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'I, Robot' screenwriters talk unmade sequels and why the future is 'impossible to imagine'
We need another team-up between Will Smith and Alan Tudyk!
Years before the co-creator of Star Trek: Picard and Strange New Worlds officially broke into Hollywood with 1994's The Client, he met the influential sci-fi author at a New York fan convention in 1976. "[Asimov] was signing autographs," Goldsman fondly remembers during a recent Zoom call with SYFY WIRE. "He had funny hair, sort of just on the sides, and glasses."
That memorable encounter with the literary titan came in handy in the early 2000s when 20th Century Fox executive Emma Watts asked Goldsman if he might be available to help punch up the existing script written by Jeff Vintar (The Hot Zone) that began life as an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery with robots called Hardwired. That premise was ultimately expanded into a much larger, hardboiled detective yarn inspired by Asimov's I, Robot short stories.
"I adapted my original spec script for 20th Century Fox and Alex Proyas, and transformed my original story — which was like a single-setting stage play — into a big-budget studio film, turning in many drafts to Alex and Emma over the course of years," Vintar tells SYFY WIRE over email. "My original Hardwired script was considered 'more Asimov than Asimov' by representatives of the Asimov estate, and the 20th Century Fox version was very much on the page by the time Will Smith was hired and Akiva brought on, late in this ten year development process."
Once Will Smith was hired, Goldsman came aboard to "more action scenes and jokes," Vintar states.
"I came on to do a polish and never left," Goldsman says, adding that he went to down to Florida to meet with Smith while the star was in the middle of production on Bad Boys II. "We spent ... nights and afternoons working the story and talking about what it could be and combining the two objects: Jeff’s script and our ideas for the piece based on Asimov."
In particular, they wanted to hit on themes of "autonomy, individuation, and consciousness," Goldsman explains. "My memory of Jeff's piece was [that it was] more thriller-y and less attending to the Asmovian ideas, although very much about artificial intelligence and consciousness. So we looked at this as an opportunity to broaden out and make a bigger palette. But still fundamentally base it on, 'When does the doll become real? When is Pinocchio a real boy?'"
The end result was 2004's I, Robot (now streaming on Peacock!), a neo-noir mystery-thriller, whose thought-invoking exploration of free will and existentialism recalled the likes of Blade Runner and Minority Report.
Hot off the cultural success of The Crow and Dark City, Alex Proyas was tapped to direct. "Alex did this amazing thing, I’ve never seen anybody do it before or since," Goldsman adds. "I'm sure other people have [but] he previz'd the entire movie. He made an animatic of the movie from start to finish ... It was living storyboards, which we continued to evolve."
With the screenplay in a strong enough place, Smith signed on to play Detective Del Spooner, a jaded Chicago homicide detective with an intense dislike of the robots that have become commonplace in every facet of society, circa 2035.
"What’s fun then is [what's] fun now, is building out technological futures," Goldsman remarks. "And boy, were we wrong. Everybody who does it is is wrong, but I remember at one point, certain people were going, ‘Oh, they got product placement for FedEx!’ I was like, ‘No, we didn’t. It was [just] fun to think of FedEx robots.’ Obviously, nobody was thinking of drones. It’s never what you imagine it to be. The future is always impossible to imagine, but it's a kick [to imagine]."
Detective Spooner's mistrust of machines begins to seem less crazy when a pioneering roboticist named Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) turns up dead. The prime suspect? A curious robot named Sonny, who doesn't seem bound to the three laws governing every other android.
"The thing that I chased in this was this redemption story and this Chicken Little story of, ‘What if you're the only person who knows that the robots are out to get you?’" notes Goldsman. "That’s a wonderful paranoid thriller modality ... A noir gumshoe [story] is a great playground. Thank you, Raymond Chandler for putting a single character in the center of a swirling mystery and having his or her psychological obstacles also be the key to unraveling the truth."
Sonny is played by Alan Tudyk, whose talent for detached charisma would serve him well years later on SYFY's Resident Alien. The motion-capture needed to bring the character to life was still evolving at the time, forcing Proyas to try and "invent the technology as we were going on," Goldsman adds. "He was a technologist in his constant attempt to refine the way Sonny landed in the final film ... [Alex was] very careful about how Alan would move because poor Alan's wandering around in a full-on green leotard the whole movie."
I, Robot arrived in theaters on July 16, 2004, racking up more than $353 million at the worldwide box office against a hefty production budget of $120 million. While a sequel was briefly discussed amongst Goldsman, Smith, Proyas, and 20th Century Fox CEO Tom Rothman, the idea never left the conceptual phase.
"It’s one of those things where everybody talked about it some, but it was not [a sure thing] in those days the way it is now," Goldsman continues. "Now, if a movie kind of works, you’re like, ‘Well let's make another one!’ ... You could see it moving on, you could have rolled it into a version of Caves of Steel, or [had] Spooner and Sonny [teaming up]. You can sort of see how all these things could have been, but they weren’t — and that's okay, too."
Vintar points out that Ronald D. Moore — "fresh off Battlestar Galactica fame" — had been tapped to write a follow-up that was announced to be in development in 2007. Beyond that, there were "several further attempts by myself and [producer] John Davis to turn I, Robot into a TV series that would continue Sonny’s story, while also adapting more of Asimov’s robot shorts," he finishes.
I, Robot is now streaming on Peacock.
This story was originally published on Feb. 15 and updated on Feb. 16.