Classic science-fiction is one of those strange genres of literature that seem to lend well to film adaptations in their imaginative look at the future and what may lie ahead for the human race. However, it is easy for movie-makers to miss the greater points of these literary minds, either through oversimplification of their original stories or a need to attract a certain kind of audience.
Exhibit A: “I, Robot,” a 2004 movie starring Will Smith based on Isaac Asimov’s 1950 novel, the first in his “Robot” series that looked ahead at a future Earth in which humans create artificial intelligence that ends up running the race. The book was a gradual glance over the course of decades at pivotal moments throughout the rise of robotics, intellectually examining the mental capabilities of these machines and pondering just what it means to be human. The movie has Will Smith uncovering a conspiracy to get superpowered robots to seize control of a futuristic Chicago. Something here got lost in translation.
It’s easiest to begin with the similarities between the two, since there are only a handful. Both versions feature Dr. Susan Calvin, who works intimately with robots and has a unique insight into the way they think and operate. They also include the esteemed Dr. Alfred Lanning, head roboticist at U.S. Robotics. Both take place around the same time, the mid-21st century.
Then, of course, there is the most memorable portion of Asimov’s work: the Three Laws of Robotics, programmed into every piece of artificial intelligence as a safeguard for humanity. They state, basically, that a robot may not harm human beings, must follow an order given to it by a human being and must protect its own existence. All robots and higher-thinking machines in Asimov’s book are built with these laws in place. There is one exception: One of the tales is of Calvin and chief mathematician Peter Bogert trying to find a robot out of dozens that have been built with a modified First Law to better work in their task in orbit. This hide-and-seek story is harkened to in a scene early in the movie, when the robot suspected of killing Lanning is trying to hide after being chased by Will Smith’s character, Detective Spooner.
Those chases are indicative of the change in tone the movie made to Asimov’s story. Smith plays a detective who because of a prior incident hates robot with an extreme prejudice. He gets caught up in a massive plot to have the new class of robots, ones built without the Three Laws altogether, overthrow the humans. Spooner is aided by an unlikely ally, a robot named Sonny built to have dreams and emotions. The movie ignores the intellectual discussions of the book in favor of Hollywood platitudes and general pseudo-philosophies that could have come from any generic summer blockbuster.
In Asimov’s work, the vast majority of humans are afraid of what artificial intelligence could mean to their livelihood, leading robots to be banned on Earth and usable only on space missions (field tests, specifically, for most of the tales spun throughout the book). In the movie, seemingly everyone on Earth has a robot pet/servant, and Spooner’s paranoia seems like a totally bizarre and ridiculous concept. It’s one of the chief underlying reasons the movie feels totally detached from the source material.