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I, Robot

Entry updated 24 January 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (2004). Twentieth Century Fox/Davis Entertainment. Directed by Alex Proyas. Bruce Greenwood. Written by Jeff Vintar, Akiva Goldsman, based on I, Robot (coll 1950) by Isaac Asimov. Cast includes Bridget Moynahan, Will Smith and Alan Tudyk. 115 minutes. Colour.

In the decades since the publication of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (coll 1950), rumours often appeared of a possible cinematic adaptation of the revered story collection. Harlan Ellison famously wrote a screenplay, much praised by Asimov, in 1978. It was published as I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay (1994). The script was never produced, and the project languished until Twentieth Century Fox acquired the rights to Asimov's work. An original "robot murder mystery" script was rewritten to include Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics – which had first appeared in book form in I, Robot (see Robots) – and names were changed to those of his characters. Still not satisfied, Fox brought in Akiva Goldsman (one of Hollywood's most successful writers of syrupy, big budget "event" movies) to inject more action. The result was a film that, while moderately appealing on its own merits, bore little resemblance to the original tales: pacifism and optimism replaced with cynicism and violence.

Nonetheless, the film does examine some interesting, if traditional, themes. In Chicago in 2035, US Robotics' chief designer is killed, possibly by his latest creation: Sonny (Tudyk), a unique robot with emotions and personality programmed with the capacity to disregard the otherwise ubiquitous Three Laws of Robotics. A robot-hating detective called Spooner (Smith) teams up with robot psychology programmer Dr Calvin (Moynahan), here an attractive young woman rather than the more challenging, interesting and neurotic mature scientist of the stories, to investigate the death. Spooner is repeatedly attacked by murderous Robots, but nobody believes his reports, which conflict with the axiomatic Three Laws. His prejudices help him uncover a plot by V.I.K.I. (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) to take control of human affairs. V.I.K.I, an AI that helps run US Robotics, has decided that for the greater good of protecting humanity from itself, the Three Laws can be broken by robots generally. Spooner destroys this Computer system with the help of Sonny and Dr Calvin, and then Sonny leaves to become a messianic figure among ownerless robots abandoned in a robot ghetto on the outskirts of the city.

I, Robot's director Alex Proyas and his production designer Patrick Tatopoulos had previously collaborated on Dark City (1998), and as in that film Proyas clearly took a lot of care with the urban setting. The cityscape of I, Robot works as a complete contrast to the atmospheric metropolis of Dark City; it is clean, white and smooth. Unusually for SF cinema, Chicago is portrayed more as a Utopia than Dystopia, although unsurprisingly the temperate production design is less striking than such classically disturbing cityscapes as those found in Metropolis (1926) or Blade Runner (1982). However, in its final scene, at the robot shantytown/scrap heap located in the dried-up remains of Lake Michigan, the movie achieves an iconic imagery, probably a deliberate homage to the Pulp magazine covers (see Illustration) of Asimov's heyday.

The high point of the special effects is the robots, a clever blend of classic visual motifs and sleek design of modern (real world) appliances that are exceptionally well integrated with the live action. The animation of Sonny, combined with Tudyk's excellent vocal performance, makes the robot the most sympathetic and interesting character in the film. In comparison, Moynahan is wooden and Smith's too likeable "star" performance feels incompatible with the rest of the movie.

At times I, Robot shows flashes of intelligence and depth, at others it is unthinking and distasteful. Even at its best I, Robot is a poor adaptation of Asimov. It shows a grasp of his questions about robot evolution, but very little understanding of his answers. Compared to the director's earlier, quirky Dark City, it looks like an impersonal corporate product. [JN]

see also: Messiahs; Cities.


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