Isaac Asimovs fame amongst the general public grew in the 1950s with the publication of his various short stories in collected book form his robot stories being collected in I, Robot (1950) and The Rest of the Robots (1964) and publication of the Foundation trilogy (1951-3), as well as original works like The End of the Eternity (1955), The Caves of Steel (1957), The Naked Sun (1957), the latter two also being robot novels. In the 1960s, Asimov began to move away from science-fiction, despite occasional returns to the genre especially The Gods Themselves (1972), his single best novel, and creation of the science-fiction magazine Isaac Asimovs Science-Fiction Magazine (1977 ) into an extraordinarily prodigious output of non-fiction books. The 1980s marked Isaac Asimovs return to science-fiction proper in a series of overinflated novels that either expanded classic short stories or sequelised and tied all of his other works together in a unified universe. Isaac Asimovs stories read less well today the characterisation is wooden and often sexist yet the one thing that does stand through is the beauty of his ideas. Asimov was a ferocious intellect and his books and stories are always works of ideas his robot stories, more than anything, play like detective stories in problem-solving logic.
Isaac Asimov had an uneven relationship with the media. He had several stories adapted for the British science-fiction anthology tv series Out of the Unknown (1965-71); acted as scientific advisor on Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979); served as scientific advisor on the tv series Salvage 1 (1979); was hired by Harvey Weinstein to write the English-language script for the US release of the French animated film Gandahar/Light Years (1988); came up with the premise of the excellent but short-lived tv series Probe (1988); sold Nightfall to Roger Corman who made it into two cheap B-budget films, Nightfall (1988) and Nightfall (2000); and gave loose inspiration to the tv movie The Android Affair (1996). Asimov is also frequently misidentified as having written the classic science-fiction film Fantastic Voyage (1966) or that the film is based on his book (even the Internet Movie Database repeats this misnomer), when in fact all that he wrote was the novelisation of the film. The only full-fledged Asimov adaptation on screens prior to I, Robot had been Chris Columbuss excruciatingly bland Bicentennial Man (1999).
Of course, numerous Isaac Asimov works have been mentioned as film projects over the years, including The End of Eternity and Asimovs Lucky Starr juveniles. Foundation has often been mentioned as a film project but has defeated many, the problem largely being that it is not one story but a collection of several, spanning a vast period of galactic history. (It would make a fabulous mini-series some day). The most famous of these planned projects was an adaptation of I, Robot written by Harlan Ellison, which was for a time announced under director Irvin Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) circa 1980. The film never emerged and Harlan Ellison later serialised the script in Asimovs and then published it in book form as I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay (1995). The Harlan Ellison script is highly regarded and is certainly more faithful to the book than this version. The problem with any film is that the book is not a single novel but a fixup composed of nine short stories. Harlan Ellison at least makes Susan Calvin into a more central character and tells several of the stories in a series of flashbacks. (There was also the hit album I, Robot (1978) from The Alan Parsons Project, loosely based on Asimovs books. Subsequent to Asimovs death in 1992, his estate authorised a series of novels set in the Robot universe).
All of which brings us to I, Robot 2004. One approached the film with equal parts excitement and dismay. First there was the credit on the poster that informed us the film was merely suggested by the book by Isaac Asimov. Here one learns that the film originally began as a script for a movie named Hardwired, written by screenwriter Jeff Vintar, that was originally developed under Bryan Singer, director of X-Men (2000). The project was then taken on at 20th Century Fox who had acquired the rights to the Isaac Asimov book and requested that Jeff Vintars screenplay be retailored to fit the title of the book. Vintar had promisingly co-written the script for the excellent Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). However, the screenplay was then assigned to Akiva Goldsman for an overhaul, which made hopes for the project sink entirely. Goldsman may have won an Oscar for his adaptation of the blandly overrated A Beautiful Mind (2001) but elsewhere has created a trail of destruction whenever he has touched genre material as writer or occasionally producer of the likes of Batman Forever (1995), the unmentionable Batman & Robin (1997), Lost in Space (1998), Practical Magic (1998), Jonah Hex (2010), Rings (2017) and the subsequent Will Smith genre films I Am Legend (2007) and Hancock (2008), as well as the terrible tv mini-series adaptation of another classic science-fiction novel, Arthur C. Clarkes Childhoods End (2015).
On the other hand, one gained hope from the fact that in the directors chair was Alex Proyas. The Egyptian-born, Australian resident Alex Proyas was a music video director who has first made the obscure arty post-holocaust film Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989) and then went onto the soaring screen adaptation of The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998), which is probably the single finest science-fiction film of the 1990s. He followed I, Robot with Knowing (2009) about a time capsule that offers predictions of the future, and Gods of Egypt (2016). Mindedly, when it comes to adapting classic works of science-fiction literature, to Alex Proyass disfavour, he also lent his name as executive producer to the abortion made of Philip Jose Farmers books with the mini-series Riverworld (2003).
Alas, there is disappointingly little of Isaac Asimov that ends up on screen in I, Robot. The film appropriates a number of Asimvovian names the robot psychologist Susan Calvin, Alfred Lanning, the company US Robotics; while the famous Three Laws of Robotics are made into a central facet of the film but the result is a far cry from any of Asimovs robot stories. Crucially, Akiva Goldsman fails to understand what most of Asimovs Robot stories were about. They were not big-budget action films, they were logic puzzles more akin to detective thrillers. Moreover, the reason that Isaac Asimov came up with the Three Laws of Robotics was that he was sick of cliché stories that frequented pulp science-fiction of the 1930s of robots going amok and turning on humanity the Three Laws of Robotics were designed as a series of programming commands to keep robots as humanitys servant, with the stories being about various problems that occur in interpretation of these laws. Akiva Goldsman fails to understand this. The story is certainly a whodunnit of sorts that travels along similar paths to Asimovs Robot stories in asking how a robot that is programmed not to could kill, but the solution of the story is irrelevant to this programming dilemma. Moreover, I, Robot is exactly the type of robots amok story that Asimov set out to ensure that his stories were not (indeed, the film frequently and fragrantly defies the First Law that a robot may not harm a human being), while the climax of the film trades in the dated clichés of amok AIs and is all but a rehash of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969) with an AI deciding that humanity has to be protected for its own good.
I, Robot also comes made at a time when the present has rendered many of Isaac Asimovs ideas obsolete. The film casually contains a number of presumptions about its future that did not even exist when Asimov was writing the internet, nanotechnology, even the notion of a corporate conspiracy. Asimov wrote in the 1940s when the idea of a robot of intelligent machinery taking anthropomorphic form seemed a realistic extrapolation. In reality, automation and cybernetics have gone entirely the other way non-anthropomorphic machinery in the form of the computer has skyrocketed, while robotics is left struggling with still trying to make a robot walk on two legs and be able to recognise patterns in order to see. The concept of a humaniform robot is generally regarded as being impractical in terms of design, with wheels and tractors usually being seen as more desirable forms of mobility. Any humanoid robot that ever comes out is more likely to be a design conceit than anything else. In artificial intelligence research, the fields of distributed intelligence and neural networking ie. of intelligences evolving rather than simply being given a series of programming commands is seen as being the more likely path than the Three Laws. (There have been a number of papers written as to why The Three Laws would not work in programming terms, which make for interesting reading).
It is best to regard I, Robot as not being an Isaac Asimov film at all. On its own terms, I, Robot is passable science-fiction and in this sense Akiva Goldsman delivers an okay script. The future presented is a disappointingly generic one, which the script does little to explore in any sociological depth. One of the films pluses is some spectacular effects set-pieces with robots attacking Will Smiths car en masse while at high speed, and the climax with Smith and Bridget Moynahan scaling the tower complex as hundreds of robots come after them. However, there is the disappointing sense that the film is setting these up as spectacular set-pieces for the sake of it, rather than because the script demands it. The best scenes tend to be those where the film is not trying to be another big CGI effects spectacular. There is a fine sequence with Will Smith trying to locate Sonny while he is hiding in a robot factory amid 1000 other identical robots all lined up in geometric perfection. The CGI also does an excellent job in managing to project a series of perfectly human yet also very alien expressions on the face of Sonny. Beyond that, I, Robot has to be regarded as a disappointment.