I, Robot & Spiderman 2
When a story is uprooted from one art-form into another, it is hardly germane to complain that the finer points of the novel have been lost in the film. A film may have subtleties of its own, but they will not, in general, be the same - actors may use details of the writer's characterization as guides to how to inhabit the character, but equally may have their own ideas, while a designer's vision may be informed by a sense of period detail radically different from the author's. Many fine novels adapt into mediocre films, while some of the best films trust the strengths of books so forgettable that only scholars remember.
And then we have Alex Proyas' 'I Robot' which is not, to any meaningful degree, based on the Isaac Asimov short story collection of that name, yet manages to feel like the film of a novel Asimov could have written, but never did. The film shares with Asimov's work a setting (the period in which US Robotics is selling the general public its mass-produced robots) and the company's principal inventor Lanning (James Cromwell) - though Bridget Moynahan's thirty- something action heroine performance as Asimov's bitter spinster robot psychologist Susan Calvin reflects radical changes in perceptions of business-like career women since the 1940s.
Most obviously, 'I Robot' has as its main premise the Three Laws of Robotics. Keen to avoid Frankenstein cliches, Asimov and his editor John W. Campbell devised the idea that, to be commercially viable, robots would need to be hardwired to, in descending order of priority, protect human life, obey human orders and preserve their own existence. Much of Asimov's subsequent career was devoted to finding loopholes in these principles - which, let us be clear, were primarily a story generator and only secondarily a practical idea of how to keep autonomous automata under control.
In many of these stories, robots act in a paradoxical way, and Calvin explains why - most of these stories are, like the film, detective stories to that extent. Like them also, its plot is one in which meditation on ideas - free will, personal liberty, the necessities of the human and robot condition - are at least as important as being chased by giant bulldozers or that last desperate attempt to save humanity from well-intentioned conquest.
Where Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldman's script is at its closest to Asimov, it is partly to the 'I Robot' stories sense of robots as at once commercial product and uncanny other brought into domestic and industrial situations as slaves. It is also partly to Asimov's later murder mysteries 'The Caves of Steel' and 'The Naked Sun', which play fair with detective story ideas like the locked room mystery, while also portraying societies radically changed by robots. As the mystery of Lanning's suicidal leap, through a window he could not have broken, unfolds, it gradually becomes apparent that, bar minor points of logic that may have ended on the cutting room floor, this is a Hollywood action film whose script actually makes sense.
Where it resorts to cliche - the application of political pressure to stop the investigation, say - it does so for logical reasons - the embarassment of investigation on the eve of a major product launch, in this instance. Moreover, the script uses such cliches for misdirection - we assume the involvement of the company's bosses in Lanning's death, whereas they really are just trying to ensure that commerce runs smoothly.
If the plot involves rampaging robots, they are all the more menaces for obeying the Three Laws. When, in one of the creepiest of the action sequences in which Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) finds his inquisitiveness rewarded with imminent death, he is trapped in a tunnel between two large trucks, one of the major threats to him is an endless string of robots preventing his escape by trying to help him.
'I Robot' is less a vehicle for Will Smith, its one big star, than a film in which he is called upon to do more than flex his physique and his attitude. Spooner hates robots to the point of blind prejudice, and for much of the film we are set up to think of this as unsympathetic bigotry - characters allude to the irony of this from the African American Spooner. Yet flashes of back story imply something more; Spooner's views derive from a logical consequence of the Three Laws and their limitations, and from the reason for the extensive scars on Smith's buff physique. Part of the point, though, is that he has resorted to mere paranoia as a way of understanding what happened to him, where actual reasoning would have served him better.
Asimov's robot mysteries had as emotional core the relationship between his two detectives, Lije Bailey and the robot Daneel. The heart of this film is less the growing trust and partnership between the smugly sexually confident Spooner and the austere Calvin, than the far more problematic friendship between Spooner and Lanning's bequest to him, the eccentric robot Sonny, a friendship which is part of the process whereby Spooner becomes that stock SF figure, the Man who learns better.. ( Sonny is a special effect based on the movements and voice of the excellent Alan Tudyk, who gives perhaps the most impressive performance in a film in which he does not appear. )
The film is set in what is recognizably a future Chicago, though its lake is dry and there is nothing left green there - this is a world in trouble. Alex Proyas' earlier films include the extraordinary 'Dark City', perhaps the best ever combination of sf and noir mystery; where that took much of its look from Edward Hopper, much from Lang's 'Metropolis', this owes much of its look to covers of the magazines in which Asimov's stories appeared. If at times the key sequences in this intelligent blockbuster inspire a degree of deja vu, it is because of this return to the basics of our idea of what the future looks like.
The title sequence of Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man 2' - a sequence of images drawn by the hyper- realistic comics artist Alex Ross - does the double duty of reminding us of the events of the previous film and that we are to spend two hours in the world of Marvel Comics. When Steve Ditko and Stan Lee invented Spider-Man, the whole point of him was that was young, vulnerable and made mistakes. Even more than the first film, 'Spider-Man' inhabits not only the vehement acrobatics of the comic-book, but its occasionally lachrymose emotional territory - rather more movingly because the corrosive effect of necessary secrets is a more common experience than the acquisition of vast power.
Tobey Hooper's large eyes and hurt sensitive mouth made him ideal casting in the first film; here his Peter Parker has had two years of having his life wrecked by his sense of obligation. Patrolling the streets cuts into his college course-work and his friendships; he has cut himself off from his sweetheart Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to prevent her being used as a hostage. The exhilaration of the highly coloured action sequences is set against the highly specified greyness of Parker's daily real life - a cheap flat, a greedy landlord, dishonest employers. When his powers appear to fade, it seems like a solution - the image of Parker walking away from a trashcan with his costume in it is one of many Raimi usefully copies from decades of the comic..
The villain in this second film is far more his mirror image than the megalomaniac industrialist of the first film; Octavian (Alfred Molina) is a scientist Parker idolizes and the semi-intelligent robot arms which make him over into Doc Octopus merely gadgetry from his fusion experiments. In many respects, he is Spiderman's dark twin - the arms have corrupted his moral sense so that he is pure ego, pure scientific curiosity. Molina gives what might have been a mere retreat of Jekyll and Hyde a genuinely tragic sensibility - like Hooper he acts with his eyes so much that it is a shock when they hide behind the monster's goggles. If there is a weakness here, it is that some of the steps in Octavian's corruption get elided in the interest of visual sensation - the wife he accidentally kills is hardly mentioned again.
Where Raimi supplements the original material, it is occasionally with pregnant in-jokes - Spider-Man shares a lift with Hal Stark, the comics-obsessed Michael Novotny of the American version of the TV series 'Queer as Folk', implying subtext to Peter's fraught relationship with his best friend Harry. More often, it is to undercut the daftest bit of the premise - Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) clearly suspects Peter's double identity, and Kirsten Dunst gives real authority to Mary Jane's fury at being left out of his decisions about their relationship. When a wounded, maskless Spider-man is passed over the heads of Elevated train passengers he has just saved, the convention of the secret identity is stretched close to breaking point, as it needs to be.
Raimi loves this material, but his attitude to it is never unthinking. Part of the tragedy of superhero and supervillain alike is that their roles are a seductive trap, an addiction whose name is endless repetition - this may be a feature of comics, but it is also an acute observation. Octavian's response to the disaster that killed his wife and warped him is to steal the equipment that will enable him to do it all over again, only more destructively. The difference between him and the younger Spiderman is partly this - that he can only break the cycle by dying, whereas, by finally telling the truth, Parker can choose to change.