Movie Review: I, Robot

OK, so this one comes a little late. I, Robot has been out for years, but I hadn’t seen it until last Friday. “Why? Aren’t you a sci-fi person?” Exactly.

The original (in my mind, the real) I, Robot was a collection of short stories released by Isaac Asimov over half a century ago. The short stories were each episodes concerning robots and their human overseers, and the behavior of the robots according to the Three Laws of Robotics (rendered faithfully in the film). The stories are clever and introduce the “robot universe” in which later Asimov books are based.

The 2004 movie used names and minor references (and of course, the Three Laws) from the books, but otherwise was completely unrelated. Will Smith (you can already see how the movie’s going) plays a homicide detective, Del Spooner, with an out-of-proportion dislike of robots. (He has a reason, I just think it’s not enough to expect this.) He’s called in at the apparent suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning, the brainpower behind US Robotics. Lanning has been working on the NS-5, a new line of robots set to replace all the NS-4s currently in service. NS-5s have a constant uplink back to USR.

Robopsychiatrist (in the books, robopsychologist) Susan Calvin shows Spooner around Lanning’s lab, the supposed “scene of the crime”. There they awake a modified NS-5, who attempts to escape (a sequence referencing Asimov’s “Lost Little Robot” story). They eventually catch the robot and bring him back to the police station.

Spooner, of course, becomes obsessed with the case and starts digging into USR. He’s soon attacked by NS-5s, despite the supposed protection of the Three Laws. (Ironically, the trucks carrying the attacking robots have “Three Laws Safe” stenciled on the side.)

As expected, the robots do eventually publicly reveal themselves, Spooner and Calvin infiltrate USR (with the help of Lanning’s modified NS-5), and the world is saved.

It’s a Will Smith action movie, which makes it entertaining, but…it loses something. There is some of Asimov’s spirit in the story of the modified NS-5, who goes by “Sonny”. Sonny is unique in several ways, including having the ability to feel emotions and an expanded amount of personal freedom. But this is relatively minimal.

Overall it upset me that they titled the movie “I, Robot”, particularly with the tagline (“One man saw it coming”). Unless that man was Lanning, not Spooner, the “it” of the tagline is not the self-sentience of robots, robots that can legitimately use the pronoun “I”. But a look at Wikipedia showed that “I, Robot” was not Asimov’s name, either…it was for an earlier story by Eando Binder that actually fit the title better than Asimov’s stories do. Asimov’s original title for the short story collection was “Mind and Iron”.

But I still can’t get over the exploitation of Asimov for what’s essentially an action movie. Wikipedia says that the original screenplay was called Hardwired and was not Asimovized…and that it was more of a murder mystery. That I would have rather seen (though the way the plot works out, this title isn’t so great either).

They live in an Asimov-compliant world, but it’s not an Asimov story. I guess I should get over that, at which point it becomes just another over-the-top action movie. I would have been happy if they had used the Three Laws and US Robotics, but not used the character names (they are obviously different characters) or the title. But then they lose the free publicity, right?

One thing they did well: no romantic subplot between Spooner and Calvin. It’s not necessary in the first place, and even less plausible/useful with the character of Susan Calvin. Even this version.

Final classification: Asimov fanfiction. A valid story, ruined for me by the association with a very different lore and the need for action to make a popular movie. But leaving that aside (i.e. for people who don’t read sci-fi), a legit action movie that brings up a few extra interesting ideas.