Review: I, Robot (dir. Alex Proyas, 2004)

The movies have not been kind to Isaac Asimov. He may have been one of the most celebrated science fiction writers of the past half-century, but very few of his stories have attained that particular form of popular validation that comes from being adapted for the big screen — and this despite the fact that movie after movie has been based on the works of his contemporaries, including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and especially Philip K. Dick. On the rare occasion that a major studio has given one of Asimov’s stories the green light, the story in question has usually been massaged into something rather formulaic and at odds with his sensibilities. Five years ago, Bicentennial Man was turned into a regular Robin Williams schmaltzfest, albeit one with loads of visual effects. And now, I, Robot has been turned into a regular Will Smith action movie, also loaded with effects.

This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Asimov himself admitted he was a rather cerebral writer, and said his stories would need some heavy tweaking if they were ever to be translated into a visual medium like film. Most of the short stories in I, Robot, an anthology first published in 1950, were basically logic puzzles in which Asimov, having proposed that all robots would be programmed with three basic moral principles, teased out how machines of various degrees of sophistication might interpret and apply those principles. For those who like mental exercises, the stories are fun to read, but they are not all that dramatic, per se. In the 1970s, Harlan Ellison turned the book into a screenplay, which in turn was published some years later, with Asimov’s blessing, after the studio decided against producing it. Ellison threw in a few gratuitous action scenes, but the script, which Ellison modelled after Citizen Kane, was more of a character study that followed the life of robot psychologist Susan Calvin from youth to old age, much as the book did.

Back then, it was still possible to think that a studio might invest in a major science fiction film that was not all about gunplay and explosions. But these days, studio executives and audiences alike tend to assume that, with the effects, there must be a fair bit of fireworks, too — and so the current film, directed by former music-video auteur Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), emphasizes shoot-outs and car chases.

The story, which the credits say was “suggested by” Asimov’s book and written by Jeff Vintar (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) and Akiva Goldsman (Batman & Robin, A Beautiful Mind), is set in Chicago in 2035, at a time when robots are so numerous there will soon be one of them for every five human beings. Will Smith — more serious than usual, but still strutting like he’s the hippest thing in the joint and cracking wise when the mood hits him — plays Del Spooner, a homicide detective who hates robots, though for no readily discernible reason. Perhaps it’s because they have taken menial jobs away from human beings, a possibility that echoes current concerns over immigrant and outsourced labor as much as it echoes concerns over the growth of technology. Perhaps it’s because he’s just an old-fashioned guy; he wears “vintage” shoes and his stereo is so retro it cannot be operated by voice, which is apparently the standard. Or perhaps it’s because he has had a bad case of survivor’s guilt ever since a robot saved his life when it could have saved a young girl instead.

Whatever the reason, Spooner doesn’t like robots very much, so when a scientist of his acquaintance named Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) is found dead in the lobby of the U.S. Robotics office tower, he assumes the death was not a suicide but a murder perpetrated by a robot named Sonny (voice of Alan Tudyk). Everyone tells Spooner he’s crazy — especially Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a robot expert whose speech is so full of big words and whose mannerisms are so stiff and formal she seems almost mechanical herself. Every robot, she reminds Spooner, is programmed to protect humans at all costs, and to obey humans at all costs unless such obedience would harm human life. But it’s kind of hard for Spooner to shake his suspicions when various robots keep trying to kill him, from a home-demolition droid to a whole phalanx of metal men that ambush him while he drives through a conveniently empty tunnel.

This is where the action sequences come in, and while they look kind of snazzy, there is still something oddly lifeless about them. The car chase should be a kinetic thrill, but it’s basically just a cartoon, and it shows — with CGI robots leaping from CGI trucks onto a CGI car as it careens all over a CGI tunnel. When the sequence comes to an end and we see Spooner’s car grind to a halt, we are jolted by the fact that the car suddenly has a tangible, substantial physicality that it was notably lacking for the past several minutes. In this and other sequences, I, Robot has the cold, sleek, futuristic, blue-grey metallic sheen of Minority Report, but none of its grit. And when you consider how proud Will Smith was last year that the car chase in Bad Boys II did not make use of digital effects, the chase sequence here seems even more like a step backward for him.

Along the way, of course, there is much talk about the differences and similarities between humans and robots, particularly where that thing called “the soul” is concerned. In a speech captured on video before he died, Lanning suggests that random bits of programming will coalesce within the robots’ brains and eventually cause robots to have free will, creativity, and even dreams, just as humans do. And proof of this soul, the film suggests, will come when robots begin to follow their hearts and make illogical choices.

So the robots of this film exist in an odd grey area between mere technology — even if a robot did kill Lanning, says U.S. Robotics executive Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), it would be nothing more than an industrial accident — and true personhood, with all the implicit human rights that that entails. Asimov’s stories explored this morally murky territory quite frankly — while some of the robots were written as sympathetic characters, his version of Susan Calvin did not hesitate for an instant to destroy machines that got out of line. The film’s Susan, however, is more protective of those robots who seem “unique.”

But the film defers those sorts of issues, for the most part. The key issue here is whether human safety is ultimately the highest good, and in this, the film completely turns Asimov’s vision on its head — and justifiably so, I think. Asimov’s book ends on an almost utopian note, as machines assume more and more control over the world and begin to manipulate things in a way that will prevent the human race from harming itself. For an atheist like Asimov, it seems benevolent machines were almost a substitute for God — potentially all-powerful beings who would not allow evil if they could help it, and who would use their supremely logical minds to save us from ourselves. (Such ideas were evidently in the air back then; compare this to the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which alien races achieve peace by handing control of their societies over to robots.)

I, Robot, however, suggests it would be a nightmare if humanity ever lost control of its fate like that — and along the way, the film makes a few nods to the current debates over privacy in the information age and civil rights within the so-called war on terror. But in order to make these points, the film has the machines abandon all sense of subtlety — even though you would think subtlety might be the more logical approach. And then there is Will Smith’s performance — his occasional sullenness suggests he is itching for another Ali-like chance to prove his acting chops even as he slums his way through another high-tech shoot-’em-up. The result is a film in which the story and the style seem to be at odds with one another — it’s not entirely sure what it wants to say, or what it wants to do. Like the robots in Asimov’s stories, it is caught between conflicting impulses, and it ends up paralyzed.

2 stars (out of 4)

Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. The robot Sonny tells Detective Spooner that we all have a purpose. What is purpose? Where does it come from? Is it something with which we are “programmed,” as it were? If so, who programs it? Is it possible to create purpose for ourselves? If so, how? What happens when different people’s understandings of purpose conflict with one another?

2. Detective Spooner tells Sonny, “You’ll have to find your way like the rest of us … that’s what it means to be free.” Do you agree? What does it mean to be free? What sorts of freedom do we have as “slaves” to God’s law? Are those who do not follow God “free,” and if so, in what sense? (Romans 7:25)

3. Detective Spooner asks Sonny if robots can write symphonies or paint masterpieces. What role does creativity play in our spiritual lives? Are people less soulful or spiritual if they are less creative? Is it possible for non-humans to be creative — for example, paintings by the gorilla Koko? What if machines can produce original art — is that creativity?

4. How important is it to be safe from harm? Is danger ever a good thing, and if so, how? Why do you think God allows us to live in a world that can harm us?

5. At one point, Sonny says you have to do what someone asks you to do, if you love them. Is this true? What if the person asks you to do something wrong? What if the person asks you to harm them? When should you disobey those who you love, and why?

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

I, Robot is rated PG-13 for “intense stylized action, and some brief partial nudity.” The film begins with a dead body, but most of the violence that follows affects robots, not humans; one person does get a gash in his arm, however, which reveals some robotic mechanisms beneath the skin. There are also two brief scenes in which individuals take showers — one person is obscured behind translucent glass, the other is seen only from behind, and at a distance. Also, Detective Spooner’s grandmother — the one person in his life with whom he has a normal relationship — is a churchgoer.

— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.

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