I, Robot (2004)

Rated PG-13 Our Rating: V-4; L-2; S/N-3

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
thou holdest my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
yea, I have a goodly heritage.
I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Psalm 16:5-8

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself Matthew 27:36-39

I ROBOT

Although it is true that in director Alex Proyas’s film there is more summer action thriller than Isaac Asimov, even a touch of that sci-fi writer’s genius is enough to lift the film above most other summer action blockbusters. (Have to put the qualifying “most” there because of the admirable Spiderman 2.) Co-writer Jeff Vintar had written a screenplay about a detective suspecting a robot of murder entitled Hardwired, which was already in the production process when the filmmakers obtained the rights to Isaac Asimov’s classic collection of robot stories, I, Robot. Elements of several of Asimov’s stories were then incorporated into the script—including two of the characters from the series, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) and Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell)—and the book’s title. Thus, the end credits read that the film was “suggested by” Asimov’s I Robot. In this sense it could be said that virtually all robot stories since 1942 have been “suggested” by Isaac Asimov, so influential has this writer been on the genre—but more on him later.

Det. Del Spooner (Will Smith) is sort of a gentle Dirty Harry cop frequently at odds with his boss Lt. John Bergin (Chi McBride) in how he carries out his investigations (now where have we seen this before?). It is just 30 years in the future, 2035, and robots, as we see in the opening montage of Chicago streets, are to be found everywhere—one even is a dog walker. Spooner does not like this, harboring a deep-seated resentment of robots. Later, as the brief flashbacks in his mind grow longer, we discover the source to be a traumatic childhood experience. The first chase scene shows him in hot pursuit of a robot running with a woman’s purse along the crowded city sidewalks. Spooner’s eventual capture of the robot causes quite a stir, especially when the irate owner of the purse informs the policeman that she had forgotten it and had sent her robot back to her home to retrieve it. Bergin, in reprimanding Spooner, reminds him that the robot could not possibly have stolen the purse because of the 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 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.

(From Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Robot Visions)

Because of his hostility or prejudice, Spooner is not convinced. This proves an important factor in the far more serious case which he takes up next at the headquarters of U.S. Robots, the giant, exclusive manufacturer of the millions of robots that have taken over virtually all of the world’s drudge work. Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the inventor of the robot and chief researcher at the company, is dead. All signs point to suicide, with the new robot Sonny (voiced and initially acted by Alan Tudyk, whose body is replaced by the CGI graphic of a robot) being the last one with him. Spooner does not accept the verdict, believing that the robot might have murdered the inventor. Lance Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), US Robot’s CEO, strongly disagrees, pointing out that the Three Laws make such a thing impossible. Dr. Susan Calvin supports her boss. She is the company’s robopsycholgist, more at home among the robots that she studies and services than among humans (this is even more emphasized in Asimov’s stories, where she is not nearly so attractive).

Robertson presides over the world’s largest corporation, its robots now being found everywhere doing the world’s most dangerous and most tedious work. Immersed in the pr campaign to place a personal robot in every home on the planet, Robertson regards Spooner’s investigation, based on his belief that a robot might be able to go against the First Law of Robotics, as a potential threat to his plans to market the new line of more intelligent robots known as the NS-5, of which Sonny is one. The corporation would lose hundreds of millions of dollars if the public’s trust in robots were called into question. Hovering over everything is V.I.K.I., the master computer (voiced by Fiona Hogan) who runs the day-to-day operations of the company.

Sonny, polite and deferential to Spooner, is the detective’s No. 1 Suspect. No one will go along with the detective, especially Lt. Bergin. Even a spectacular attack on Spooner in a tunnel by two huge trucks filled with robots fails to impress his superior—Bergin blames Spooner for the mess that litters the roadway. Susan Calvin, however, is finally convinced by events to join Spooner in his quest. What develops, to the credit of the scriptwriters, is not the romantic relationship between man and woman, but that between robophobic cop and Sonny.

Thanks to Will Smith and Alan Tudyk we come to believe in and root for what could have been one-dimensional characters. Aided by fabulous CGI graphics that are totally convincing—I’m looking forward to watching the film on a DVD so that I can push the “Pause” button and look at the wonderful way in which new towers and monorails are blended in with the familiar present day buildings of the Chicago skyline. What I found best, however, about the film is that it sent me back to the author who was one of my favorites during my teen years when I was immersed in science fiction. Although Philip K. Dick is currently enjoying a well-deserved revival, it was Isaac Asimov, along with Robert Heinlein, who lifted the science fiction of the late 1930’s above the level of space opera. Asimov was just 19 when he wrote his first robot story and submitted it to the top sci-fi magazine of the day, Astounding Science Fiction. The magazine’s editor John W. Campbell, Jr. rejected it, but the not to be put off teenager found another magazine whose editor was more amenable.

Recognizing talent, Campbell did work with Asimov, so that soon another robot story was accepted. The editor probably liked the young writer’s desire to break away from the old plots in which robots always turned on their makers like some mechanical Frankenstein monster. Asimov reasoned that engineers in creating such complex machines would build a safety factor in, just as those who designed cars or power tools constantly strived to make machines that would not needlessly harm their users. He also thought that humanity’s fear of anyone or thing that was different would be almost impossible to eradicate, so he often mentioned in his stories the “Frankenstein complex” which led to the banning of almost all robots from the earth itself.

I was victimized by one of the good effects of the film version of a book—none of the libraries in our county system had a copy of I, Robot available, so I joined the waiting list. This proved fortunate—otherwise I might not have taken out the author’s Robot Visions. This collection of Asimov’s earlier robot stories also includes a fascinating introduction by the author giving background information about his personal life in relation to his stories, but also a series of short essays about robotics and humans. The short stories include the first one, rejected by Campbell, “Robbie,” about a little girl named Gloria who strongly resists her fearful mother’s efforts to get rid of the family robot so dear to the little girl’s heart. In this story Susan Calvin makes her first appearance as a walk-on character—a teenager writing a class paper on robots, she shows up at the Science Museum, where Gloria has come to find out information about her missing mechanical friend. (I would love to know whether Susan was in the original draft, or whether Asimov, after writing several other robot stories, inserted the few lines about Susan when “Robbie” was anthologized.)

The Three Laws are implied from the very beginning, but it was not until his 1942 story “Runaround” that a character actually recites “The Three Fundamental Rules of Robotics,” later shortened to “The Three Laws of Robotics.” Virtually all of the stories deal with a robot seemingly violating one of the Laws, as in this film, and thus the characters having to figure out the logical reason for this and how to deal with the situation. The world depicted in Asimov’s stories is different from that of the film: Asimov sees humanity’s deep anti-robot phobia as causing them to be banned from earth, except for a few researchers and such. In the film we see them everywhere, but in the original stories they are used off world to attend to dangerous jobs such as mining or, as in “Runabout,” to go on the hot surface of the planet Mercury where humans cannot go.

Robot Visions also includes Asimov’s “Reason” and the novella “The Bicentennial Man.” The short story is fascinating in that a new model robot nicknamed Cutie, built to rely solely on reason, refuses to believe the “unreasonable” story of two spacemen that robots have been created by humans, the latter obviously so inferior in strength, longevity, and ability to reason and calculate. Believing that the computer that controls the space station is actually the Master who created him, Cutie orders the other robots to confine the two humans to their quarters, telling the men trying to re-establish their control, “There is no Master but the Master, and QT-1 is his prophet.” Thus the problem for the men is how to deal with a creature of superior strength, whose reason has led him to seemingly go against the Second Law of Robotics. In the novella “Bicentennial…” Asimov explores the fading boundary between humans and robots and how the laws will also change in regard to what is a human being—this makes me want to take out again the failed (and thus under-rated) movie version.

Asimov writes that although he knows little of the technical side of robotics, his stories have been a great influence on those in the field. They have adopted his name for the field “robotics,” and strongly support his Three Laws. Not bad for a layman with a creative imagination. Do yourself a favor after watching I, Robot. Go to your local library or bookstore, and take out the book that “suggested” the film.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) What do you think of the Three Laws of Robotics? Compare them to the Two Great Commandments in Matthew 27:36-39.

2) When Susan Calvin declares that “a robot could no more kill than a human could walk on water,” what does Spooner say? Recognize whom he is referring to?

3) Asimov’s stories often show how we read human attributes into our machines: have you done this, or someone you know? A car; a gun;04—? Why do you think we do this?

4) What does Granny quote during a moment of danger? (See Psalm 16). Do you think her faith has influenced her grandson?

5) How did you feel when you heard it stated that “to protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed…Some freedoms must be surrendered”? Sound familiar? What do you think of this?

6) What does the handshake at the end signify? How has Spooner grown as a person?