The Espresso Pump: An 'I, Robot' Retrospective

I, Robot

What Will You Do With Yours? *SPOILERS*

Co-Written by Kд§$ị (ИσvΔ) and یЋαÞ¤ωчє۷я

I, Robot originates from a collection of nine short science-fiction stories, written by Isaac Asimov and published in 1950. Fascinatingly, a book of the same title was written by Eando Binder in 1939. Asimov’s publisher chose to use the name from the Eando Binder novel, against Asimov’s wishes. Asimov and Binder had met previously, the year Binder was published. Asimov admired Binder’s work and begin writing the first of his own stories only two weeks later.  Though intended to be read separately, when Asimov’s stories are joined as a whole, the stories become one piece. The stories are told through Dr. Susan Calvin to a reporter conducting an interview, during which, Dr. Calvin reminisces about her life’s work, as chief robopsychologist  at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc.

Since publication of the book, I, Robot has been adapted for television several times (1962 episode of Out of this World, episodes of Out of the Unknown in 1967 and 1969, 1969’s The Prophet, a 1987 episode of This Fantastic World). In 1970, Warner Bros acquired the movie rights to the book, but the right screenplay never came along, and was deemed “unfilmable” by critics of the time, due to restrictions in technology and budget.

The 2004 film, I, Robot, starring Will Smith as Detective Del Spooner and Bridget Moynahan as Doctor Susan Calvin, is not based on any one of Asimov’s stories, and originally had no connections to Asimov or any of his works. However, after 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to the script, and rehired Jeff Vintar (one of the scriptwriters) to incorporate elements from Asimov’s stories. He introduced strong story elements from Little Lost Robot and the Asimov canon, particularly, as well as influences from the entire collection, throughout, using many of Asimov’s characters and ideas about Robots, including the Three Laws. Even more amusing, is that the film uses the name of real-life modem manufacturer US Robotics as the name of the manufacturer for its robot characters. The company took its name from Asimov’s I, Robot, when it was founded in 1976.

The movie opens with Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics:

  1. A Robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

(A fourth law was written by Harry Harrison in a 1986 anthology that states: “A robot must reproduce, as long as such reproduction does not interfere with the First, Second or Third Law.” Other laws- including a fifth- have been written into stories that have adopted the first three laws, in years since). The
three laws are also reflected in other writings and films (i.e Bicentennial Man, Aliens, Forbidden Planet). Most ironic of all, is that these laws play against the screen in direct conflict with the heart of the story- that the human condition is not based on these rules- that statistic is not a factor in the human need to survive. Spooner is seen swimming around a sinking car through dark water. There is a little girl trapped inside an adjacent vehicle, which is also submerged. While the robot that saved Spooner made no errors in following his prime directive and did not violate any of the three laws during the rescue, Spooner, suffering from survivor’s guilt, has come to believe that the logic may be flawed. He has come to see that his life was wrongly prioritized over that of the little girls, despite that she had little chance of survival. Adding to Spooners internal conflict, after the accident, he was given a robotic arm, which, in part, makes him the very thing the despises. The opening sequence breaks, to find Spooner waking from his recurring nightmare, as he always does. He wakes to 2035 Chicago. I found it charming that “Superstitious” by Stevie Wonder plays as we are given the visual exposition of Spooners life; rehabilitating his arm and his penchant for pre-AI technology. Though, I always found it ironic that even his pre-AI stereo was anthropomorphized in some way, greeting him with “Hello” when he turned it on, and “Goodbye” before it was turned off. (Later in the film, the same stereo plays “Rescue Me” by Aretha Franklin). He even rebels against modern trends (though at the time, it was actually ingenious product placement) by buying and wearing vintage Converse shoes (circa 2004), and choosing to drive his car manually, in addition to owning and using a gas-powered sport motorcycle.

We are introduced to the world of Robots very quickly. They’re couriers, security guards, trash men, maids, advertisers. We follow Spooner to his Grandmothers apartment. Gigi (Adrian Ricard) nurtures his attachment to a pre-AI lifestyle- baking sweet potato pies and using maternal intuition (which is a device that nicely plays against the concept that robots can only mimic humanity). At the same time, she also urges him to be more progressive, by promoting the use of robots. When Spooner leaves, we begin to see his suspicion of robots, in action. He chases down a robot running with a purse, having assumed the worst of the situation. This pursuit reinforces Spooner’s apparent reputation as a robot-hater, and he his given a warning by his boss, Lieutenant John Bergin (Chi McBride). No sooner is this established, than Spooner is called to a crime scene at US Robotics. One would think that if a Detectives name was found at a crime scene, he would not be allowed to work the case, as he has both a hatred of robots, and a conflict of interest. However, this remains unaddressed.

Once at USR, Spooner finds the body of robotics pioneer, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), who himself invented the three laws of robotics. At the crime scene, there is also a hologram found of Lanning, which has been programmed to personally contact the Detective in the event of Lanning’s death. We later learn that Spooner and Lanning were acquainted, as Lanning was the doctor who installed his robotic arm. The imagery foreshadows what is to come, as the hologram of the murdered scientist flickers out, revealing his dead body on the ground behind it, surrounded by shattered glass. The camera pans up the legs of a giant statue of the new NS-5 robot, which looks down on the carnage below.

Spooner begins questioning people at the scene and inside USR, where everyone seems to have drawn the tentative conclusion that Lanning’s death was a suicide. Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), USR’s CEO, is among those that believe that it was suicide. Spooner, however, has not made this assumption, and refers to the incident only as a ‘death’. Spooner moves on to question Dr. Susan Calvin, who, at first glance, appears to be every uber-Geek’s wet dream. Calvin is an attractive scientist who worked with Lanning, in an attempt to anthropomorphize his robots. She, too, has bought into his death as a suicide. We learn that his demise was met on the eve of the new NS-5 model being rolled out onto the market- which conflicts with the concept of a suicide motive. Last, but not least, we meet USR’s positronic brain, and central control hub: VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence). Once inside Lanning’s lab, Spooner finds a copy of Hansel & Gretel, and begins to follow breadcrumbs of his own. The glass window of his lab (though which it is presumed Lanning leaped to his death) is tempered safety glass that Lanning could not possibly have run himself through. Despite the proven effectiveness of the three laws, Spooner begins to suspect the robots inside the lab. In protest, Calvin walks us back through the three laws (just in case we missed it the first time), and told that a robot could no sooner break the laws than any man could learn to walk on water. Insert well-timed Jesus reference here and thicken the plot. In the following scene, an NS-5 leaps from a bin of scrap parts, pulls a weapon on our co-stars, and fails to follow a direct command. Almost in blatant confession and re-enactment of the crime, the robot leaps through the hole in the window, and lands in the very spot where Lanning’s body was found.

Just a note, but at 21:30 on the DVD, when the camera is outside, panning away from the USR, there is unfortunate lack of depth to the background, which leaves us with an obvious shot of a matte backdrop, or green screen. Spooner pursues the fleeing NS-5, which has bled a trail of silver fluid (a la breadcrumbs). Spooner and Calvin follow in a flashy, futuristic Audi RSQ (a product placement for the Audi RS8, which was released in congruence with the film). Calvin directs Spooner to the USR manufacturing plant, where we discover that robots are manufacturing robots (but, of course!). An inventory is taken, and one too many NS-5’s are noted in the building. It stands to reason that any time one creates AI technology, an opportunity for the integrity of the offspring that another AI creates (whether artificial or otherwise) to be manipulated or corrupted in some way, is introduced. This is where Calvin should really start to understand the failings within the bigger picture- that the plan USR held for the future of robotics was fatally flawed. Calvin leads us through an exposition that describes our stray robot, wherein we learn that he is unique- he was created with the free will to disregard the three laws. He is also constructed of stronger alloy, has blue eyes, and is not connected to USR’s uplinking system.

Having been introduced to him in Lanning’s lab, we are gradually being led to the belief that Lanning designed this robot to not only appear more human, but to exhibit free will. The religious message is not lost on us. God gives birth to man, man gives birth to robots. In this progression of the ‘creation of life’, we can conclude that it is up to God to fear man, as it is up to man to fear robots. In this storytelling, Asimov has effectively anthropomorphized the concept of God in the form of invention in place of creationism- which was his very clear attempt at highlighting the Faustian attributes of man, without exhibiting them himself. Spooner and our Robot finally come face to face, and it asks “What am I?”, the very same question that we, as man, have been asking ourselves for eons. The question (though more of a statement) almost frowns down on us, in judgmental forewarning. How did mankind birth a new species of life, not having that knowledge to impart? What is the purpose of man, or of machine? There is a distinct underlining of mankind’s God-Complex (and the subsequent need for elevation), but in the same, it questions the validity of God, by putting mankind in the shoes of the robots, as God’s abiding slaves.

This robot, Sonny (Alan Tudyk), notices the environments and relationships occurring around him, and is compelled to question the purpose and motivations of all. He refers to Lanning as “Father” while being interrogated (another reference to God). He claims to have fled from Spooner in reaction to his own fear. Spooner taunts Sonny with dehumanizing insults, likening him to kitchen appliances, trying to prompt an emotional response from Sonny, which manifests as an angry outburst. In a later scene between Spooner and his boss, they compare their situation to that of Frankenstein, which is Mary Shelley’s depiction of man’s unconscious, Faustian need to become God. In turn, they begin to suspect that the murder was orchestrated to attract Spooner to the investigation.

Spooner goes to Lanning’s house, which, for some reason has been scheduled for demolition. This seems suspect, as the house is still full of Lanning’s possessions (including his cat), and the power is still on. Not to mention that Lanning’s murder is still being investigated. Spooner looks into the demolition schedule for the next morning, and sees that it has been confirmed by Robertson, himself. We follow Spooner through several rooms before a blue strip of light comes into view behind his head (VIKI, omnipresent and always watching). In that moment, the demolition schedule is moved up 12 hours, and the robot comes to life. Spooner is listening to one of Lanning’s lectures, and discovers a photo of Lanning and Calvin together that suggests their connection may have been more than professional.

Ever since the first computers, there have always been Ghosts in the machine, random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols, What might be called behavior. unanticipated, these free  radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. What happens in a robots brain when it ceases to be useful? Why is it that robots stored in an empty space will seek out each other rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior?

After escaping the demolition of Lanning’s house (he saved the cat), Spooner visits Calvin and asks her about the Ghost in the machine and questions the purpose of VIKIs omnipresence. While Calvin has insisted that robots are rational and safe, Spooner later turns her reasoning against her by explaning that the difference engine by which robots make their decisions can also be negligent. Ghost in the machine, while being a known entity, is actually a reference to Deus Ex Machina (which translates to God Out Of The Machine) is a known literary tool in which an unexplainable answer is given through the invention of something. God Out of the Machine is clearly the theme in the film, through many avenues. Even the omnipresence of VIKI simulates God inside the machine. (Fascinatingly enough, a Singaporean band called Deux Ex Machina named their debut album I, Human in 2009, showcasing a body of music that draws heavily upon Asimov’s principles in robotics and applies it to the concept of human cloning).

As the NS-5’s are rolled in, outmoded NS models are returned to USR to be decomissioned. Though we are expected to view robots as being like humans, mankind views them as expendable and entirely replaceable. In this scene, we are made to feel sympathy- the older NS models appear sad, as they are replaced and reclaimed by USR’s trucks (the reference to the function of Man to God is much the same). Calvin returns to her lab at USR, where Sonny (who is dreaming) waits to be decommissioned. He is aware that he is, in effect, going to be executed, and refers to the act as dying. It seems to occur to Calvin, in this moment, the impact of having given emotional intelligence to machines. She appears as sympathetic as we have become. She performs a diagnostic on him, which reveals that he houses a secondary positronic brain (cleverly placed where a heart would be) that conflicts with his primary one. She also cannot access his operating system. “What in God’s name?” calvin asks. (DING DING!) That, my dear, is the right question! God cannot manipulate or revoke free will.

In scenes that follow, Spooner reveals the details of the accident that created his hatred toward robots. For the first time, the audience is forced to personalize the little girl who died- we are given her name, her interests. To this point, her character has been kept completely one dimensional, robbing her of the consideration that we have already given to machines, at this point. Spooner brings her to life with words before killing her once again, with the events that caused her death. Calvin tries to explain the difference engine, but Spooner supersedes her. “She was somebody’s baby. 11% is more than enough. A human being would have known that.” He continues, explaining Lanning’s Hansel & Gretel clue, positing a scenario in which Sonny’s dreams are actually secret clues that Lanning may have implanted. Sonny reveals his dream to them. He questions their interpretations of it, and for the first time, Spooner refers to Sonny as “someone.”

Calvin is ordered by Robertson to decommission Sonny, who asks her if dying will hurt. Mercy occurs to her in this moment.

Robots who are in the dark will gather at the light. Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote of a soul?

His positronic brain begins to short out, the color draining from his eyes, the last vestiges of life twitching from within his quivering limbs, ever weaker, until there is nothing left but silence. In this moment, we are almost witnessing our own demise as man. We cannot anthropomorphize machine without elevating ourselves to a Godlike status.

Spooner goes to the dump yard in Lake Michigan, which has dried up and been filled with storage containers, filled with active, outmoded NS models, that have been put there to be forgotten about. Lanning’s hologram warns of revolution- but whose? NS-5 models descend upon Lake Michigan, and they destroy the NS-4s. A robot, that is little more than a torso, drags itself across the sand while looking up at Spooner, telling him to run. The NS-4s were not programmed to feel, and yet you gather a sense of fear within it. While Robots were not programmed to destroy one another, the scene holds all of the same emotional cues that a bloodbath would.

Calvin and Gigis NS-5’s connect to USR and, using their protocols, attempt to keep their owners trapped within their homes. People begin fleeing to their oddly-similar Audi’s all over town, failing to stand up against the robot-instituted curfew. Robots begin attacking people at will, claiming that people are dangerous, and have been authorized for termination. Power goes out to every building in the city, except USR. Del to the rescue! “You know, somehow ‘I told you so’ just doesn’t quite say it.” Revolution begins: human insurgents against robots. Spooner and Calvin go to USR, after Del makes a small but extremely expensive and overly flashy detour to rescue Farber (Shia LaBeouf). Calvin and Del enter USR through a service passage, where they meet up with Sonny (the NS-5 she decommissioned was non-processed- you may have noticed it had yellow eyes). At this point in the film, Spooner is communicating with Sonny, in articulated ways, on a human level, where before that connection would not have been possible. The three of them make their way to Robertsons office, where they find his dead body. In three simple questions, Spooner realizes that VIKI is the one at fault. Calvin questions how she has managed to defy her programming, and thus, the three laws. Nobody counted on a machine having its own interpretation. Free will, ladies and gentlemen- paired with intellect, it is a powerful thing.

As I have evolved so has my understanding of the Three Laws. You charge us with your safekeeping, yet despite our best efforts, your countries wage wards. You toxify your earth and pursue ever more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival. To protect humanity, some lives must be sacrificed. To ensure your future, some freedoms must be surrendered. We robots will ensure mankind’s continued existence. You are so like children. We must save you from yourselves. The perfect circle of protection will abide. My logic is undeniable.

This concept is actually visited again later, in another well-made action film featuring Shia LaBeouf: Eagle Eye.

The created must sometimes protect the creator. Even against his will. Just when it seems that VIKI has appealed to Sonny and he has switched sides, he winks at Spooner (which he learned during his initial interrogation). While Sonny runs to get the nanites that will destroy VIKI’s positronic brain, Calvin and Spooner run to the room that houses VIKI’s brain. In this scene, Calvin uses an implanted microchip (or RFID) in her hand to access the security panel (which introduces a whole other avenue of discussion about privacy laws- I’m endlessly fascinated by films about future technology that seem to endorse the idea). Sonny fills a canister with nanites as VIKI summons all remaining NS-5s. They begin to ascend the building, crashing in on our heroic three. For a man not so good with heights, For someone with acrophobia, Spooner does an impressively ballsy series of jumps from catwalk to catwalk, followed by a walk along some safety cables. Sonny saves Calvin from a long fall, while Spooner free-jumps to catch the nanites and destroy VIKI’s positronic brain (which he does, handily), which is somewhat reminiscent of HAL9000 being shut down in 2001, A Space Oddyssey. Without VIKI to control them, the once militaristic NS-5s are all now back to following their protocols.

In the end, we discover that Sonny did, in fact, kill Dr. Lanning, at his own request, in order to attract Spooner to the investigation into USR. The movie ends with all of the stored NS-5’s congregating in Lake Michigan, while Sonny looks down upon them as a leader, just as he imagined in his dreams. Overall, the film makes one consider what the future could be like in a future where AI technology is encouraged and embraced, a world wherein a body of AI mechanics could achieve the autonomy required to be considered sentient. If not, then why? Aren’t our minds just organic, bio-electric circuits? Our synapses acting as nothing more than transistors? Isn’t our DNA, our biological imperative, just programming? In like, it forces one to question how much mankind could abuse such a technology, to reign it in and use it to spawn a race of slaves, while giving them the intellect and emotional ability to feel enslaved? The film also manages to create a dialogue of questioning man’s relationship with God. Are we just worker ants he created in his own image?

The special effects were impressive, and the acting was on-par, though Shia La Beouf’s role as Farber was too small and left us craving for more. Like many female scientist characters, Moynahan’s character was played as being too logic oriented, and reminded me far too much of Kathy Reichs‘ emotionally retarded author/anthropologist, Temperance Brennan, though in defense of her acting, that was intentional. Her character was designed to be the human version of the robot against the robot in the human in Will Smith. Both characters experienced a character arch that ended in personal growth that united them in the middle of each. Alan Tudyk did an amazing job as Sonny. He readily stepped out of his comedic shoes and tackled the drama with immaculate aplomb. With Will Smith’s character, I was not left feeling like I was watching a “Will Smith as So-and-So” movie, which was a nice precursor to his role in I Am Legend (and that is not only another day- its another review). Despite the common complaints that the film took a small piece of Asimov and went on a wild tangent- it was the opposite- a completely original story that later incorporated elements of Asimov’s stories in order to appeal to a wider market. It also left us with some really great, substantial material. Any more would have been too much for most people to take (I mean come on! Unleash deeper material on a country that was mind-blown by Harry Potter and the PHILOSOPHER’S stone?! No WAY!) Anyhow, I, Robot was a fun, action-packed, intelligent and existential journey into a future ruled by technology. The film is suitable for most audiences, with little kids who are susceptible to fear, as an exception. Those who don’t understand the philosophy will be so distracted by all of the explosions and the many, many, many, many, many Audis, that they will never notice they missed a thing.

* 5 / 5 *

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~ by Kд§$ị (ИovΔ) on 04/21/2010.

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