect-harassing kind of way, that sets him apart from the special effects and puts him one step closer to sitting next to us in the audience.

Smith’s COTE has a thing against robots, a distrust made all the more believable and human because of how inconsistent it is. Sometimes it seems as vile as a racial prejudice, in which he sees robots as being as complex as humans but simply loathsome, and sometimes it’s like a cautionary distrust of a Ford Pinto. His apartment is stacked with “obsolete” stuff, circa 2004. There’s a rather long, early scene of him working out and taking a shower that may seem to be playing to the ladies in the audience (the Fresh Prince is ripped). But it shows that he is a human devoted to his human-ness, who sees everyday on the beat as a chance for humanity to prove its superiority over technology.

The movie’s previews are not promising: robots run amok and the Fresh Prince must mow them down with a machine gun. I, Robot isn’t as bad as all that; the cause of the amok-running is an intriguing flaw in the Three Laws. Sadly, the solution is not to outwit the machines with the same logic that got us into this mess but to shoot it out with them, dangle over a precipice, and jam stuff into a big glowing orb. During this sequence, I whispered to one of my friends “I think I’ve played this level before.” I, Robot is also stuck in the predictable language of a cop movie. Earlier I said this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but one gets tired of the captain/lieutenant/chief (Chi McBride) asking the COTE for his badge, and the COTE playing by his own rules, and having a secret from his past, etc. I also found the procedural stuff to be a little too loose: as an example, when two truckloads of robots try to run Smith and his car into the wall of a tunnel and he trashes everything in sight, his superior is really quick to not believe him when he claims he was attacked.

The movie has good effects if you just can’t get enough of computer-generated stuff. It looks good in a flat, jittery kind of way, in which, beyond the Fresh Prince’s apartment, I could never be convinced that anything was real. There’s a uniform, almost black-and-white greyness to everything I found moderately pleasing. The movie’s highpoint is the robots themselves. The obsolete models are all metal and stiff-moving, with motionless eyes and mouths that flash on and off when they speak. The new models, which you’ve seen in the previews, appear to be all plastic, or filled with liquid, or something, and are remarkably agile during several encounters to the death. Sunny’s face has an innocent, sweet wonder about it, but never loses the sinister edge it acquires when Smith finds him in the dead professor’s office. As Sunny is the only character of interest or sympathy besides Smith, this is important.

Alex Proyas has directed two of the best and most eye-pleasing fantasy films of recent years: Dark City, which out-matrixes The Matrix, and The Crow, my favourite recent comic book movie. It helps that he co-wrote both of them, which gives them a directness that committee-written films often lack. With I, Robot he keeps the traffic moving and composes his shots well, but his visual palette is sparse and bare compared to the sprawling detail of his previous feasts for the eyes. The only really memorable shots consist of the robots moving en masse, once as the glowing-red-with-malevolence NS-5s march through downtown, and again as they are put into indefinite storage.

I, Robot’s shortcomings are probably mostly due to a lack of ambition on the part of screenwriters Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman & Robin, Lost In Space) and Jeff Vintar. The differences between people and machines could be explored more thoroughly, or the idea that machines could adopt their own feelings, or why exactly Sunny makes the choice he does near the film’s end instead of just saying “it seems a little heartless.” Or what happened to that segment of the population that used to empty out the trash, bring us mail, cook our food, serve us drinks. Like so many summer movies, it’s gotten a hold of some good ideas and then doesn’t do much with them—it’s “Ideas Lite.” 2002’s Minority Report, while not a perfect movie, is a rare thing for the summer: an admirable combination of intelligence and spectacle. Even A.I., if also flawed, is daring and ambitious compared to I, Robot. I was engaged by and enjoyed myself while watching I, Robot, but the pleasure of the confection was fleeting. It left me saying “it’s about all you can expect from a summer movie.” It settled for good enough instead of good.

  • Read a positive review of I, Robot.
  • Read an article which compares the novel with the movie here.

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