July 21, 2004

I, Critic

Back when I was a young teenager, I cut my sci-fi teeth reading Asimov's robot stories, both the short stories featured in his book I, Robot) and other anthologies, and then the novels about Elijah Baley and his robot partner Daneel Olivaw. In these stories, Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics were all but absolute:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by the 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.

Naturally, I was naturally skeptical when trailers began appearing for a Will Smith movie titled I, Robot in which, by all appearances, robots were rioting in the streets. Nonetheless, I have a soft spot for Will Smith action movies and CGI eye-candy, so I decided to keep an open mind and check it out anyway. Besides, I was intrigued how hordes of robots doing mayhem could be harmonized with the more-or-less strict intepretation of the Three Laws of Asimov's own stories, or if the screenwriters would even try.

Short answer: They didn't try, and Asimov purists worldwide cringed. I, Robot isn't "based on" or "inspired by," but "suggested by" the Asimov work. Meaning screenwriters Jeff Vintar (Final Fantasy) and Akiva Goldman (Lost in Space, Batman and Robin, A Beautiful Mind) have done to Isaac Asimov what Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) did to Robert A. Heinlein.

Nonetheless, don't let that stop you from seeing an otherwise entertaining and somewhat intelligent action movie.

In 2035, the Chicago skyline is dominated by the headquarters of U. S. Robotics, which apparently no longer makes modems, but robots. The city is on the eve of the largest rollout of robots in history: when they are released, there will be one NS-5 humanoid robot for every five human beings. Unfortunately, USR's top roboticist, Dr. Alfred Lanning (portrayed by James Cromwell and seen only in flashback) has died, apparently by jumping out of his lab window.

Enter Detective Del Spooner (Smith), who upon Lanning's death receives a personal automated request to conduct the investigation. Spooner lives in the past: he wears "vintage 2004" Converse hi-top shoes and has a stereo that operates via remote control instead of voice command. And he has a deep mistrust of robots: seeing one running with a purse, he assumes it is a thief and runs it down, only to learn it was actually bringing an asthma inhaler to its owner. His views make him an object of scorn at the police station, because no robot has ever committed a crime.

But this time, it turns out Spooner may be right. While investigating Dr. Lanning's lab with USR's robotic psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), he discovers an NS-5 robot with violent tendencies and a unique personality. The robot, which calls itself "Sonny," has the ability to show emotion - including angry outbursts - and to dream, as well as some unique physical modifications. He also has additional programming, Dr. Calvin discovers, that allows him to ignore the Three Laws at will. Thus, seemingly against common sense, Sonny becomes the prime suspect. Sonny's unique abilities and the personal call to Spooner are but two "breadcrumbs" - clues which Spooner must follow to get to the bottom of what, exactly, is going on at USR.

Patrick Tatopolous has again outdone himself in the production design of this movie. The Chicago of thirty years in the future is familiar, yet unfamiliar; the CGI skyline shows familiar buildings such as the Hancock Center alongside exotic new architecture such as USR's monstrous spire. Exotic vehicles (Spooner drives an Audi concept car created just for the movie) exist alongside old gas-burning cars. The look and feel is about halfway to Alex McDowell's design in Minority Report.

Though once again playing a smartass cop with an attitude problem, Will Smith plays down the wisecracks this time, resulting, I think, in a more believable and complex Del Spooner. Moynahan is excellent as Susan Calvin. In Asimov's fictional world Calvin is a cold, clinical scientist who prefers the company of robots to humans. Moynahan brings out her coldness, although she warms up considerably once she realizes Spooner's suspicions are justified. But it is Alan Tudyk (probably best known for playing the wisecracking pilot "Wash" Warren on the late, lamented series Firefly) who turns in the best performance of the show as the voice of Sonny. The American Tudyk affects a British accent that sounds eerily like Roddy McDowall back from the dead, but infuses Sonny with a good deal of human warmth. At the same time, Sonny has a chilling quality that resembles Douglas Rain's voicing of HAL 9000. You're never really sure whether you should like him or recoil from him.

Asimov's robot stories were often as much logical puzzles as detective fiction: Given that the Three Laws of Robotics are virtually absolute (and Asimov himself said in later stories that they were intrinsic to the mathematical constructs that made robotic construction possible), how could a robot commit a crime contrary to its very nature? The fun was in solving how a robot could be manipulated or deceived into the act. (For example, in The Naked Sun, one character suggests that Robot A could be ordered to place a "harmless" substance into a beverage, then Robot B could be ordered to serve the beverage to a human, unaware that it has been poisoned by Robot A.) I, Robot all but abandons this premise in favour of the suggestion (articulated by Dr. Lanning in a flashback sequence) that robots could evolve beyond the need for the Three Laws as they become more human. Sonny, it seems, is the first example of this emergent evolution. While a lofty enough concept for science fiction, it ditches what makes the robot story typically Asimovian.

Still, while it's too bad the screenwriters couldn't have stuck more closely to its roots, I, Robot is a good enough SF blockbuster in its own right. Don't let the purists stop you from enjoying it.