The First Law be damned

Wednesday, 21 July 2004 — 9:44pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

Acknowledgements in literary adaptations on film are getting funnier all the time. I thought I had seen it all when the credits rolled in Troy and it proclaimed itself “Inspired by Homer’s Iliad.” Then I, Robot comes along, and get this: it’s “Suggested by Isaac Asimov.” This is not to say it is wholly uninspired, as the movie has its fair share of qualities, but the adaptation is certainly as loose as it, er, suggests.

A little bit of background: Asimov’s I, Robot is not a single cohesive novel, but rather a collection of nine short stories that take place in the same universe governed by the same laws and sometimes feature the same recurring characters. Together, these stories span the author’s envisioned history of robotics from infancy to near-human natural sophistication. On the other hand, the Alex Proyas film I, Robot can be traced back to a story by screenwriter Jeff Vintar that never came to be, entitled Hardwired. It was later in the stages leading up to the production of the film that the story was integrated into Asimov’s world with all of the conventions that come with it – Alfred Lanning (here played by James Cromwell), Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), the Nestor models, and of course, the Three Laws of Robotics. Curiously, instead of maintaining the name of the IBM-esque industrial behemoth U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, it was changed to “U.S. Robotics”. The real-life U.S. Robotics, which ruled the age of 14.4kbps modems, was a good sport about this and took it with pride – which is more than you can say for the Cyrix lawsuit when Eraser had Arnold Schwarzenegger take on the evil Cyrex Corporation.

If I may say so myself, I am normally lenient when it comes to liberal adaptations from book to film, as long as the film is philosophically consistent as a self-contained entity. For example, the “Scouring of the Shire” chapter in The Lord of the Rings is critical to what J.R.R. Tolkien is trying to say and the cyclical hero’s journey for which he was aiming, but its omission from the final third of the Peter Jackson epic is excusable, since the movie adheres to the guidelines it carved for itself regarding what ideas it wanted to emphasize. The intentions of the source material’s creator are important, but secondary to self-contained consistency. So I don’t mind so much that Proyas’ film plays with the possibility of robots inevitably breaking free of the constraints with which they were created and turning on humanity, when one of the reasons Asimov wrote robot stories at all was to counteract the then-ubiquitous Frankenstein’s Monster stereotype of technology conquering technologist. I don’t even take issue with characters successfully solving problems with gratuitous explosions and gunfire instead of cool-headed logic because it’s not Asimov; I just take issue with them because they are gratuitous.

But if you are going out of your way to quote the Three Laws onscreen at the beginning of your movie, I expect you to follow them. You cannot quote Asimov willy-nilly and lay him down as the source of the behavioural rules that govern robots, only to let those robots violate the rules.

This is where I, Robot runs into a bit of trouble. The movie opens with the apparent suicide of Dr. Lanning, which our hero Spooner (Will Smith) begins to investigate. He rejects the suicide theory and instantly convinces himself that a robot in Lanning’s office of murder, because the extent of his character throughout the entire movie is, “I hate robots.” The robot escapes, and Spooner follows in hot pursuit – only to discover it hidden in the midst of a thousand other robots of the same model. One of the nine stories in Asimov’s anthology, “Little Lost Robot”, presents the same scenario: out of a thousand and one robots, one is a rogue unit not bound by the Three Laws; how might one ferret it out? As with Asimov’s logic puzzles in all of the I, Robot stories, the solution is to subject the robots to a controlled equilibrium where the conflicting Laws each exert a certain gravitation, then identify the one with the anomalous response.

In the movie, Susan Calvin cites the process she used in “Little Lost Robot”, explaining that it was a three-week solution. Spooner, who finds his investigation to be just a tad more deadline-sensitive, pulls out his gun and starts shooting robots – because after all, he hates robots. Somewhere in the mix, a robot peeks to see what is going on, and he identifies it as the culprit. Imagine if they made a movie about Oedipus where he draws a dagger and kills the Sphinx without answering the riddle. Not quite the same, is it? At best, I think they were going for a Gordian Knot of a lateral solution here; and in that case, why frame everything in the Three Laws to begin with? On the surface, I, Robot is an engaging piece, but the Asimov connections never come off as anything more than a superficial bid to capitalize on an established brand identity – and one that was not thought through sufficiently.

I, Robot is essentially a murder mystery that unfolds into something far more sinister, as good murder mysteries should. In literary theory, an entry in the mystery genre is described not as one story, but two: the surface story, which takes the audience through a voyage of deduction and discovery; and the hidden story, which is the sequence of events comprising an underlying truth waiting to be revealed. Here, the hidden story is by far the stronger of the two. The trickling trail of evidence that guides Spooner along a thread from Lanning’s death to the bigger picture is intriguing once revealed in full. The promotional materials like to make this flick look like an action movie, but it most excels as an antecedent action movie. A lot of care went into the construction of a twisting, turning thinker-thriller underneath what the audience sees.

The surface story is worse off, because in several cases it lacks the logical deduction required to draw a line between one major turning point and the next, and instead feels like checking off a to-do list of clues and explanations. Most of the time it consists of Spooner making a wild robot-hating assumption, which either turns out to be either a) right or b) wrong. Not much of a detective, if you ask me. Mysteries are like higher-level mathematics exams: the elegance of the solution lies not in its correctness, but in the process through which a correct solution is found. My advice to I, Robot: for full marks, show your work.

In the current reigning champion of sci-fi whodunits, Minority Report, John Anderton has an unswerving faith in the Precrime system, but knows something is fishy because when he is himself a suspect, he knows the system could not possibly be correct. In I, Robot, Spooner knows something is fishy about the Lanning case because he hates robots. Well, that’s not entirely fair – in that scene, there is a revealing clue that rules out an unassisted suicide – but next thing you know, he’s pointing fingers at USR boss Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) because his company makes robots, and we all know about Spooner’s attitude towards the dratted things. One of the two is a better movie.

Will Smith is a problem. Spooner is not really a character so much as he is a two-hour walk-on part for Will Smith, only he hates robots. The cheeky Fresh Prince attitude issues really have no place in this movie and serve only as a distraction, and almost everything he says is written to pander to those who might show up at the cinema “to see Will Smith,” an entrenchment of an already bad trend in suiting a film to an actor rather than fitting the actor to the film. As it turns out, Akiva Goldsman, one of the true volatile enigmas of screenwriting whose CV ranges from Batman and Robin to A Beautiful Mind, was hired to do exactly that to the script; the results come out negative. Why pay an A-list actor millions if you are not going to challenge him and make him work? Oh, right – marketing.

One thing for which I, Robot cannot be faulted, though, is its visual look and feel. Alex Proyas knows how to stage an atmospheric genre flick, and the art department deserves a hand for creating a near-future Chicago that, while nothing revolutionary in the face of Spielberg’s recent pseudo-contemporary future aesthetic in both A.I. and Minority Report, at least does us the service of stomping on the bland vision of Asimov’s world we saw in the wholly mediocre Bicentennial Man. The world of I, Robot is full of life and movement, and is filmed with a matching breathless dynamism. Vast images like that of a drained Lake Michigan converted into a robot scrapyard linger in the audience’s memory long after the credits have rolled.

The movie is most faithful to Isaac Asimov in a way you would not expect. Like the author’s works, it stars a cast of uninteresting humans who are closer to being story props than characters, and upstages their humanity with a truly interesting personality in the form of the robot on which the story is focused. In this case it is Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), who is the most flavourful personage among our players. I applaud the nuance of expression in the way he is animated and the artificial, yet inquisitive demeanour he displays when speaking his lines, often some of the better dialogue in the script.

I, Robot tries earnestly and hard to be a thinkpiece above the common crop of summer blockbusters, but give it the intellectual respect it so desires, and its cracks begin to show. It is nonetheless fairly painless to sit through, and mostly entertaining; Will Smith aside, the annoyances come upon reflection. It may have been a far more fruitful endeavour on the part of the producers to stick with Vintar’s Hardwired and never explicitly bring Asimov into it at all, but as with technological progress for good or ill, what’s done is done.

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