by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I, Robot began life as a series of short stories written by science-fiction superstar Isaac Asimov in the early 1950’s which were ultimately collected into a book of that title. The only unifying theme Asimov had to link his various robot fictions were a series of principles he dubbed the “Three Laws of Robotics,” rules put into place to make sure his robots (unlike those of the Czech writer Karel Cápek, who coined the term “robot” for a mechanical humanoid in the first place for his 1923 play R.U.R. — “robot” is simply the Czech word for “worker”) never banded together, overthrew or annihilated their creators and took over the world. The three laws are: 1) a robot must never harm a human being, or allow a human being to come to harm through inaction; 2) a robot must obey all orders from human beings, unless that would conflict with the first law; and 3) a robot must do all it can to ensure its own survival, unless that would conflict with the first and second laws. Asimov was writing in a relatively optimistic time, and he was enough of an optimist himself that he posited what he called, in the last story of I, Robot, “The Evitable Conflict” — meaning that whatever mistakes might happen in human-robot interactions, they would always be self-correcting and any disruption of the equilibrium between humans and robots would be temporary and would work itself out according to the Three Laws.
Needless to say, when I, Robot was filmed in 2004 it was based on an original story by Jeff Vintar, scripted by Vintar and well-known action hack Akiva Goldsman, and merely “suggested by” Asimov’s book — which seems to mean that they used the Three Laws of Robotics and some of the character names but almost nothing else. What emerged from Vintar, Goldsman and director Alex Proyas (whose best-known previous credit was probably The Crow) was not the utopian vision of Asimov but a trendily dystopian one, centered around Del Spooner (Will Smith), a homicide detective in Chicago in 2035. Del has a pathological hatred of robots and is convinced that the Three Laws are B.S. and someday a robot is going to start committing crimes. In the opening scene he’s chasing a robot who’s carrying a blue purse, which Spooner is convinced he’s snatched; it turns out he’s only returning a lost purse to its owner at the owner’s request. The whole scene, and in particular the havoc Spooner wreaks as he’s giving chase to the robot and the anger with which the woman who owned both purse and robot greets his attempt to arrest it, seems a premonition of Will Smith’s later film Hancock, in which he played a blundering superhero — a far less pretentious movie than I, Robot and also a lot more fun.
Nonetheless, a robot does indeed become a crime suspect when Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), director of research for U.S. Robotics (the company that makes all the robots and is about to launch a new model, the NS-5, when the film begins), falls to his death through a window in his office in U.S. Robotics’ state-of-the-art headquarters building in Chicago. The rest of the police rule it a suicide and don’t want to investigate any further, but Spooner keeps digging and finds that Dr. Lanning built a rogue robot called Sonny (“played,” via a motion-capture system, by actor Alan Tudyk in the same way Andy Serkis played Gollum the renegade hobbit in The Lord of the Rings and the title role in Rings director Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong) who’s been programmed not to be compelled to obey the Three Laws. Spooner hooks up with U.S. Robotics psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan, a considerably better actress than usually plays the damsel-in-distress in action films these days) to try to find Sonny — in one grimly funny scene, albeit pretty obviously copied from the Matrices, Spooner is trying to find Sonny in a room full of 1,000 otherwise identical robots and he reasons that if he keeps shooting at them, the one that defends itself against a human attack (thereby violating the First Law) will be “outed” as the rogue.
The vision of the future given here is modishly dire, complete with things like auto-controlled cars (when Spooner disables the auto-control mechanism on his white streamlined BMW patrol car and actually drives it himself, everyone who hears about it is shocked because that’s something that in 2035 is never done) and robots gradually insinuating themselves into everyday life much the way computers have done in our own time (and Vintar and Goldsman artfully incorporate enough Internet jargon into their script to give the impression that the “robotization” of human society — including U.S. Robotics’ ambitious plan to make their product so cheap all but the very poorest people can afford one — is merely a further development from the “computerization” of society in our age), but the film is also burdened by seemingly interminable and not especially thrilling action sequences before Spooner, Dr. Calvin and Sonny piece together the plot. Midway through the movie we learn that Spooner is himself at least partially robotic — when he was a child he was involved in an auto accident: his parents were killed and so was an 11-year-old girl in the other car, and he never forgave the robot on the scene for sparing him but leaving the girl to die. Spooner’s left arm was severed in the crash and Dr. Lanning built him a new one with his robot technology — which we learn when he’s struck by a piece of heated metal and it burns hash marks in his robotic arm but causes him no pain. (In a rather odd in-joke, the driver of the other car was someone named “Harold Lloyd,” and Spooner’s condition is a reference to the famous accident suffered by the real Harold Lloyd, who lost two fingers of his right hand when a prop bomb exploded early, and who for the rest of his career wore a glove that concealed the loss. This gimmick would make considerably more sense if the young moviegoers who are the target audience for a sci-fi action movie knew or cared who Harold Lloyd was.)
The film ends with an all-out battle between humans and robots sparked by the U.S. Robotics super-computer VIKI (voiced by Fiona Hogan, who also appears visually as a face that appears on VIKI’s monitor screen whenever the computer talks); it seems that VIKI has realized humanity’s penchant for starting wars, starving each other and otherwise hurting their own kind, and has re-interpreted the Three Laws as justification for a kind of benevolent dictatorship in which the robots will rule over the humans and protect them from their failings — only, needless to say, none of the humans (including Farber, a young punk who flits in and out of the action and is played by Shia LeBoeuf) are exactly thrilled by the idea of being ruled by robots, and in a scene largely lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey Spooner and Dr. Calvin do a thrilling descent (including an intriguing high-tech variation on the sliding-down-the-sail-on-a-sword stunt Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. did in The Black Pirate in 1926 and Burt Lancaster reprised in The Crimson Pirate in 1952) into the innards of VIKI to insert “nanites,” sub-microscopic robots whose presence will act as a sort of quasi-biological virus inside VIKI and disable her, thereby snapping all the robots back to their original programming to serve humans instead of rule them.
There’s a nice little Gollum-like bit of indecision on the part of Sonny whether to take the humans’ side or VIKI’s, and an almost inevitable plot turn in which Spooner has to conquer his fear of heights to disarm VIKI — and director Proyas even copies Stanley Kubrick’s famous gimmick from 2001 of having the computer’s voice slow down, like an old-fashioned wind-up phonograph running down, as it dies (though mercifully he at least spared us the sound of VIKI singing “Bicycle Built for Two” as it expires). Even though it has at least a pro forma happy ending, I, Robot is a considerably darker, Matrix-influenced vision of the human-machine conflict — not for Vintar, Goldsman and Proyas Asimov’s schoolboy optimism that humans could design a system that would control the worst impulses of humanity from taking over and abusing humanity’s creations — though one nice thing about I, Robot is that its vision of the future is “darker” than that from 1950’s sci-fi in a quite positive way: an African-American actor is playing their hero — a refreshing change from the idea one got in 1950’s sci-fi movies that the human race of the future would be entirely white.