Review: I Robot (2004)

Isaac Asimov may have died in 1992, but his writing has immortalized him. A prolific writer, he wrote or edited over five hundred books. I was fortunate enough to meet Isaac Asimov, who showed up as a surprise guest at a science fiction convention in the mid 1980s in Arlington, Virginia. (He was notoriously fearful of flying, and only attended conventions he could get to by car or rail.) He remains the author of some of my favorite and most influential books, including the delightful Foundation Trilogy, a series that more than fifty years later still feels fresh and timeless.

Unquestionably, Asimov provided the frame for which most modern science fiction evolved. It should be heartening then to know that one of his most famous books, I, Robot, actually a collection of nine stories loosely organized around Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., made it to the big screen in 2004.

Sadly, this big screen adaptation is barely recognizable. We have Dr. Susan Calvin, still a robopsychologist, and we have the three laws of robotics clearly spelled out by Asimov in his stories and not too much else. For this reason the credits say it was adapted from Asimov’s stories. Moreover, of course it was modernized for the 21st century. The year is 2035 and the place is Chicago, which is home to the U.S. Robots, Inc. U.S. Robots is the premier robot manufacturer for the planet. There is nearly one robot for every five humans. Thus far, robots have proven to be wholly benign. They do much of society’s scut work.

Will Smith plays Homicide Detective Del Spooner, who is called to U.S. Robots to investigate what appears to be the homicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning, its creator and the inventor of the three rules of robots, the most important of which is that a robot is never allowed to harm a human being. It is soon clear that Detective Spooner has this thing against robots as well as most things new, even to the point of driving a motorcycle without automation controls and wearing a pair of 2004 canvas sneakers (product placement!) Nonetheless, he has more than a casual connection with the late Dr. Lanning because as we learn his left arm is a robotic arm, surgically applied some years back by none other than Dr. Lanning himself.

Dr. Lanning seems to have jumped to his death from his office at U.S. Robots, but Detective Spooner soon ascertains he could not have done so unaided, and begins to suspect that a rouge robot killed him. That is supposed to be impossible but it is the only plausible explanation he can come up with. The suggestion does not sit well with Lawrence Robertson, the CEO of U.S. Robots, who is in the midst of rolling out a new higher class of robot to the world.

That is as much of the plot as I need give away. Ably assisted by the CGI wizards at Weta Studios in New Zealand, Director Alex Proyas creates a convincing vision of Chicago in 2035, a city transformed by automation and the omnipresent robot. The city still has a gritty feel to it but thanks to many robots as well as V.I.K.I., the master computer of U.S. Robots, humans are freed from tedious jobs like collecting trash and tending bars. These robots look much modernized from the metallic things that were illustrated in the pulp magazines back in the 1940s.

Will Smith is both one of the executive producers and stars in this movie. Women may appreciate the many scenes of him with his shirt off. With all his rippling muscles, I figure he must spend his hours off the set doing nothing but lifting weights and taking steroids. While Smith is an excellent actor, as I noted in movies like this one, I do not feel he was the best choice for this particular role. Nor is Bridget Moynahan as Dr. Susan Calvin. Still, both are good actors and willing to give their best to their parts, which results in dutiful performances but little in the way of stellar acting.

You would expect a robot movie to be cerebral, but Director Proyas instead gives audience more of what they are likely craving: action sequences with lots of special effects. This helps to make up for the minimal suspense in the movie. It is soon clear that there are at least some rogue robots out there and it is only a question of figuring out why they are acting in this manner and who is responsible.

There a few plot holes and gaffes. It is unclear why the older class robots are stored in old shipping containers along Lake Michigan instead of being disassembled and recycled. Perhaps it made for some neat climactic ending scenes. I also noted one scene in which Spooner twists an officer’s arm with his non-robotic right arm. Overall, though if you like lots of special effects and action, there is little to disappoint in this movie other than its rather shallow plot.

The movie gets an A for the special effects and stunts, but a mere B for the acting, and a C for the plot that leaves little in the way of hard cognitive thinking. So overall the movie disappoints, which is why I give it just 2.8 on my 4.0 scale. It is worth watching if you have nothing more compelling to watch, but not worth going out of your way to see.

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