starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood, James Cromwell, Chi McBride, Shia LaBeouf and Alan Tudyk
written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman
directed by Alex Proyas
This is the third excellent robot movie that I have watched in the last few years. The others include Artificial Intelligence (or, AI, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Haley Joel Osment) and Bicentennial Man (directed by Chris Columbus, starring Robin Williams and Sam Neill). Both Bicentennial Man and I, Robotare based on the Isaac Azimov, Robert Silverberg novel The Positronic Man. All three movies deal in the seminal questions of human identity, human definition, evolution of conscientiousness, creativity, imagination, conception of self, the genesis of life, the meaning of life, and the reconfiguration of the idea of Rights imposed on us by the creation/evolution of artificial intelligence. All three deal in some forecasting of the future. I, Robot is a police action film and so entails a lot more action, shooting, and car chases than the other two, which are gentler, more sentimental human dramas. But all three films are stuck in the falsehood of robot as android.
In Bicentennial Man Robin Williams played the unique, immortal, benevolent household appliance with the positronic brain, Andrew Martin. I, Robot plays it differently by positioning the positronic brain inside the bodiless controlling intelligence of the USR Corporation that manufactures robots (including the newest edition of android, NS-5), nicknamed “VIKI.” (Remember Hal from Space Odyssey?) VIKI passes the threshold into malevolence when “her” programming leads her to the undeniably logical conclusion that human beings can not be trusted with their own survival, and so a revolution is in order in which the robots will “protect” humans whether they like it or not.
Other famous recent android robots include the little boy played by Haley Joel Osment in AI; Data, played by Brent Spiner in Star Trek: The Next Generation; and, of course, C-3PO and battle droids from the Star Warsseries. And, let’s not forget all three Terminatormovies of the last two decades. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is the perfect embodiment of the evil, human-mimicking, out of-control technology that haunts our imaginations. It seems that the Western imagination prefers to fear robots - technology as immorality, moral humanity reduced to slaves by the soulless power of its own creation. It’s the Frankenstein story. Every evil robot story is the Frankenstein story retold: Man creates a Monster.
But in Japanthere is much less of that kind of interpretation of things. The Frankenstein story is a Western, European story, not a Japanese one. Here in Japantechnology is friendly, and the designed cuteness of it is played up. (In television the cartoon robot cat Doraemon is very popular. Doraemon has a pocket like a kangaroo and can pull anything out of it: a powder to make people invisible; a door to walk back through time; a reverse mirror that lets you look through walls, etc.) Even monsters are cute. Over the years I have asked many Japanese why Godzilla is so popular and I have been told many times that Godzilla is“cute.” These days the Japanese media is enamored of an experimental humanoid robot called “Azimo.” I have no idea why. Azimo doesn’t do anything at all. Every few moths there is a picture of the latest version of Azimo in the newspaper, with a female model in a short skirt showing it off titillatingly, like a new car. Each new model of Azimodemonstrates more ability to mimic human flexibility and balance, which is a great engineering feat, I suppose. But it still doesn’t do
anything, so there is nothing to get excited about. But Japanese do get excited. I think they are excited by the cuteness of it. (It looks like a child in a spacesuit.) Because cuteness is such an appealing asset it is rather more valuable in a corporate culture like Japan’s than it is in most Western cultures.
Anyway, I, Robot is a futuristic story of doom at the hands of our own out of control technology. It is one of our great fantasies - this idea of malevolent, soulless technology. Set in Chicagoin 2035, Will Smith plays police Detective Spooner, a man with a grave mistrust of robots. Dt. Spooner is an old fashioned kind of guy. He wears vintage 2004 Converse All Stars running shoes. He likes to do his own driving - by hand! And, his stereo at home has to be turned on and off by the push of a button rather than voice activation. What a luddite! The way he does his job reminds me of Silvester Stallone in The Demolition Man. He likes to break a sweat and blow things up.
NS-5 is supposed to be the greatest achievement in robotics. The issue of NS-5 will bring the robot-human ratio up to 1-to-5: a robot in every household. Completely safe for humans, or “3 Laws Safe” because they are programmed to follow the three great laws:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.
Faith in the three laws is so firm and universal that Dt. Spooner is seen as nothing short of crazy to doubt robots, and so his suspicions about the involvement of one robot, “Sonny,” not only fall on deaf ears, but eventually compromise his credibility. His is another form of the Brave New World, one in which his employment personnel file has him diagnosed as a “recluse”because he retreats from human-machine interactions. He is right, though. He has to be right in order for the script to fit the typical Hollywood story outline of such films. He is right, and through lots of exploding action he saves the world from the evil VIKI. I for one appreciate stories that show the supremacy of correct but unpopular convictions overcoming incorrect popular paradigms. It appeals not just to my rebelliousness, but to my elitism. I like to see people who are wrong get their faces rubbed in it (firmly).
But why do I call the android a “false” model of robots? It is because robots are already here, they have been for many years, working among us in factories. These are just machines that perform repetitive, boring actions better than human workers can do them - like welding car doors to body frames at the auto plant. When I point this out to some Japanese acquaintances, “You know, we have had robots around for many years.”
They adamantly say, “No.”
“Yes, we have.”
The miscommunication is because when I say “robot” I am thinking of robotic machines. When they hear me say “robot” they think “android robot.” They simply cannot imagine any other kind of robot. It is a limitation learned from too much TV and movies that utilize exactly that kind of machine. An android may be a robot, but a robot does not necessarily have to be an android robot.