Critics were wrong about the Will Smith “adaptation” of I, Robot

I, Robot
Screenshot: YouTube

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Against all odds, the event-movie movie season is in full swing, so it’s time once again to look back on unsung summer blockbusters—the flops, the critical bombs, or the merely forgotten Hollywood spectacles that deserve to be rescued from the trash bin of movie history.

I, Robot (2004)

Intellectual property and branding rule Hollywood now, but insisting that every big-budget movie look instantly familiar can backfire. Case in point: 2004’s I, Robot, which purported to be an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction classic (though closing credits carefully phrase the provenance as “suggested by”). Reviews at the time were decidedly mixed, with many critics complaining—not inaccurately—that the film bears virtually no resemblance to Asimov’s stories, merely using them as a flimsy clothesline upon which to hang Will Smith wisecracks and sequences of spectacular computer-generated mayhem. But while there’s no question that Fox clumsily imposed I, Robot onto an unrelated original screenplay (written by Jeff Vintar), the film nonetheless honors the spirit of Asimov’s stories, even as it substitutes eye-popping action for what’s essentially a series of logic puzzles rooted in language’s ambiguity.

Back in 2004, the year 2035 still seemed distant enough to imagine as a futuristic world of interactive holograms, fully self-driving vehicles, and ubiquitous humanoid robots performing every mundane task. (Needless to say, we’re not exactly on pace to get there. On the other hand, this film couldn’t conceive of smartphones, which were only three years away; characters have to head for their desks every time they want to access the Internet.) While most people love mankind’s metal servants, which are programmed to do no harm (explicitly utilizing Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics), Chicago police detective Del “Spoon” Spooner (Will Smith) regards them with deep suspicion. So when his friend Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell)—inventor of the positronic brain—apparently commits suicide by leaping from his umpteenth-story office window, Spoon quickly pins the blame on Sonny (voice of Alan Tudyk), a robot he finds hiding at the crime scene. In theory, that’s impossible, since Sonny, like all robots, is bound by the Three Laws. Before long, though, robots everywhere are attacking Spoon, confirming his paranoia and suggesting that U.S. Robotics’ owner (Bruce Greenwood), described as the richest man on Earth, doesn’t necessarily have humanity’s best interests at heart.

That aspect of the narrative—which didn’t immediately suggest Jeff Bezos at the time—has aged remarkably well, even if Amazon’s robots are only drones at this point. What’s fascinating about I, Robot, though, is the way that it simultaneously makes robots its primary antagonists and presents them as victims of hatred and bigotry. Smith plays Spoon with his standard charismatic cockiness (“I don’t know what ‘blithely’ means, but I’m gonna get some coffee”), making us identify with him throughout; at the same time, Spoon often comes across like a bigot (“I saw a robot running with a purse and naturally I assumed…”), and Smith leans into the uncomfortable irony, giving the guy just a touch of rueful self-awareness. Director Alex Proyas (Dark City) orchestrates kinetic killer-robot set pieces that still look reasonably impressive 17 years later, and successfully detonates a mid-film plot twist so nonchalant that it has you wondering for a moment whether you saw what you thought you saw. (Even the murderous robot looks confused, shooting Spoon a questioning look that he answers with the single word “Yeah.”) By the end, though, I, Robot actually does manage to tackle an Asimov-style logical quandary, revealing the true nature of the robots’ seemingly contradictory behavior in a way that was clearly influenced by the then-recent passing of the Patriot Act. In essence, it asks a more momentous variation on this tricky question: If we create a robot that’s capable of abstract thought and programmed first and foremost to prevent any harm from coming to human beings, should it stop us from smoking?

Availability: I, Robot is available to rent or purchase digitally.

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Mike DAngelo