I, Robot

Year: 2004
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Alex Proyas
Writer: Isaac Asimov
Cast: Will Smith, Alan Tudyk, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride
Alex Proyas goes big time studio system hack, while Hollywood takes Asimov down the Philip K Dick school of adaptations; make a formula action film out of a life's work of challenging literary ideas.

Maybe that's a bit harsh. I, Robot is a good movie with outstanding action, Will Smith's signature 80's-era, black action comedy-inspired wisecrack persona, cool visions of the future and as much of a message as any event movie allows.

It just seems somehow disrespectful for scriptwriters to plumb the work of writers like Dick, Asimov and Bradbury for big budget extravaganzas - work that was written off as paranoid sci-fi for nerds in its time but which we now realise speaks volumes about the state of our society.

The irony is that, just like Paycheck was a mundane product of the blockbuster factory without any sense of the presence of director John Woo, so I, Robot is completely devoid of Alex Proyas' personality - the dark, cyberpunk aesthetic that underpinned The Crow and Dark City.

Maybe after the embarrassing shambles that was Garage Days, the promise of hired limos and lunch at Mortons in return for a straight studio piece was too much for Proyas to resist.

Just witness the in-camera advertising tied up between producers and product placement executives within the first 15 minutes. No less than five major brand names are seen, one written quite obtusely into the script. What the suits don't realise is that, rather than falling invisibly into the flow of the film, it jars uncomfortably.

The plot is an Asimov's greatest hits compilation. If you've read many of his novels or short stories (including the novel I, Robot), you'll recognize many of the sequences, characters and ideas in the film. But Asimov was more a theoretician than an adventurist. He was less interested in robots themselves and what they can do for society than his famous three laws of robotics. Many of his stories dealt with the conflicts or problems that arise in robot behaviour because of the three laws.

Proyas, Smith & Co use the three laws as the backdrop but the plot soon descends into an amalgam of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and the concept of the machine rebellion behind The Terminator.

Police detective Del Spooner (Smith) seems like the only man alive that doesn't trust robots in Chicago, 2035. The NS-4 model of US Robotics - Asimov's model for Microsoft while Bill Gates was still ripping off Apple products in his garage - is everywhere, walking dogs, collecting rubbish, generally serving humanity.

On the cusp of an enormous global rollout of the NS-5, a more plasticine, more human successor to the clunky metal NS-4, USR's eccentric head scientist and the man who virtually invented modern robotics - Alfred Lanning - throws himself to his death from his laboratory window at USR.

Or does he? Reluctantly assisted by robot psychiatrist Dr Susan Calvin (Moynahan), they disturb a robot at the crime scene who exhibits very unrobotic behaviour by fighting them both and trying to escape.

Spooner, with his innate hatred of robots, just wants to pin Lanning's death on the robot, an apparently far advanced model with a personality, mortal consciousness and who ignores the three laws.

He has a very Hollywood past that explains both his hatred of robots and his connection to Lanning, which explains why he got the call about his old friend's death. With the use of holographic projections that answer Spooner's questions, Lanning is leading him further towards the truth (all for dramatic effect - he could have just left him a note explaining the whole thing).

Meanwhile, Calvin tries to get to the deeper ramifications before millions of NS-5's are released, coming up against the political forces facing CEO Lawrence Roberts (Greenwood), and dealing with Lanning's system-wide security and intelligence program, VIKI (Virtual Integrated Kinetic Interface).

Under suspicion from every side including his own department, Spooner asks Calvin to help him get to the bottom of the mystery.

The effects are excellent, but again, Proyas has abandoned the gritty approach that made The Crow so outstanding, and the whole thing is a bit too neat and clean. And didn't someone at 20th Century Fox realise that blatantly ripping off Matrix bullet time would make people laugh instead of gasp.

Smiths' scattershot dialogue is funny but the lines and character are no real stretch for him. Spooner could have been Arnold Scwarzenegger playing straight, or Tom Cruise playing Minority Report's John Anderton over again with no real difference to the story.

As an action adventure, it's great - huge explosions, car chases, gunplay and monster robots see to that quite ably. It's just a shame Asimov's ideas are the vessel to serve such unoriginal concepts.

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