I, Robot

Here’s Isaac Asimov back in 1989, predicting how we’d be living in 1999:

Increasing computerization and robotization are going to decentralize the world. The fields will allow everybody to absorb and retain information, while passing on the three classifications of undesirable labor — the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous — to robots and computers. This will give us more time for more creative endeavors.

It’s almost touchingly naïve; who has more time for creative endeavors, or uses the time for that if they have it? The late science-fiction godhead (and all-around scholar) Asimov had a definite robot fetish; he coined the word “robotics,” and he produced a sizable chunk of fiction on the subject of artificial intelligence. Some of his robot stories were collected in the book I, Robot, and Harlan Ellison wrote a legendary (and unproduced, though published) screenplay adaptation. With the release of the new movie calling itself I, Robot — decidedly not based on that screenplay — Ellison must be grinding his teeth and Asimov spinning his way to China through his grave.

Making a Will Smith action flick called I, Robot is a little like making a Bruce Willis vehicle in which he heroically saves a bunch of people during the Dresden bombing and calling it Slaughterhouse-Five. Smith is known as Del Spooner here, but he’s essentially just this year’s variation on himself: a cocky, tough, wisecracking cop (or agent or pilot) pitted against this summer’s sci-fi menace. Which, in this case, is a robot that seems to have disregarded the Three Laws that all robots are programmed to follow. (The short version: Don’t hurt humans, allow them to be hurt, disobey human orders, or allow yourself to be destroyed.) An elderly robotics guru (James Cromwell) ends up as lobby pizza — did he fall out his window, or was he pushed? And if he was pushed, who else was in the room with him? Nobody except a curiously emotional robot named Sonny (voice by Alan Tudyk).

It’s apparent fairly early on that this I, Robot won’t detain itself with questions about AI ethics or philosophy. It starts as a whodunit, with Spooner as the bitter cop with a murder theory, which no one believes because he has an Issue With Robots. We’re meant to side with him, because the robots’ defense team includes dry-ice programmer Bridget Moynihan and corporate honcho Bruce Greenwood, who I expected to be addressed by a concerned robot: “You are in serious danger of being typecast as a callous Stupid White Man. For the safety of your career, please proceed in a calm fashion to the nearest Atom Egoyan casting call.”

The movie is at least a bit less annoying than director Alex Proyas’ previous two genre attempts, The Crow and Dark City, both of which have won unaccountable cred in goth and techno-geek circles. Where is his much-vaunted “poetic vision” when he really needs it? Proyas keeps the action percolating, but really there’s not much anyone can do with scenes involving throngs of coolly malevolent robots converging on a crowd of scrappy Chicagoans. I looked at the robots at each turn and could see only computer-generated images, not plausible constructions of metal and plastic occupying real space. Even Spooner, part metal himself, doesn’t escape the impersonal march of the narrative. He goes through the usual paces — the Give Me Your Badge scene, the I Love My Grandma scene, and even, God help us, the I’m Rescuing a Cat scene.

I’m actually divided about the movie’s use of the title I, Robot. It’s going to irritate Asimov fans, but it might — just might — point younger readers towards the stories, and it’s given Bantam an excuse to re-issue the book in an attractive new hardcover edition. I wish I were optimistic enough to believe in an Asimov resurgence, though — my feeling is that the target audience is busy with Harry Potter books and X-Men comics — and Asimov’s own vision of 1999 haunts me after having seen this film. Yes, computers have made it easier to make movies like this, in which thousands of robots leap and twirl and fight. They sure haven’t done much for creative endeavors, though — not on the evidence of this screenplay.

Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, adaptation, science fiction

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