I, Robot: the movie that could have been

A while ago, I read the screenplay for I, Robot. No, not the one that has Will Smith killing hordes of rogue robots. The one that came five drafts before that one, the one actually based off Asimov’s book, the one by Harlan Ellison. And wow, do I wish they had made this one instead.

Ellison’s prose is kind of…well, it made me giggle a few times. But as someone who is “into” screenwriting I had no trouble looking past the words, watching the movie in my head, and I wish everyone who went to see Will Smith had been able to see what I “saw” with Ellison instead.

Now, the Will Smith movie wasn’t bad. Great action shots, some cool tech, a sympathetic robot, and if you didn’t know the real Susan Calvin, Will Smith’s friend Susan isn’t so bad.

Except that Harlan Ellison shows us the real Susan Calvin, and the real Susan Calvin is awesome.

Ellison’s movie is structured a bit like Citizen Kane– we start with a man’s death, and follow a reporter’s attempt to untangle the dead man’s past and his connection to the reclusive, mysterious Susan Calvin. The story of Stephen Byerly and Susan Calvin unfolds beautifully and it has–well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it really had everything. I found it profoundly moving at times; other times I goggled at the amazing futuristic technology being shown; I could be flying through the pages in a dramatic action sequence one moment, and pondering the meaning of humanity the next.

But more importantly (to me), Susan Calvin was a real, complex, fascinating person. She, Stephen Byerly, and the reporter all were– as were most of the others they met– very real, in a way that the punchy action movie that was eventually made couldn’t hope to capture.

Now, I love a good action movie like anyone else– Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favourite movie of all time– but it seems wrong, to me, to make a movie ostensibly based on Asimov’s work, and to make it nothing but an action movie. Asimov was about more than that, about examining our assumptions about humanity and deconstructing what makes a person. To make a superficial action movie and name it I, Robot as if there was any connection feels like lying. Especially since, other than the stiff, one-note Generic Love Interest “Susan Calvin,” there was no connection between the movie and the story that I, Robot actually tells.

Now, making I, Robot, a thoughtful collection of short stories, into a movie is certainly a daunting challenge– but Harlan Ellison did it, with the help and approval of Asimov himself, and the movie studios bought his script…and then chose to “revise” it into another unoriginal summer blockbuster?!

Since they have (unwisely!) deprived us of the chance to see the better movie, I urge everyone reading this to buy a copy of the screenplay (available at Amazon and elsewhere, probably used) and to read it, looking past the prose, to see the movie that could have been.

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