If you’re wondering how Hollywood could possibly adapt Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of similarly themed short stories bound together by the slenderest of common threads, the answer is that it hasn’t. The credits for I, Robot read “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s book,” but the canny sci-fi fan will notice several other “suggestions” from more familiar sources. There’s the guy chasing down robots despite his fear of heights (see also Blade Runner and Runaway); the dangerous yet emotional robot who’s afraid of death (à la HAL 9000 in 2001); the familiar John Woo shot of our hero jumping off a motorcycle and flying in slow motion while firing guns with both hands; and robots that are reminiscent of The Animatrix, Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis and that Björk video by Chris Cunningham.
The setup, at least initially, is unpleasantly reminiscent of Minority Report and Paycheck, with a cop (Will Smith) in a dystopian near-future falling afoul of a corporate bigwig (Bruce Greenwood) and making questionable decisions. A top scientist (James Cromwell) has been found dead. It looks like he killed himself, but Smith’s Del Spooner remains convinced that a robot was the culprit. This hypothesis presents a problem, however: Such a murder would violate the laws of robotics.
This is the Asimov part. The author posited three laws that every robot should be programmed to obey: A robot may not harm a human or allow a human to be harmed; a robot must obey human orders, except those that would harm other humans; and a robot must protect itself, unless doing so would harm another human or violate an order. Aside from these laws, the dead James Cromwell character, and the pivotal role of Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), the film’s script is mostly the creation of screenwriter Jeff Vintar, who called it Hardwired until the producers figured out that more money could be made by creating an Asimov connection. Instead, the producers should have optioned Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn, a novel-length story that also centers on a murder mystery involving robots.
Once the movie gets going, it works well. After a slow buildup, its final third manages to generate some eye-popping thrills without the usual dismissal of narrative in the face of explosions. It’s not as visually unique as some others in the canon of director Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City, Garage Days), but the robots, whose colored-plastic-atop-circuitry design was reputedly inspired by iMacs, are very cool. As the main robot, who calls himself Sonny, Alan Tudyk amazes with a Gollum-like ability to create a soul behind motion-capture computer-generated eyes. Who knew that the actor best known as the pirate fetishist in Dodgeball had this in him?
Smith is, well, Smith. With each movie he seems to get progressively calmer, and his trademark wisecracks are fewer and further between. (That’s a good thing.) The characters even get some laughs at his expense this time. Moynahan asks, “I’m sorry … are you being funny?”
Smith’s response: “I guess not.”