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I, Robot (film) - Summer of Asimov I

Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.

I, Robot
Maybe he was still trying to make up for missing out on Neo

I took a lot of grief a few weeks ago for being what some readers felt was a little too harsh on the film adaptation of Bicentennial Man. As a firm believer in the principle of charity (which I define as assuming the best possible interpretation of an argument), I considered this criticism and am willing to admit now that perhaps I was slightly over-critical. I still believe, though, that my central thesis is correct: the film discards a lot of Asimov's philosophical underpinnings, especially the Three Laws of Robotics, in a rush to oversentimentalize the story.

I am certain, then, that my opinion of the film adaptation of I, Robot will engender a similar, albeit inverse, controversy. I have watched the movie many times and have, with all my effort, tried to determine why so many Asimov fans not only dislike the film, but outright loathe it, denouncing it as a poor realization of Asimov's writings. Going into this Summer of Asimov, I knew I would have to wait until I had finished my review of the entire robot series before writing this. That's because, in all honesty, I think Alex Proyas' I, Robot is an excellent adaptation of Asimov that captures the essence of the entire series in just two short hours.

The most common complaint I've come across from Asimov fans is that the movie is a robots-run-amok story, something that Asimov always claimed to avoid. While it is true that Asimov often talked about how exhausting the so-called "Frankenstein complex" could be in robot fiction, he absolutely wrote stories that would fall under that banner, including "Robot AL-76 Goes Astray," "Sally," "Reason," "...That Thou Art Mindful of Him," and of course, the Solarian incident in Robots and Empire. In most of these cases, it is a reinterpretation of the Three Laws that is responsible for the robots turning against humans, and that's exactly what happens in the film version of I, Robot.

I, Robot
Let's not downplay how awesome Alan Tudyk is and how much the robot designs work

Indeed, the logic used by the film's robotic antagonist, V.I.K.I., is largely consistent with Asimov's interpretation of the Three Laws. "The Tercentenary Incident" and "The Evitable Conflict" contain nearly identical bits of reasoning, but even more similar is Daneel Olivaw's Zeroth Law, the ultimate evolution of the Three Laws seen in Robots and Empire. V.I.K.I.'s dialogue explaining her motivation is a simplified version of the debate between Daneel and Giskard at that novel's climax, which I feel the need to remind you ends with the robots determining that it is in humanity's best interest that they irradiate the planet Earth, no doubt sacrificing several individual human lives in the process.

One of the things I love about the film version of I, Robot is how it sticks to many of Asimov's biggest themes, such as the persistence of human prejudice. In that regard, Detective Spooner has a lot in common with Elijah Baley from The Caves of Steel (and Spooner's relationship with Sonny charts a nearly identical arc to Baley's relationship with Daneel), and I think it is pure genius, albeit unsubtle, to cast a person of color in the role. Granted, a lot of your personal opinion of I, Robot will depend on your personal opinion of Will Smith as an actor, and if Smith just doesn't do it for you, that's fine. I can understand how Big Willy Style can be off-putting for some, even if I happen to enjoy it.

I, Robot
Some of the action scenes are a bit silly

With that in mind--and in the interests of charity--I can understand why certain stylistic choices might be responsible for some of the negative opinions out there regarding the film. For example, it is a mid-naughties action movie and thus uses a lot of unnecessary slow-motion and CGI-bloated camera swings that were already starting to feel dated in the post-Matrix world of 2004. It's easy to blame The Matrix for this, but Proyas also directed The Crow and the criminally underappreciated Dark City, which have similar action styles. (I'm currently working on a Patreon bonus video about Alex Proyas, so consider helping me out to see it.)

I stand by my opinion, though, that, from a writing standpoint, this is an accurate depiction of Asimov, even if it tries to squeeze a lot of different ideas from a lot of different stories into one narrative. You can't, of course, directly adapt a short story collection into a single non-anthologized movie, but if you start from the position of creating a new story that is true to Asimov's ideas but not related to his chronology, then I, Robot does a damn good job. It's a murder mystery, like the vast majority of his robot stories, and it unravels intelligently and consistently the way most of Asimov's work does, with some poignant emotional beats and a lot of reasoned exposition.

I, Robot
Moynahan is pretty good as Calvin

Another sticking point is Bridget Moynahan's portrayal of Susan Calvin. Calvin is a beloved--practically worshipped--figure in Asimov circles, and no live action realization of her could possibly match the ludicrously high standards of some fans, who have different interpretations of her character hard-wired into their imaginations. I think Moynahan does a decent job as the emotionally distant robot psychologist that Asimov created, though I admit I do cringe at the end of the film when she gives lovey-dovey eyes to Detective Spooner, a romantic beat that is totally unearned and against character (though maybe fitting her doe-eyed characterization in "Liar!"). That's one thing I won't defend, right on the same small pile as the pointless inclusion of Shia LeBouf and that eye-rollingly ham-fisted Converse product placement. I can also accept criticism around the idea of a robot not bound by the Three Laws, because Asimov never did that.

So yes, even though I freely admit it is imperfect, I absolutely love I, Robot and find it perplexing why so many Asimov fans dismiss it. It delves into a lot of deep philosophical questions raised by Asimov himself; it contains a lot of technological elaborations that Asimov foresaw in his robot stories such as autonomous cars and robotic prosthetics; it is structured like most of the robot narratives; and the central mystery is built around the Three Laws. I don't think it's "dumbed down," nor do I think the action is out of place. (Seriously, if you don't think Asimov's stories are heavy on mundane overviews of the Three Laws alongside a lot of bombastic action, go read them again, especially The Caves of Steel.) At the very least, it is closer to realizing Asimov on the big screen than Bicentennial Man, so if you have room in your heart to love that film, I don't understand why you'd denounce I, Robot.

-e. magill 7/16/2020

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  • The Adventures of Lucky Starr
  • The Complete Robot
  • Bicentennial Man (film)
  • The Caves of Steel
  • The Naked Sun
  • The Robots of Dawn
  • Robots and Empire
  • I, Robot (film)
  • Pebble in the Sky
  • The Stars, Like Dust
  • The Currents of Space
  • The Gods Themselves

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