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As a brainless summer action movie, I, Robot is just fine. It’s not even completely brainless; it offers a few glimmers of insight into prejudice and corporate citizenship. But from the director of Dark City, which I might call a masterpiece, I, Robot is an overbudgeted, underscripted, lazy piece of work.

All Together Now: “Rolling in His Grave”

Not completely brainless, I, Robot is nevertheless a summer lightweight
Not completely brainless, I, Robot is nevertheless a summer lightweight

“Inspired by” the collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, I, Robot opens with his now-famous three laws of robotics. The first is that no robot can harm (or allow harm to come to) a human. Number two says it must obey orders, unless the first law applies. Number three says that it must try to survive, unless the first or second laws apply.

Asimov was familiar with the mad-scientist-unleashes-monster stories, and he was tired of the formula. He wrote the three laws to prevent himself from writing such a scenario. As anyone who has seen the trailer already knows, the robots in this movie attack people left and right (this movie was originally called “Hardware”). That groaning sound you hear is either angry Asimov fans, or the man himself rolling in his grave (a phrase, I am told, that will probably be used by a lot of critics this week).

But even if the movie were called “Hardwired” and didn’t claim descendence from Asimov, it would still have problems.

Foul Play Suspected

Will Smith plays Del Spooner, a Chicago cop with a deep prejudice against robots, in spite of the fact that no robot has ever committed a crime in his city, or in fact anywhere else. In fact, robots seem to be a boon to Chicago. They walk dogs, handle garbage, and fetch medications during emergencies.

The company that makes it all happen is USR, founded by the kindly Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). It’s 2035; they’ve just introduced a new line of robots, the AS5s, and they’re about to reach a major milestone: one robot for every five citizens.

But the celebration is put on hold when Lanning is found dead in the lobby of the USR building, apparently from a ten-story fall. Spooner is specifically called in to investigate by a hologram left by Lanning in case of his death.

Although suicide is the obvious conclusion, Spooner finds reason to suspect foul play, possibly involving a rogue robot called “Sonny” (given voice and mannerisms by Alan Tudyk, a la Andy Serkis’ Gollum).

I, Robot borrows heavily from cop movies, and when the chief takes Spoon off the case, leaving him to pursue the investigation on his own, he seeks help from Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), the robopsychologist who worked closely with the deceased. Thwarting the investigation at every turn is the CEO of USR, Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), who insists too forcefully that Lanning’s death was a suicide.

But, But, But…

There are a few hints of promise in the script of I, Robot, and for these the movie gets partial credit. But in each case, there is a big “but” that tarnishes the glimmers of good writing.

For example, there is a certain irony in a black man having such a strong prejudice, although it’s eventually put in a spotlight and clearly labeled as irony which kills any elegance it might have had. And when Spooner implies that a robot is guilty of murder, Robertson points out that a murder charge would grant Sonny de facto human status, which flies in the face of Spooner’s stated beliefs. But this irony flashes by so fast that if you are chewing your popcorn you might miss it.

Perhaps the most disappointing “but” changes who’s right and who’s wrong.

Pointing the Finger

(Spoiler warning: skip to the next section if you must.)

I, Robot contains the story of a corporation given unprecedented levels of public trust. Robots are in 20% of American homes. We are told that robots even control the security perimeter of Chicago. In a summer that will see The Corporation and Fahrenheit 9/11, both of which question the privatization (or “selling off,” if you prefer) of public resources, I, Robot could have served as a timely cautionary tale.

But in the end it is not the corporation who is at fault, but the well-intentioned scientist. Instead of saying “don’t trust the Enrons,” Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman’s script says “don’t trust the Carl Sagans.” This ought to really piss off the Asimov fans. As Asimov put it, (as quoted on “Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge? …. I began in 1940, to write robot stories of my own - but robot stories of a new variety …… My robots were machines designed by engineers, not pseudo-men created by blasphemers.”

The idea of a well-intentioned scientist unleashing a technological nightmare may have started with Frankenstein, but it became popular in the post-atomic horror movies of the 1950s. While the nuclear boogeyman probably merited a Godzilla, it’s hard to imagine such a message resonating today. Maybe some would make the case that genetically modified organisms are the new “mad science,” but even if you are a screenwriter who believes that, why not make the corporations the villain instead of the lone well-meaning scientist? If you fight GMOs, isn’t your enemy Monsanto, and not the obsessive neighbor trying to grow a bigger zucchini?

The Root of All Evil

Somehow I suspect the message wasn’t a conscious literary decision, but simply the path of least resistance through the offices of Hollywood producers. A friend agreed, saying that I, Robot seemed like it was written by a committee. I, Robot is shaped by the demands of commerce, and not art.

Just as an example, consider that a line of dialogue explains how everyone has moved beyond gasoline because it’s too dangerous. Yet it comes after the big explosive fireball that caps the chase scene. It’s as though some producer insisted on keeping the explosion because it’s a summer action movie, plot consistency be damned.

Maybe this is cruel, but let’s hope Proyas’ next science fiction movie has a smaller budget, so he can focus more on the art and less on the commerce.