I sort of described it early on as a documentary of the future, because I really wanted to steer away from Hollywood sort of theatrical kind of approaches to the future… So I think people will find the world strangely familiar.
—Alex Proyas, “The Making of I, Robot”
Baby, you can’t be looking in the shadows all the time.
—Granny (Adrian Ricard), I, Robot
“We talked a lot about the Three Laws and whether or not we needed to put them on cards,” says screenwriter Akiva Goldsman at the start of his DVD commentary for I, Robot. This discussion ensued, he says, because anyone remotely familiar with science fiction will know them anyway, while those viewers who don’t know (those who are coming to see Will Smith in a shower, for instance) will feel lost no matter how many times you insert the Three Laws into the film (in opening titles, and again, in a dialogue scene). The problem worked its way into the film’s framework, as director Alex Proyas (accompanying Goldsman on the audio track) recalls their decision to use a noir-ish plot and a homicide detective, Smith’s Del Spooner, as a “way in.” “For a movie audience,” Proyas asserts, “It’s always better to come in from a slightly outside perspective, and to a certain extent have things explained to you.”
This perspective is clear from the first scene, when Spooner wakes in a retro-looking apartment with Stevie Wonder on his cd player. Young and buff as he looks, Del’s an old-school cop who resists the wave of this future, when robots are everywhere. “The trick was to not be too on the nose here,” says Goldsman regarding Del. “We wanted to show somebody who was just hi side of irrational, so as the movie progressed, he could be perceived as somebody who slid over the edge into irrationality.” This as you’re watching Del sprint through the streets of 2035 Chicago to chase down a robot he believes as snatched a purse, only to discover that this robot is guided by the laws, and is in fact returning the purse to the woman from whom it was stolen, by a human. In other words, the robot is doing Del’s job for him.
This introduction to Del’s dilemma prompts Proyas’ observation: “This guy is in suspended animation emotionally, in his life.” (Here’s where the “suggested by” Isaac Asimov’s legendary robot stories aspect comes in—as Asimov had no such “humanizing” silliness in his version.) Del’s perennial distress stems from a recurring nightmare, brought on by real-life trauma (revealed in a first scene nightmare, from which he awakes with a start): a cute little white girl drowns as a robot saves Del from drowning instead. The robot’s choice was somehow rational and correct, but Del is haunted, and blames all robots for his feelings. His resistance to technology is made very visible: he’s got books, old-fashioned dumbbells, a vintagey leather jacket, and black leather vintage Chucks (date: “2004,” he announces proudly to the first person who asks). A man of habits and no frills, Del’s a standard movie detective stuck way in the future.
To illustrate, following his bad dream, he spends a few minutes each morning with his grandmother (Adrian Ricard), whom he adores. He’s equally warm and clever with his boss, Lieutenant John Bergin (Chi McBride), who both worries about and teases his mentee. “Are you sure you’re ready to be back?” he asks Del, suggesting he has secrets. Or, as his grandmother puts it, he’s got “issues.” “Baby,” she coos, “You get too worked up about [robots], too full of fear; you got to let the past be the past.”
Del’s unhidden prejudice against robots, the era’s much extolled slave labor force, makes him dislike out of hand the idea that a next generation of robots, manufactured and marketed by the monopolistic U.S. Robotics, is on its way. Soon, every household will include at least one robot, designed to look after diurnal needs and provide companionship. The new model, the NS-5, is sleeker, shinier, more-iMac-like than the NS-4, and its popularity marks the company’s thorough commercial and cultural success (and makes for a few scenes where robots fill the space, so many of them that they look lined up like an army: “One of us,” they little to say, ookily, in unison).
At the same time, as Proyas notes, the model for the NS-5 was Maria in metropolis, because “that character had an elegance and a fluidity that robots really have moved away from. I think it has something to do with Deco design, everything was very elegant and quite feminine… We felt that it was less overtly threatening in terms of having this creature in your home and having it looking after the kids or whatever the robot is supposed to be able to do… But when they turn, there’s a speed, and this concept of fluidity and grace, [that] can also be quite scary.”
Since the robots are, according to Asimov’s socio-political and scientific architectures, eminently “safe,” Del’s apprehension appears irrational. But it also underlines the film’s interest (at first anyway) in Asimov’s fundamental questions. The “I” of his title refers variously, to self-consciousness (for they are evolving); reflections between robots and humans; and moral responsibilities. The “I” of the film’s title is complicated by business: the movie is “Hollywood,” the action is mostly digital, as are the Gollumized robots.
Rather cleverly, the visuals are all about reflection and self-reflection: you know what you’re watching, and evaluate digital quality even as you note plot. And that plot aligns you with Del, whose prejudice will prove both right and wrong. As Goldsman puts it, “It’s harder and harder to make straight-ahead sci-fi and straight-ahead comic book movies… Generally what’s happened is we’re veering away from emotional truth in this material, short of showing it through a comedic lens. And that’s unfortunate because you can show emotional truth through comedy, but there are a lot of other ways. Science fiction was very often a way of using novelty for telling dramatic stories, not comedic stories.”
And so Smith (whom Goldsman calls “just a good human”) plays Del as a hybrid, a tough but wounded guy with smart-ass sense of humor. When he’s called to a crime scene, at the USR headquarters, he learns that the company’s chief designer, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), is dead, having plummeted from a window many stories above. Del must not only solve the crime, but must also deal with the clues and roundabout instructions left behind by the doctor, who “trusts” Del to “ask the right questions” (here, trust shapes intra-human interactions, beyond the logic allotted to robots, even when one of those humans is dead, speaking via holographic recording). In other words, there’s a big fat plot afoot, initiated in what Lanning terms “the ghost in the machine.”
Del’s mission, more or less, is to identify that ghost, or at least figure out his relationship to it. This entails the requisite run-ins with the corporate suit, Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), prickly CEO of USR. He, harrumph, resents the implication that he has something to do with the good doctor’s murder (which Robertson insists is suicide, even though there’s no way the old man could have thrown himself through the safety glass). Del suspects Robertson of murder, or more precisely instructing a robot, named Sonny (Alan Tudyk, CGI-ed and “the soul of Sonny,” says Proyas), to do the deed. The possibility that Sonny (who is, you hear repeatedly, “unique”) has done this, whether by order or error, is a disaster by definition, given that precious and supposedly inviolable first rule.
Del learns the extent of this disaster from his guide at USR, a “young version” of one of Asimov’s most fully realized characters, robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan). As Proyas notes, this character is quite changed from Asimov’s, no longer a “‘50s type of gal,” but a potential love object for the hero. And that means, sadly, that Calvin is less realized here, and spends a few too many of her onscreen minutes near tears, offering that usual movie-girl look that conveys—at once—vulnerability, frustration, realization, and outrage. The more Susan comes to believe Del’s suspicions, the less she can keep faith with her own history, the company, and the robots she thinks she knows so well. Her conversion confirms his self.
Del’s suspicions are repeatedly confirmed for you in the film’s many, redundant action sequences (though Goldsman suggests that Del embodies a “darkness,” as in, “Does thinking you’re the last sane man in the world make you crazy?”). Even as he’s being told his prejudice is unfounded, he’s repeatedly attacked by robots, the “bad” ones marked by glowing red lights in their chests and behaviors not a little derivative of the first Terminator at his film’s end. These green-screen jamborees are utterly summer-blockbustery (or maybe just Will-Smithy), but they also tend to substitute for ideas. Though Proyas has shown himself to be adept at maintaining connections among effects and complex concepts (see: Dark City), this $105 million production is inconsistent, prone to deploy slow-motioned sprints, leaps, or crashes through glass instead of emotional or political developments.
In the threeway relationship among Sonny, Susan, and Del, the film achieves its most compelling questions about identity and desire, but this relationship is cut short, or rather, reduced to brief exchanges, during action scenes (“Save me!”) or during the film’s versions of conversations. “You are the dumbest smart person I have ever met,” Del tells Susan. She comes back, “And you are the dumbest dumb person I’ve ever met.” Um, so there.
Their inevitable reconciliation leads directly to I, Robot‘s actionated finale. By this time, the film’s efforts to resolve its own wide-ranging “issues” concerning race and class systems have become transparent and tedious. The commercial machine’s relationship to its ghosts remains intractable and self-evident.