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Aye-Yi-Yi Robot!
© Jayme Lynn Blaschke
March 19, 2004

By now, most dyed-in-the-wood science fiction fans have heard that the new trailer for the I, Robot movie has hit the web. Directed by visual wunderkind Alex Proyas (The Crow and Dark City) and starring Will Smith (Wild, Wild West and Men In Black 2) the movie is set for a July 2 release and is positioned to be one of this summer's blockbuster spectaculars. There's a good deal of misinformation and confusion floating around the internet regarding this film, so if you haven't seen the trailer yet, you can find it here. Go ahead and watch it. I'll wait.

Back already? Good. Since you're a smart and well-read science fiction fan, one thing should be going through your head right now: That doesn't look like any Isaac Asimov book I've ever read. And you'd be right, because despite the iconic title and the catchy use of the Three Laws of Robotics, that ain't anything Asimov ever wrote. Not even close. What we have here is Terminator 3 meets A.I. And I hate to break it to Proyas, but neither of those movies were very good to start with.

The reason I, Robot bears no resemblance to the Asimov book of the same name is because it's not based on Asimov's works at all. It's actually based on a spec script from 1995 written by Jeff Vintar, originally titled Hardwired. This was your fairly standard, run-of-the-mill Hollywood sci-fi shtick which began with a human cop (Smith) investigating a murder mystery in which the prime suspect is a robot and ended with robots running amok and mayhem ensuing.

As far as robot rampages went, Hardwired was apparently a good one, and Bryan Singer hooked up with the project when Disney gained the rights. When that deal ultimately fell through, Fox grabbed the rights and signed Proyas, who almost immediately began referring to the film as I, Robot. Why? Who knows? Maybe he just thought the Asimov title sounded cooler. Or that name-association would boost the box-office potential. Or maybe he'd heard of Walter Jon Williams' legal battles with Wired magazine when they interfered with licensing deals stemming from his novel Hardwired. In any event, preproduction was well under way before Fox actually acquired the rights to Asimov's book in December of 2002.

Coincidentally, that same timeframe saw Academy Award-winning writer Akiva Goldsman brought onto the project for a script rewrite. Cynics among us might suggest that the sum total of Goldsman's job was to sprinkle the Hardwired script with Asimov-speak window-dressing, since Fox now actually had legal access to goodies like the Three Laws and Dr. Susan Calvin. But since we all know Hollywood has the deepest commitment and respect toward source material, I'd like to ask all cynics reading this column to stop spreading such scurrilous rumors immediately.

Recently, some statements from Proyas make me wonder if the filmmakers are beginning to feel a little nervous about their cinematic bait-and-switch tactic. In interviews, Proyas has injected a degree of equivocation into his sound bites, referring to I, Robot as more of a "prequel" or "introduction" to Asimov's works. Right. Call me crazy, but I don't recall Harlan Ellison needing such qualifications attached to his screenplay based on Asimov's work. And unlike the current film, Ellison's I, Robot was deeply rooted in the source material -- after all, Ellison was good friends with Asimov, and consulted with his pal many times during the writing process.

Originally written in the late '70s, Ellison's adaptation was never filmed for two reasons: 1) It lacked the flash-and-dazzle breathless adventure of post-Star Wars SF cinema; and 2) It was dismissed as being too expensive. The first line of reasoning should be transparent enough -- the script was too intelligent for Hollywood suits to grasp. The second, well, let's just say the current version of I, Robot is rumored to tip the budgetary scales somewhere between $150-200 million. And that's a real shame. Ellison's script eventually saw the light of day in 1994, when it was published as I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay by Warner Books. Sadly out of print, the book boasted dazzling concept art and illustrations from artist Mark Zug put together in a gorgeous package. Ellison's script itself lifted the structure of Citizen Kane no less, using the life story of robo-psychologist Susan Calvin to weave together various episodes from the book. I, Robot, you see, is actually a short story collection by Asimov, and not a novel with a single, linear narrative. But Ellison's approach structured the stories in such a way that each one built upon the previous, and taken in the context of Dr. Calvin's life, forms a solid, coherent whole. In contrast, the Dr. Calvin of the Proyas film is played by 31-year-old hottie Bridget Moynahan, who will no doubt serve ably as Will Smith's obligatory love interest.

The final nail in the coffin of confusion arises from the fact that Universal currently owns the rights to Asimov's robot murder-mystery novel The Caves of Steel, and has had that property in development since 2000. The Caves of Steel, in case you're unfamiliar with it, follows New York police detective Elijah Baley, who is reluctantly partnered with a human-looking robot named R. Daneel Olivaw to investigate a murder in which a robot is the prime suspect. If they don't solve the mystery, mayhem will ensue. Sound familiar? Asimov followed up The Caves of Steel with two more solid mysteries reteaming Baley and Olivaw, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn, so the potential for franchise would seem particularly strong with this property. Except that James Vanderbilt (Basic and When Darkness Falls) is handling the screenplay adaptation, and Simon West (Tomb Raider and Con Air) is attached to direct, two names that don't instill me with the least amount of confidence. It's enough to make me wish that the 1964 BBC teleplay starring Peter Cushing as Elijah Baley had survived the BBC vault purges of the 1970s.

Just remember that when I, Robot opens with great fanfare on the Fourth of July weekend, you won't be seeing any of Asimov's work up on the big screen, no matter how many records the film shatters on opening day.

Heck, they've even rewritten the Three Laws of Robotics. If Hollywood really wanted to rewrite the Three Laws to make them better, perhaps they should've come up with something along the lines of:

First Law: A filmmaker may not injure source material, or, through inaction, allow source material to come to harm.

Second Law: A filmmaker must obey orders given it by the author of the source material, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A filmmaker must protect its own artistic integrity as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Thanks to The Lord of the Rings, fantasy's pretty big in Hollywood right now, so who knows -- maybe the laws above have a shot at getting adopted. Yeah, right. And $20 says the "big twist" at the end of I, Robot features Will Smith's character discovering he's actually a robot himself. Hollywood, you kill me!

Jayme Lynn Blaschke is fiction editor for RevolutionSF.

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