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I, Robot:
Official site

Saturday 17 July 2004

A.I.: Artificial Incompetence, or,
Robots Just Don't Understand:
A Review of I, Robot

by Gary Westfahl

Contrary to some published reports, the film I, Robot does in one respect powerfully recall the thoughts and writings of Isaac Asimov. Unfortunately, what came to my mind while watching the film had nothing to do with Asimov's robots, but was rather the statement that echoes through his early Foundation stories — "Violence ... is the last refuge of the incompetent" — which explains why Asimov's fans will regard this film as an appalling travesty.

Surely, if there was one quality that defined Isaac Asimov, it was pacifism — in his personal life, his politics, and his science fiction. He consistently sought to write stories that did not rely on tired devices like chase scenes, fisticuffs, or gunfights to interest readers; instead, his plots were involving intellectual puzzles. As is often noted, the main action in most Asimov stories is characters standing around talking to each other, trying to reason their way to a resolution of the problem at hand — and in Asimov's capable hands, these tales can be infinitely more compelling than descriptions of violent conflicts or nonstop activity. However, creating such stories demands a certain amount of wisdom and originality, qualities that are not in demand, and hence are not supplied, in contemporary Hollywood.


True, a viewer unfamiliar with the history of this project might briefly imagine that this is actually an adaptation of Asimov's story cycle — after all, the Three Laws of Robotics are displayed during the opening credits, and, as in I, Robot, there are characters named Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), and Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan). Further, while the initial event does not occur in Asimov — Lanning apparently commits suicide, though robot-hating detective John Spooner (Will Smith) suspects it was murder — this momentarily seems to be leading into a version of Asimov's "Little Lost Robot": Sonny (Alan Tuydk), the advanced robot implicated in Lanning's murder, has fled to a factory filled with identical robots, and Calvin and Spooner face the challenge of finding their suspect. In Asimov's story, as one might expect, the problem sets the stage for a series of ingenious tests devised by Calvin which eventually force the robot to reveal himself. In this film, destroying any hopes for a truly Asimovian story, Spooner just pulls out his gun and starts blasting robots in the head, figuring that the frightened culprit will soon run away. Clearly, neither the Spooner character, nor the filmmakers who created him, are competent enough to figure out a better solution.

More broadly, in order to provide regular doses of such robotic violence — the only attention-getting device the filmmakers seem to have mastered — I, Robot perversely imposes upon Asimov's universe the sort of story that his entire robot series, according to Asimov, was designed to contradict and supplant: the clichéd old Frankenstein scenario of humans creating robots who then try to kill or conquer their creators. (The film actually refers to Frankenstein, albeit in a brief discussion inanely suggesting that the Wolfman, Frankenstein, and Dracula stories are all the same.) Spooner embraces the old suspicion that robots will rise up against humans out of sheer cussedness, regardless of the Three Laws, and believes that company head Robertson is engaged in a sinister conspiracy to conceal this looming danger. In the end, however, the film opts for the variation on the Frankenstein theme most notably developed in Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands ... " — that oversolicitous robots will be driven to oppress humanity as a way to preserve its existence. The instigator is U. S. Robotics' supercomputer VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence), whose novel interpretation of the Three Laws inspires her to start establishing a brutal dictatorship to protect humanity and to send out robot death squads to slaughter anybody who resists. Or, to explain it all in terms that Hollywood executives would understand, "It's Colossus: The Forbin Project meets The Terminator!"

Now, if the research of screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman into the works of Isaac Asimov had extended beyond a quick read-through of I, Robot to find bits and pieces of trivia to toss into the fourth rewrite, they might have had VIKI justify her actions by means of the additional Zeroth Law that Asimov later introduced — allowing robots to disregard individual human lives in order to serve the interests of humanity as a whole. Of course, R. Daneel Olivaw was wisely guided by the Zeroth Law to have robots withdraw from human civilization in order to allow people to further develop on their own, instead of stupidly trying to make himself into a new robot Hitler.

Still, debating the nuances of Asimov's Laws was the furthest thing from these filmmakers' minds; rather, VIKI's philosophy serves only as an after-the-fact explanation for the regular appearances of teams of homicidal robots trying to kill Spooner, so that the bulk of I, Robot's screen time can be devoted to a repetitive series of chase scenes, fisticuffs, and gunfights involving Spooner fending off computer-generated robot assassins. The scene in which Dr. Calvin gets into the act, shooting down a robot with a machine gun, perhaps represents the moment when the filmmakers have moved precisely 180 degrees away from Asimov's vision.

Furthermore, in contrast to Asimov's meticulously logical puzzle stories, I, Robot tarnishes his memory by presenting, in his name, an idiot plot (memorably described by James Blish as a story that stays in motion only because everyone involved is an idiot). Lanning, the brilliant scientist who invented robots, is an idiot because, having somehow allowed himself to become VIKI's virtual prisoner, he can devise no way to inform the world of her evil plans other than building a robot capable of killing a human, instructing the robot to kill him, and leaving behind a hologram to provide cryptic clues which (he hopes) will eventually enable Spooner to deduce the true situation. VIKI, the world's most intelligent supercomputer, is an idiot because she allows Lanning, presumably under her constant observation and supervision, to do all these things. There is no need to identify Spooner and Calvin as idiots, because they persuasively describe themselves as idiots for failing to figure out what is going on until it is almost too late, and the conventions of the action movie virtually require Spooner's colleagues and superiors to be idiots, senselessly ridiculing and ignoring all his warnings.

Admittedly, science fiction readers may be especially critical of I, Robot because it is pretending to represent Asimov's works. Under a different title, and without "Suggested by Isaac Asimov's Book" in its closing credits, the film might be calmly accepted as a typically illogical but entertaining Hollywood confection, no better or worse than other corporately crafted summer blockbusters. There are even fleeting glimpses of a certain intelligence at work, suggesting that the screenwriters and director might have been capable of doing a decent job of adapting Asimov if they had wanted to, instead of focusing their energies on developing a script that allowed for as many robotic free-for-alls as possible.

Consider some details from the film that initially seem puzzling, then fit into a satisfying pattern. The references to Hansel and Gretel, on the grounds that Lanning is leaving a series of clues like the bread crumbs dropped by the children, seem contrived until one remembers that it is a story about a wicked stepmother trying to kill her stepchildren — and hence is an early indication that the supercomputer with a female persona, VIKI, is the real villain of the piece, not the male Robertson. One wonders long and hard why the father of a child killed in a car accident is named Harold Lloyd, and why Spooner specifically mentions that he has the same name as the silent film star — not something one would expect would be common knowledge in the year 2035, given that the bespectacled Lloyd is, even now, almost entirely forgotten. But Lloyd was best known as the comedian who was imperiled by hanging on the hands of a giant clock, Spooner has repeatedly derided robots as nothing but "clockwork, " and he is twice observed being rudely awakened by an annoying alarm clock. The problems with robots are thus being placed in the context of a long tradition of humans allowing machines to control, or even threaten, their lives.

Most interestingly, a filmgoer may at some point recognize that the acronymous VIKI is undoubtedly intended to recall Arthur C. Clarke's acronymous HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer), another really smart computer inspired by a faulty interpretation of instructions to start killing people in the name of a higher cause. The connection hits home when the voice of the disintegrating VIKI slips into a lower and lower range, just as the voice of HAL descended in pitch while his intelligence was being removed. Is this film somehow in dialogue with 2001: A Space Odyssey? That might seem far-fetched until the end of the film, when the robot Sonny is thoughtfully surveying a landscape of robots, and his face suddenly looks exactly like the face of the Star Child at the end of 2001. One realizes now that Sonny is also the first representative of a new superrace, a robot who can choose to disregard the Three Laws and hence truly possesses free will, and he is trying to think of something to do next.

An evolutionary theme (underlined by repeated references to Lanning's belief that robots will someday evolve) is further suggested by the film's knowing use of the imagery of hands. Technically, as we learn halfway through the film, Spooner is a cyborg, a man with a robotic left arm. At first, this only seems like another convenient plot device, a built-in weapon Spooner can use to clobber more robots. But in Sonny's dreams, Spooner figures as a robot messiah, standing near the ruins of a bridge across Lake Michigan, so we can regard him as a sort of bridge between humans and robots. In the film's climactic scene, both the freedom of humanity and the freedom of robots can be preserved only when Spooner uses both of his hands — his human right hand holding the "nanites" that will destroy VIKI, and his robotic left hand gouging into her machinery to slow down his fall and save his life. Then, with Spooner finally ready to accept Sonny as a friend and equal, the camera zooms in on his human right hand shaking Sonny's robotic hand. Thus, while the smoothly stylized appearance of these robots might recall the advanced robots in the coda of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, this film wishes to suggest that the robots of the future will accompany, and not replace, humanity — the point also made in Clarke's "A Meeting with Medusa", another story that presents a cyborg as a bridge between humans and machines. Perhaps, if filmmakers had worked harder to foreground and develop such intriguing themes, they could have produced a movie that would have held filmgoers' attention without needing to have Smith kick some robot butt every ten minutes.

Still, to argue against the competence of these filmmakers, one can point to conflicting evidence of recurring patterns in I, Robot that seem more like thoughtless borrowings than provocative enhancements of the film's story. As was the case in A.I., there is scene after scene of somebody breaking a glass window — indeed, in the opening sequence, a showering Spooner listening to Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" mumbles the line "Seven years of bad luck, " as if to foreshadow all the glass-shattering to come — but director Steven Spielberg had a reason for that imagery, while one suspects that director Alex Proyas simply thought that all that breaking glass looked really neat. One would like to imagine that there was cunning wit involved in the scene where, after the female VIKI has killed the male president and taken over the premises, she summons robots who come to her aid by breaking the glass ceiling of the U. S. Robotics building — but it probably only a coincidence. I also wanted to regard the film's concluding landscape of elongated robots as an homage to the surrealistic cover paintings of Richard M. Powers, but I suspect that resemblance is also a coincidence. Finally, the film regularly depicts structures rising to great heights and characters gazing down at or falling from great heights, but this seems only a reflection of the tradition, dating back to the film Things to Come, that an impressive technological future is best conveyed by means of immense buildings and vistas that dwarf their human inhabitants.

Other annoying patterns in the film can be plausibly attributed to the baleful influence of star Will Smith. As he approaches his forties, the persona that he still relies on from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air — the streetwise smartass with a wisecrack for every occasion — doesn't really work for him anymore, especially when (as in this film) none of his wisecracks are particularly funny. Brief, incongruous scenes of Spooner rescuing an adorable cat and a teenage friend — who then promptly vanish — were apparently tossed in just to show audiences what a nice guy Smith's character is. Also, while one congratulates Smith for working out hard and getting himself really buff to convincingly play Muhammad Ali, does that really mean that every subsequent Smith film must show off his muscular bare chest at every conceivable opportunity?

Despite such infelicities, however, I suspect that I, Robot will end up being a successful film. In one scene, A.I. suggested that a popular industry might someday emerge in the form of robot demolition derbies, and one could reasonably interpret I, Robot as an expansion of that scene into an entire film, with one robot after another appealingly smashed to pieces in a variety of imaginative ways. The film will probably make a lot of money for the estate of Isaac Asimov, which could explain why the family is supporting the film, and it would be nice to hope that the family might use that money to hire someone to actually adapt one of his works as a feature film.

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