The maker of a film adaptation has three choices. First, he can try to translate the original medium as faithfully as possible, striving as much as possible to preserve the spirit and content of the original while re-imagining the story as a film. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films exemplify this approach. Second, he could instead try to capture the essence of the original, while largely abandoning the particulars of the original, as in the intelligently satirical but hard-hearted film version of Starship Troopers. Third, he can try to do something original with the material, drawing inspiration from the written story, but creating a unique film with a unique vision. I, Robot is more the the third than the first or second. While little remains of Asimov's stories in this killer robot metropolitan fantasy, the film is informed by, and offers no disrespect, to the good Doctor's creations.
Will Smith plays a Jack Slater-styled maverick cop. If it's old, it's good.
He wears vintage converse, listens to Stevie Wonder, and apparently regards sweet potato pie as a food group. Will Smith's acting is a naturalistic shuffle, a Columbo-like pastiche of mumbling, sarcasm, and unexpected outbursts of charisma and off-balancing interrogation techniques. He delivers his one-liners with unnecessary seriousness. While in Men in Black, he aimed for the ballparks with his power-swinging action-comedy style, here his conscientious style gets in the way, suggesting a character who stands in front of the mirror practicing his zingers like a Tuesday night comic. It's not entirely Smith's fault, as the movie itself can't seem to decide if he's standing in for Bogart or Schwarzenegger, or if the character had a life of his own before the film starts rolling. His performance is intelligent, marred by occasional "Gotcha, suckaz!" moments that remind us that all films made in Hollywood are made in Hollywood.
His opposite, Bridget Moynahan, fits her role more surely. She's an ice queen in the classic action movie tradition, a stiff-necked, self-important, lonely woman who has been absorbed by her work so completely she remains a teenager at heart, awkward, vulnerable, and searching for the approval of others. Moynahan's bug-eyed discomfort and clipped, TV-sarcastic delivery are those of the quintessential comedy sidekick. Nonetheless, in rare moments, she invests the character's personal revelations with warmth, doubt, and a glow of determination and moral purpose. While Smith vacillates between supercop and Bogie, Moynahan seems to have found a happy medium between the Saturday matinee and the midnight marathon, a mixture of fun and humanity with a carriage of seriousness appropriate to what is essentially a monster movie.
The robot, Sonny, is a character himself, a curious, frightened creature that seems capable of anything. Could Sonny be the murderer? We hope not, and yet, we see the grim possibility that a machine might consider itself more than a human being. We understand Sonny's drive to live and grow. As human beings, we know what lengths we would go to to ensure our survival, whatever the moral charges facing us.
A top scientist has been murdered, and there are no human suspects, so the powerful US Robotics corporation (no relation to the modem manufacturers) convinces the powers-that-be to consider his unexpected death a suicide. Spooner (Will Smith) alone searches for the truth of the matter, fueled by hatred for robots and a personal debt to the dead scientist. Dr. Calvin (Moynahan) feels his intrusive investigation is unnecessary, although new pieces of evidence appear that gradually shake her confidence. Robots are programmed by the Three Laws to serve humanity, but Spooner is convinced one of the new NS-5 units, a unique prototype, is the murderer. As Spooner gets deeper to the heart of the mystery, the story explodes with robotic violence. Like all good mysteries, the real question is not "Whodunnit?" but "Why?" The heroes do some things for the wrong reasons, and the villains do some things for the right, rational reasons. Although I, Robot hardly pauses for introspection, it does asks us, "What makes a human being superior to a machine?" There are twists and surprises, although in the end, the movie plays out in the only way it can, a band of brave heroes trying to throw the ring into Mt. Doom while the armies of evil march. And yet, the movie leaves us wanting more. What is the future of humanity? How will we control our machines, and how will we prevent the machines from becoming our masters?
While not as ambitious as A.I., it is more successful, and while not as intelligent as Robocop, it is better played. While the movie does suffer from inconsistencies in mood and philosophy, such hiccups are secondary to the emotionality and drive of the film, its fury of thought as well as action. In moments, I, Robot is a terrifying vision of the future. Too few science-fiction movies manage to scare us with the power of technology, but future shock is vital to the science-fiction story. Modern science-fiction truly began with the detonation at White Sands. The Atomic Age has given way to the Digital Age, but we still have not solved the problem of how to wrest the power of technology from the creatures of the id.