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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 12th 2004:

In olden days, it was always said that the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was so effective for a simple reason: he gave her class, and she gave him sex appeal. Something similar seems to be going on in the relationship between Hollywood studios and classic SF authors. With the recent fad for Philip K Dick adaptations seemingly on the wane, the next big-name author getting the studio makeover looks like being Isaac Asimov.

Now Asimov’s track-record at the cinema is not that great: Fantastic Voyage is a famous film, but not an especially good one, and the book isn’t exactly premium stuff. On the other hand, one of his best stories was turned into a horrific movie, The Bicentennial Man, largely due to the casting of Robin Williams in the title role. The great man himself had a go at adapting I, Robot, one of his most famous collections of stories, for the screen, but nothing ever came of it.

Until now, of course, as a movie with that title (based on a new script) has hit our screens, directed by Alex Proyas of The Crow and Dark City fame. Wikkidy wikkidy wah wah Will Smith plays Spooner, a tough, wise-cracking cop (yeah, good to see Smith stretching himself, isn’t it?) in 2035 Chicago. Spooner has a thing about robots following a traumatic event in his back-story so it’s just his luck that he’s assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the top boffins at US Robotics, one of the world’s most powerful corporations. Assisted by slightly less senior boffin Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan – not quite the ‘thin, plain’ type Ike had in mind, but whatever) he discovers the only suspect is a Nestor-5 type robot, Sonny (voiced, rather well, by Alan Tudyk). But the Laws of Robotics state that it’s impossible for a robot to harm a human, and with a major roll-out of Nestor-5s imminent, the last thing USR want is a panic about killer robots. Did Sonny kill his creator? If so, how? And what would this mean for the rest of the world?

I must confess to not having been too impressed by the early I, Robot trailers. Generic FX-driven action thrillers I don’t have a problem with, but doing a movie about killer robots on the rampage and tagging Asimov’s name to it is a bit like making an Agatha Christie adaptation where it turns out Miss Marple is the murderer: it’s a total misreading of the author’s intention. Asimov’s original robot stories were a deliberate attempt to look at the topic rationally and thoughtfully. So it’s rather pleasant to discover that Jeff Vintar, scribe on this movie, has clearly done his homework. The film is laced with themes and situations from throughout Asimov’s work, and the plot sticks fairly rigorously to the Laws of Robotics as Asimov conceived them.

But there’s inevitably a bit of dumbing down going on: Susan Calvin turns into a gun-toting floozy, and the film clearly isn’t as interested in the ramifications and interplay of the Three Laws as their creator was. The Laws are of roughly zero use in terms of practical real-world science, but they’re terrific as a plot device. The movie seldom really engages with them except on a rather basic level, but I suppose Asimov’s fans should be grateful they’re adhered to as closely as they are. And at one point the film looks like it’s going to go beyond the source material and interpret the human-robot relationship explicitly in terms of one between master and slave. There’s potential here for some very intelligent and thoughtful storytelling, but also controversy – which is probably why this aspect of the story is more or less soft-pedalled throughout.

In any case I doubt the mainstream audience this film is aimed at will care either way. This is clearly an attempt at a Minority Report-style thriller with a bit of the FX glamour of The Matrix and the Star Wars prequels added to broaden its appeal. And it’s a very glossy, slick, professional-looking movie. The special effects are impressive, particularly the character animation on Sonny and some of the action sequences. The film’s attempts at futurism are a bit haphazard, though – apart from the ubiquity of robots, this is one of those future worlds defined almost solely in terms of how the cars and advertising have changed. Very Minority Report, and it seems somehow fitting that the product placement the movie goes in for is crashingly unsubtle.

Alex Proyas has made some impressively dark and atmospheric movies in the past, but here he seems a little restrained – whether out of choice or by the studio I don’t know, but the results are rather bland and workmanlike. There seems to have been a conscious choice to play this movie as absolutely safe as it could possibly be – lowest common denominator film-making. This extends, obviously, to the casting of Will Smith. He’s a charismatic performer and never less than agreeable in front of the camera, but for the most part he’s just recycling performances from past blockbuster roles. The film could have used someone capable of a more intense and rounded performance, even if that meant losing a few of the howled one-liners Smith delivers at unlikely moments.

I’m sorry to sound so lukewarm about I, Robot as it’s a polished and slick thriller which treats its source material with more respect than one might have expected. It’s visually impressive, and the plot, while not hugely original, packs in plenty of twists and turns before the ending. But for me it never quite came to life either as true SF or an action movie. (Asimov himself combined SF with the detective thriller much more impressively in a couple of novels we’ll probably see adapted very soon.) It’s a perfectly good, entertaining film, but it shies away from genuinely original ideas in favour of the formulaic. This seems an odd criticism to make, but I, Robot is a bit mechanical.

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