I, Robot

July 25 2004, 0 Comments

In his book “I, Robot”, Isaac Asimov sets out the Three Laws of Robotics: a set of axiomatic rules that robots are programmed to follow. The neat logic of the rules prevents robots from ever being able to harm humans. The book is a collection of short stories which explore the paradoxes arising from the application of those laws in certain situations, and the ironies faced by the hapless robots confronted by those situations.

Of course, Asimov wrote the stories back in the 1950’s. Had he known how computers would eventually turn out – programming bugs, viruses, Microsoft and all – he might have realised that those convoluted paradoxes of logic that he devised wouldn’t have been necessary to thwart the Three Laws: a simple software crash would be enough to cause the robot to act outside of its design parameters. In Alex Proyas’ new film inspired by the book, one of the characters remarks about the potential for robots to harm humans: “They don’t need a motive; all they need is a malfunction.”

I, Robot is set in Chicago, 2035. It’s a far brighter and more kinetic city than the one the characters inhabited in Proyas’ earlier landmark science-fiction film Dark City – almost what you’d expect to see in a Spielberg sci-fi rather than in one by Proyas, who also created the Gothic The Crow. However, unlike Spielberg’s ultra-modern vision of the future in Minority Report, which is set in roughly the same period as Robot, Proyas doesn’t completely saturate the setting with hi-tech gadgetry. The technology is prominent of course, but it’s balanced by recognisable artefacts from our own time. This is certainly a more realistic view of the future: shiny new toys will always appear, but prominent buildings in the skyline will remain, as will old jalopies and apple pies…

Perhaps the reason that Proyas’ future city contains so many familiar elements has less to with artistic vision than product placement though. This is another one of those big-budget sci-fi films that is crammed full of brand names. The advertising executives must think that it’s a way of saying, “Look! It’s the year 2035 and our products are still everywhere!” But it doesn’t seem likely to me that practically every car in the future (particularly in the U.S.) will be manufactured by Audi. And if someone was to actually purchase a pair of ‘collector’s edition’ Converse sneakers that are over thirty years old, would he proceed to wear them throughout the rest of the film as he runs around the streets of Chicago? The most audacious claim must come from JVC: Will Smith’s character uses a hi-fi that supposedly comes from their present-day range of products. Let me ask you this: do any of your Asian-manufactured home entertainment components last longer than about five years, before all the little buttons are inoperable and the entire unit is a reduced to a useless pile of plastic?

Another example of product placement is Will Smith as the star of the film. He plays the same role I’ve seen him play in almost a dozen other movies: the street-smart, wisecracking, plays-by-his-own-rules law enforcement officer with a chip on his shoulder (or should that be a chip in his shoulder?) In most of his other films the act usually works pretty well for Big Willy. In Men In Black it made him seem comical. In Bad Boys it made him seem cool. In this film though he seems to be the only funny man in a world full of straight guys and the act wears thin quite quickly.

Smith’s character is a detective who begins investigating the untimely death of Dr. Alfred Lanning, a prominent engineer at the world’s largest manufacturer of robots, the aptly named U.S. Robotics (I thought they made modems?). Lanning’s death is initially labelled a suicide, but the headstrong detective is audacious enough to suspect that perhaps a robot has broken the Three Laws, and that there is something more sinister behind the doctor’s death. This sets in motion a plot full of predictable twists and some not-so-mind-blowing revelations.

I wondered if the screenwriters had ever actually read an Asimov book. I’m sure they came close to reading one, because the movie’s final scene seems inspired by the imaginative jacket cover artworks on Asimov’s publications. However, their script lacks any of the intriguing puzzles of logic that Asimov was famous for or the neatly unfolding ironies that so many of his short stories contained. All we get is a caricature of a more complex story.

My suspicions about how well-read the screenwriters are were further confirmed by the fact that besides giving credit for the Three Laws to the fictional Dr. Lanning, the movie also claims that Lanning coined the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’. I could excuse the credit for Asimov’s Three Laws since they do give him credit for the book, but was it necessary to skim over the fact that the term ‘ghosts in the machine’ was prevalent in philosophy long before it was ever applied to robots, computers or even machines for that matter? (The term was coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in 1949, and has also been used as the title of an album by The Police – which is where I think the screenwriters heard it for the first time)

Even though the plot lacks sophistication – it is hardly as challenging as Minority Report’s twisting story line – the film does have a great deal of entertainment value. Proyas plays out some of his action sequences at breathtaking pace and others at dizzying elevations, all of which heighten the audience’s physical connection to the visuals. The special-effects however, seem to alternate between the sublime and the downright embarrassing. It’s almost like playing one of those computer golfing simulations where one of your errant drives from a sumptuous photo-realistic fairway lands right up next to a heavily pixelated (and clearly computer-drawn) tree. In I, Robot the computer-generated bits often betray themselves, which ultimately jeopardises the believability of the depicted futuristic world.

I wouldn’t tell you not to watch the film. I’ve seen far worse science fiction films. But if you’re an Asimov fan, don’t expect a story that lives up to the Asimov tradition, and if you’re a Will Smith fan, don’t expect him to be on the same form he was in films like Independence Day. Despite the films flaws though, you’ll probably find yourself enjoying this film.

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