by Mel Valentin
Law I / A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Law II / A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
Law III / A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.When a lead character in the latest Hollywood science-fiction/adventure entry is given an implausible (if generic) name, “Del Spooner” (Will Smith, in another iteration of the non-standard Smith persona, complete with the anti-authoritarian streak and the repetitive expression of mild profanities meant to pass as “edgy and “hip” for urban audiences), the audience is immediately led into a sense of unease and discomfort. The lack of imagination displayed in the choice of the main character’s name is symptomatic of something deeper at play in I, Robot (“inspired” by Isaac Asimov’s similarly titled collection of science-fiction short stories): a generic, tensionless product that saves its imagination for the production design and the CGI-driven set pieces (albeit overly reminiscent of the flawed, but still superior, Minority Report), and leaves little imagination for the predictable plotting, characterizations, (minimal) character development, and plot turns.
"Asimov fans look away; it's strictly for Will Smith fans."
Del Spooner is a Chicago police detective, circa 2035 C.E., with a deeply ingrained Neo-Luddite attitude for the service-oriented robots that have infiltrated contemporary society. Per the “formula” for science-fiction films with a detective protagonist, Spooner is haunted by "survivor's guilt," and his attitude toward the robots are inevitably, predictably tied to a personal trauma (the film opens with a dream-centered recreation of his experience).The robots, created by a single, monopolistic manufacturer, USR, run by the Bill Gates clone, Lawrence Robertson (played with little distinction by Bruce Greenwood in a “paycheck” role). Robertson is, of course, the early, visible villain, but given his obviousness, the audience can expect a third-act plot turn that will reveal a hidden antagonist behind the threats to Spooner’s life. Robertson and U.S. Robotics (USR) are on the brink of the largest rollout of an advanced model, the NS-5, into the consumer market, with the stated (and repeated) goal of creating a ratio of one advanced robot to every five humans. The rollout, of course, is threatened by the first plot complication: USR’s chief robot designer, Dr. Alfred Lansing (James Cromwell), dies in the film’s opening minutes. Apparent suicide or murdered by an advanced NS-5 robot who appears to have developed emotions and a unique personality? Answering that question becomes the impetus for Spooner to investigate the connection between USR and the designer’s death.
The investigation naturally leads the introduction of the female lead (romantic interest would probably be an overstatement here), Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a scientist working on cognitive (and emotional) development, specifically with robots and their potential to move beyond merely simulating human consciousness, who assists Spooner with his work (and serves as a source of exposition for the audience). Their relationship is initially fraught with conflict, tension, and misunderstanding. It’s no surprise then that the narrative inevitably leads to a close collaboration between the two characters and, eventually, romantic (but chaste) attachment. Alas, given the budget involved and Hollywood’s tendency to play it safe where summer blockbusters are involved, the hints at an interracial romance (which flares up into physical contact only once) is left unresolved; the film reneges on the promise of the relationship, by leaving the characters separated by physical space in their final, underwritten scene together.
The special effects in I, Robot work best as background to the action and the human characters (i.e., as a showcase for extrapolating future technology, specifically through buildings, landscapes, and transportation), while failing to create a suspension of disbelief in the action set pieces that are injected into the film at periodic intervals when the pacing threatens to lag. The robots in the set pieces simply do not appear to share the same physical space as the human actors. They lack the weight, the volume, and the solidity that comes with the effects of gravity on animate and inanimate objects. In addition, 20-Century Fox’s marketing department chose to include highlights from every major set piece in the film in the full-length trailer and TV-commercials. Why not leave at least one of the set pieces unseen, to give audiences something original and surprising?
Anyone with a general knowledge of American science fiction films from the last thirty-five to forty years can easily ascertain the “inspiration” (or rather "inspirations") for I, Robot’s major plot points: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1971), Tron (1982), and Wargames (1983). There’s even an obvious reference to a campy 1970s television series: The Six Million Dollar Man. Of the four films, only 2001: A Space Odyssey is considered “classic” science fiction; the others are contain some interesting, if undeveloped ideas about artificial intelligence and the evolution of machines. In our post-modern era, it’s perfectly acceptable to “lift” ideas wholesale from films not considered part of the science-fiction canon (e.g., the enormous mainframe computers that control's the United States' nuclear arsenal in Colossus: The Forbin Project and Wargames) but without taking those ideas further and exploring them in any depth (which, arguably, would have interfered with the pacing of the main plotline), the audience for I, Robot will leave the air-conditioned movie theater superficially entertained and nothing more.
Certainly, expecting anything else from a big-budget Hollywood film is likely to lead to disappointment at worst, indifference at best. The filmmakers behind I, Robot simply preferred to raise and ultimately leave unanswered questions about artificial intelligence, the nascent self-awareness of machines created to serve humankind, and the consequent ethical dilemma; with sentience comes the “spark” of humanity (referenced by Dr. Lansing, via video file, as the “ghost in the machine”). What ultimately separates humans from machines isn't rationality, but emotion (or so I, Robot argues). Once, however, that emotion is authentically generated, the distinction between human and machine becomes not just indefensible, but meaningless.However self-awareness is defined, however, it inevitably leads to the issue of what rights and liberties should be given to those self-aware machines. "I, Robot" doesn’t attempt to answer that question in anything but a perfunctory manner, but, to its credit, the director (Alex Proyas) and the screenwriters (Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman) end the film not with Spooner and Calvin’s characters in their non-embrace, but in an ambiguous scene with Sonny, the self-aware robot initially accused of the designer’s murder. It’s a scene that hints at "I, Robot’s" unfulfilled potential.
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originally posted: 05/27/05 20:22:53