The science fiction genre, once the stable of the summer blockbuster, has been in a state of decline of late gradually being replaced by fantasy and superheros. Certain elements of it are still prominent, indeed most superhero stories are nothing more than sci fi characters in tights, but the traditional future of flying cars and robots seem to be a thing of the past. If there was ever evidence as to the reason for this decline, it would be Will Smith's latest blockbuster I, Robot.
Credited as “suggested by” Isaac Asimov's collection of short stories of the same name, I, Robot will do little to quell the fears of Asimov fans that his property has been appropriated and perverted. I, Robot was adapted into a screenplay back in 1977 by noted science fiction author and Asimov's friend Harlan Ellison and was long credited as the greatest sci fi movie never made. This version of I, Robot is not that movie. The version in theaters actually started out life as a screenplay called Hardwired, and outside of some tacked on character names and an overall story involving robots, fans will find very little in common with Asimov's series of novels and stories about positronic robots. His three laws, that no robot may through action or inaction allow a human being to come to harm, that robots must obey all commands given to them by human beings except where they may conflict with the first law, and that a robot must protect itself from injury except where it may conflict with the first two laws, are included in the story, but the reason for them has been largely ignored. Asimov created the three laws as a logical solution to avoid the overabundant and cliched Frankenstein stories where man's creation predictably turns on him with the typical message of man shouldn't play God.
The lack of adherence to Asimov probably won't matter to the average movie goer, except that Asimov was right. The Frankenstein story of robot turning on man is cliched, as is it's message. In an era where the Internet is in most homes and we can't live without our cell phones technology is rings less true as a monster as it does as an opiate. The fear of today, with the constant threat of computer viruses and high energy prices, is of losing technology, not of it taking over.
The same old mechanical monster story isn't the only tired cliché I, Robot is reduced to. Will Smith's character of Detective Spooner is the kind of police officer who lives an isolated life on the fringe of the society he protects. The kind of cop who has a love hate relationship with their tough but fair captain. The kind of cop who is so dedicated to justice that when he's taken off the case he will throw his badge in the captain's face and then go off to solve the crime by himself- consequences be damned. He's the kind of cop who's totally original and unique, unless of course you've ever seen a movie in your life, in which case the only cop movie cliché he avoids is a partner who is either a rookie too young to die or a veteran too close to retirement to die.
As cliched as Smith's part is, it is not nearly as out of place as the attempt to make it funny. Every would be one liner, streetwise retort, and anachronistic aphorism seem imported from a different movie, as though Smith expected this movie to be about a jive talking street performer doing the robot instead of being one. On top of being misplaced none of the jokes are genuinely amusing. The phrase “Awww HELL no!” has rarely been funny in the past and it's especially annoying in the future.
The movie is directed by Alex Proyas, known for the visual and design flare of such movies as The Crow and Dark City, and while I, Robot is a marked departure from such darker fair it maintains Proyas' knack for visual wonder. The visual effects work by Weta Digital and Digital Domain is beautiful, from the expressiveness of the robots to the sweeping shots of a futurized Chicago. The design of the robots is equally as well done and manages to create something genuinely unique- like C-3PO meets Macintosh. They are so user friendly looking the movie should have been called iRobot.
While Proyas manages to incorporate his usual talent for distinctive visual wonder, the film lacks the sort of multi textural intellectualism that made his movie Dark City The Matrix before there was The Matrix. There are some hints at an exploration of the nature of intelligence and its relationship to free will, but they are quickly put aside for an inane attempt to justify why Smith's character hates robots. Also lacking is the sense of quiet paranoia and menace Proyas has managed to create before. The robots manage to look friendly and cute even when they're supposed to be menacing.
For all the well applied effort put forth in creating a futuristic Chicago, there is always something about the environment that fails to ring true. The film is set less than thirty years in the future and has the requisite futuristic concept cars and omnipresent computer screens seen in sci fi for decades. The difference is that after over 30 years of such sci fi staples it's gotten harder and harder to look to the future when so many people are still trying to catch up with the present. When you live in a decade that was the setting for the sci fi of yesteryear and instead of flying cars and food pills we find ourselves with S.U.V.'s and Atkins diet the suspension of disbelief required for a robot in every garage is more and more difficult to come by, as is the entertainment value that comes with it.