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I, Robot: Positronically Implausible

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From the transparent, gratuitous opening shower and pumping iron scenes, Detective Spooner (Will Smith) is showing off for the ladies in what we all know will fundamentally be another robots gone bad movie.

All the trailers and secrecy in the world can’t shroud the obvious facts that this is a plotline seen so many times in film history that there just has to be something fresh to make it come off well. I was hopeful, as I’m sure other Asimov fans will be too and that is the slant for this review.

Apparently the screenwriters — credited to Jeff Vintar, titling and inspiration paying homage to Isaac Asimov, but reworked by others — were all too fascinated with Robin Williams gripping human robot portrayal in Bicentennial Man and Arnold Schwarznegger in Terminator and have tried — and failed — to faithfully reproduce either the humanity, drama and/or interest in either of those storylines. Instead, viewers are left with a somewhat shallow, robot-hating protagonist (Smith) running around in a cliched plotline that has more holes in it than a gopher-infested backyard.

They do get the action stuff right though. Well, sort of.

Somewhere the late, great Isaac Asimov is muttering uncontrollably over the butchering of his penned famous Three Laws of Robotics. The gist of these Laws is that robots will be manufactured with their positronic brains being forced to adhere to these Laws. It will be a part of the chip and made so that it cannot be reprogrammed. But I, Robot shows absolutely zero respect for these Laws or to Asimov’s vision of their implementation.

According to I, Robot plot logic (er, illogic) there is a way to get around this with — say it isn’t so — programming? Asimov postulated that the Laws would be enforced through hardware and yet I, Robot talks about a daily computer uplink — which turns the blue robots chests to red and calls home to the mother brain — as being the ticket for Viki, the super brain, to reprogram the bots to do its bidding. Hardware being reprogrammed? Ok, ok, so maybe it’s some super futuristic flash ROM type memory, but tech geeks immediately are going to be doubtful of the technology angle and that any serious robot makers in the present or future would ever allow entire reprogramming through a daily — and quite hackable — network uplink. Doh!

So the writers have provided an all too convenient and totally contrived plot device for getting around these Laws which goes against everything that Asimov preached in his writings and beliefs about how robots could safely and usefully be introduced into society.

Could things go wrong even with these Laws implemented with Asimov’s vision? Sure, that’s what his great stories were all about (go read them if you haven’t), but this foundation is almost entirely missing from the movie which bears the same title. In my opinion, that’s a travesty.

I’m absolutely certain that Mr. Asimov were he still alive would be at the very least disappointed that his name, and book title were used like a kitty litter box. He was all about responsible science and I, Robot is all about popcorn thrills and how we should all fear the coming of the bots. Please. There were so many other stories that could have been written that viewers didn’t need this hackneyed action flick exercise for the zillionth viewing.

Hollywood has been going downhill in the summer blockbuster department for awhile, opting
for fancy, expensive CGI effects as opposed to skilled acting and writing. When and if the day comes that the movie studios get hurt in the wallet over this practice, moviegoers will not have to suffer through these cool special effects with subpar acting and anemic plotlines.

On the positive side these special effects are addictive, and I’d be not forthcoming if I said I didn’t enjoy them. The robots look very intriguing with a special calming blue-white metallic design that is very much like the suits from Tron and yet when
the bots need to be menacing they deliver with that eerie red glow chest plate. Nice effect!

I honestly thought from the trailers of I, Robot that this would be a really cool movie that was more faithful to the outstanding Asimov stories, but I was totally wrong: it’s really just another poorly realized science fiction summer blockbuster vehicle for a typed Will Smith. Seen Men In Black or its sequel? Then you’ve seen Will Smith
acting already. Consider I, Robot sort of an unofficial third sequel. The names and dialogue are different but the character is the same.

And what about the acting?

Missing is any chemistry with another actor like with Men in Black there was the gruff, but brilliant Tommy Lee Jones, but here is only the limp skilled scientist Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) too often muddling through her lines as emotionlessly as reading off cue cards.

Seen Terminator or any of its sequels (particular T2)? Been there done that.

James Cromwell posthumously provides some skilled acting as Dr. Alfred Lanning, but there
just isn’t enough of him. The devices used to insert him into the story are clever, but serve as one-way communication to the audience. Will Smith just seems lost through most of the movie, searching for somebody to passionately interact with before the credits roll.

I found myself just not caring all that much about the protagonist or any of the characters (including humanity) despite the well intentioned but failed attempt to provide backstory for why Detective Spooner is a robophobe.

So what’s to actually like about this movie? The sound effects are effective and the scoring is well done. The timing of the sounds and suspense are good. The action scenes are engaging and what viewers will expect from a summer blockbuster. The fight scenes are
especially cool but again just way too unrealistic. This all adds up to three stars at least to me, but I knocked off one star because of so many moments where the plausibility was strained.

For example, one scene has Detective Spooner incredibly fighting off hordes of robots while driving 125 MPH and then spinning inside his car fast enough to make a seasoned astronaut puke. Time and again, I said to myself: never happen. Sure, most movies can
never happen, that’s the point: escape reality and have fun, but stretch plausibility too much and it ruins the experience. That’s the coup de grace with I, Robot.

Bottom line: if you are/were a fan or purist of Asimov’s stories and/or expecting something faithful to the stories then forget it. If you are looking for something fun and aren’t concerned about plausibility and/or have never even read the Asimov stories, then you might wait for it on DVD or catch the matinee. The theater we went to was barely a
quarter-full as opposed to Spiderman 2 on opening day being completely full.

As a self-admitted geek, I was positronically disappointed. Grade: D

Note: I’m on vacation currently but took time out to see this movie and thought I’d pass along this review. It also appears at Things That … Make You Go Hmm

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About TDavid

  • Mac Diva

    Will Smith’s best movie work is considered to be in Ali and Six Degress of Separation. I also think he was remarkable in Independence Day, almost as remarkable as one of my favorite actors, Brent Spiner. And, let’s not overlook that despite detractors, Smith does get plenty jiggy on his better raps. I think he has earned his keep.

    Oops! I mentioned Muhammad Ali, a true uppity Negro in his prime. Another ‘she can’t say that’ for your list, eh, TDavid?

  • Andrew C. Quinn

    Simply judging by the TV trailers, I don’t really see how anyone could have gone into this thinking it was going to be pure and true Asimov.
    The shoot-em-up scenes that you said so disagreed with the Asimov works… well, they were in the previews!

    Also, about Will Smith… of course his character will be the same as MiB, it’s been the same through Men In Black, Enemy of the State, and Independence Day (Law enforcement or military type caught up in the rush of a conspiracy, gets sucked into it, etc.) Again, I don’t see how you could really expect much else from him at this point, in a film like this.

    Last quip – Don’t speak for ALL geeks! After all, what evidence do you have that there wasn’t some brilliant security device preventing the mainframe from being hacked?… But that’s off the point, a tiny line that is spoken off-handedly and is irrelevant to the plot. To me, the underlying Cautionary Tale-type warning on technology was all TOO plausible. And that’s what counts.

  • TDavid

    O’ resident comment shit stirrer – I think Will Smith did an outstanding job in Ali (his best work I’ve seen, in fact) but that’s not the film I reviewed here, yanno?

    And MD are you trying to suggest that Smith is not typed as a science fiction action flick guy?

    Perhaps he should go more the path of Denzel Washington if anybody will ever take him seriously on film. Lest we all forget the masterpiece (sarcasm) Wild Wild West that has taken Smith a couple years to live down. Personally I didn’t care for Smith in MIB or Independence Day. I would have rather seen Jamie Foxx or Chris Rock opposite Tommy Lee Jones in MIB if I’m being honest. Musically, Smith has a good voice and the dude is buff and in good shape so I can see why the ladies might be into him, but I don’t see where pictures of him in the shower have much of anything to do with I, Robot.

    Then again the same thing could be said for a hundred horror flicks where women are in the nude just before getting wacked. It’s eye candy for the ladies (former) and men (latter).

  • Shark


  • TDavid

    Andrew – Why don’t you go drop down a few bones and actually see the film and then come back to this review and LMK how much of what I wrote you (still) disagree with?

    Otherwise if you are/were basing your commentary going solely off seeing the trailers than you are not even in the same ballpark for judging the film.

    In the meantime, however, thank you for reinforcing the whole point — they whored out Asimov’s good name and pissed on his fanbase with a jumbled mess of implausible plot and structure.

    We all knew, yes, obviously it wasn’t going to be an Isaac Asimov film — the guy (RIP) has been dead for a little awhile — but if they are going to use Asimov’s name and title of his famous collection of stories than at least they should get the implementation of the Three Laws of Robotics correct. Shaking those laws and their implementation destroys any plausible future scenario involving these robots.

    There are many, many fascinating scientific discussions about the future of robots, and I’ve blogged some of them like: Robots, Unemployment and the future impact of image processing. For those who are interested in this subject, it goes far deeper than was explored in this rather weak script.

    Fans of Asimov know he would never have put his name on this Hollywood action trash. I was really hoping that somewhere buried in the action crap there would be some semblance of the stories I so enjoyed as a child. Total mistake :(

    Whoever is minding Asimov’s estate should be taken out back and whipped for giving up his name for this garbage.

    I gave the example of the car chase as an example of just one (of many) implausible scenarios in this movie. Implausibility is the main problem with this film and that was something that Asimov would not have had trouble with had he penned the screenplay adaption. I could go on and on if I really want to totally spoil what IMO is already damaged goods.

    Despite my negative review of the film, I really, really wanted to like this film. I looked forward to it but what I expected to get out of it and what I saw was a letdown.

    Let’s see: take a car and spin it 360 degrees at over 100 miles per hour fighting against an army of robots and then have the car be successfully driven out of the way of danger, only to crash into a concrete barricade and leave the protagnist with a few cuts above his head and a little blood? Yeah, that’s real plausible.

    And as a viewer — geek or not (and I don’t speak for “all” geeks so not sure where you got that) I understand the concept of filling in the holes and being able to think through some of the gaps in plot but there are just too many holes in this movie.

    And as for using trailers to gauge the quality of a movie? I’ve never found that a successful barometer of any movie. Practically any movie can be edited down and mixed for a two minute clip that looks interesting. Monkies could make interesting trailers if given enough time.

    (that was a joke)

    Alien vs. Predator looks like the next Spiderman if you go by the trailers that much though. I like the whole idea of pitting bad guys against each other. If interested, check out what I had to say about Jason vs. Freddy

  • TDavid

    Here’s something Asimov — who died on April 6, 1992 BTW — actually said about his robot stories:

    “In the 1920’s science fiction was becoming a popular art form for the first time ….. and one of the stock plots …. was that of the invention of a robot …. Under the influence of the well-known deeds and ultimate fate of Frankenstein and Rossum, there seemed only one change to be rung on this plot – robots were created and destroyed their creator … I quickly grew tired of this dull hundred-times-told tale …. Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge? …. I began in 1940, to write robot stories of my own – but robot stories of a new variety …… My robots were machines designed by engineers, not pseudo-men created by blasphemers”

    He believed the whole robots turn on man plot was hackneyed well over 80 years ago.

    They could have made this movie so much better. There were many great stories that could have been woven into this movie so as not to need to turn it into a “been there, done that before” story.

    IMO, a wasted opportunity.

  • Christian Rovner

    I thought you might enjoy knowing that a new website campaign, “3 Laws Unsafe,” which critiques Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, has just been launched by the nonprofit I work at.

    Here’s a link to the meat of it:

    Thanks for your excellent blog. Take care.

  • TDavid

    Great stuff, Christian. Thanks for sharing :)

  • Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    TDavid, i myself am also a self-confessed geek, but one of filmic persuasion. As such, although I, Robot was riddled with holes and had some truly diabolical expositionairy dailogue stretches, i found the visual invention to be stunning.

    This was a great review though, and i agree with pretty much everything you say, except for the part about summer blockbusters being on a downward slide. The Hulk, Spiderman 1 & 2, Pirates Of The Carribean, Hellboy and loads that i’m forgetting have all been exceptional.

    But thoughtful stuff here, and keep up the good work, is what The Duke would ask.