Will Smith, or, ‘One of these things is not like the other.’

by TheLitCritGuy




Let’s take a moment and talk about intellectual property and how books, comics or graphic novels get made into movies for a little while. For those who don’t know how this sometimes strange process works let me explain for a second. Someone, let’s say an author or creative type has a great idea and writes their book – unless they were already an established author they now have a lot more work to do. First they have to find a literary agent who recognises that the novel they’ve written is worthwhile. Next comes a deal with a publisher who is the one who turns the manuscript into a book, along with the editors, the jacket designers, the advertisers and the people who promote the work. Next comes the risky part when the book is published and the public get to make their choice as to whether or not they like it – and if the publishers have done their job well and the book gathers some momentum and the author is not without some talent then it might, MIGHT just turn into a success.

Then what happens is that a movie studio comes a-calling and what was once yours gets turned, via the medium of a large amount of money, into ‘intellectual property’ or IP. Basically, the book or characters or concept can be ‘optioned’ off to the studio who pays the most, leaving you with the original book but now the movie studio are the only people allowed to use YOUR ideas in a movie setting. Quite a few authors are fairly happy about this arrangement as it allows them a healthy and much-needed boost to their bank accounts and allows them to stay inside writing books. Studios like it because it means that what they’ve bought already has name recognition with the public and as such they can whip up a marketing storm which is what passes for fun in a big Hollywood studio. Now, if all this sounds like authors get a pretty sweet deal, please bear in mind that I am grossly simplifying and generalizing the process and have missed out one important detail for author types. This process does not necessarily need you involved. You don’t even have to be alive for it to happen.  In fact, from the studios point of view it is often better if you are dead because you don’t have to be paid. Hear that authors of the world!? MOVIE STUDIOS WANT YOU DEAD! (Sorry. Not at all true…all hyperbole etc. etc.) If an author has been dead for long enough then the work generally is released from copyright  – hopefully that explains why there have been so many adaptations of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and so forth; not just because they are classics but because from an economic stand point they are easy to get into production.

And you can usually tell that an author hasn’t had much to do with the film adaptation when you see it because it usually ends up looking like this week’s film which is one of the most naked money-grubbing and shallow adaptations I’ve ever sat through. I just wish Will Smith wasn’t in it…

So, in 2004 I, Robot came out, that used the name and the key concepts of the classic collection by one of the greatest sci-fi writers of all time, Isaac Asimov. Now, let’s be clear – this is by no means a bad film; it’s not great but it is a lot of fun. Will Smith is, as always, great to watch and the action is fun and the CGI and effects are cool and it even has a few cool action movie lines. So that’s good. But as an adaptation – it is simply god-awful.

As per usual, trying to avoid all the major spoilers and let you know what happens in the film and how this differs from the book. The film follows a cynical detective Del Spooner in Chicago in 2035 as anthropomorphic robots have become common place. These robots are supposed to be failsafe and utterly devoted to the protection of humanity but following the apparent suicide of the head of the world’s largest robotics company, Spooner slowly unravels the conspiracy and the danger the human race is in.

The film is little more than a string of action sequences strung together by little exposition – as with all action films – and what it does is very well executed. The cast all do good work but have very little to do with the book so the majority of them I won’t mention. The only one that shares a characteristic with those in the book is Bridget Monahan’s character Dr Susan Calvin. Her character is a robo-psychologist whose job title is fairly self-explanatory, (I hope) and her interest in the mind is reflected in her complete lack of interest in emotions and I think the film’s version of Calvin is actually a good adaptation from the source material. As for the rest of the film, I think the extent that it doesn’t work as an adaptation will become clearer when one turns to the book it’s based on.

The book is a collection of short stories published in serial form and published again as a complete collection in 1950. As a whole they serve as a history of the rise of robotics from the opening chapter dealing with the first primitive robots used as childcare and finishing with the world being run by machines for the benefit of humankind. The stories are framed as an interview with the retiring Dr Susan Calvin and her recollections of how robotics have changed and changed the life of every single person on the planet. What makes the stories so good as a whole is the excellent way that the problem scales up. From beginning with just one person being impacted by robots and it concludes in chilling fashion with machines running the world – deliberately endangering and killing people to safeguard the future of humanity as a whole.

The book deals with things like technology, humanity and the relationship between the two; along with issues such as power, control and the idea of moral agency. The film doesn’t have that ambition, skill or scope of vision. It feels designed to make money – not helped by the film’s absolute saturation in brand labels, product placement and cool shiny stuff that we are supposed to see and then rush out and consume. It didn’t have to be like this – there was a chance that this film could have been very different. In the 1970’s when, crucially Asimov was still on this plane of life, Warner Brothers asked for a script. So along with the great Harlan Ellison these two literary heavyweights teamed up with the aim of producing, in Asimov’s own words, the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction movie ever made.’ Something that would have blown Blade Runner away – a film the two writers had been inspired to write from watching Citizen Kane. This could have changed how sci-fi is viewed in cinema permanently.

Instead, what did we get? Will Smith, in a cool car saving the world. The ideas are so watered down and so obviously attempting to get into your wallet that it just feels tacky when you read the book. It isn’t bad, but if you are a genius level sci-fi writer, please don’t settle on the big chunk of cash without giving the rest of us some thought…