Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Movie Index


Directed by Alex Proyas (2004, 20th Century Fox)
Starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan and James Cromwell

A robot-prejudiced police officer searches for a potentially murderous robot in a supposedly robot-safe world.



2 stars

July 28th, 2005 on DVD  
    Low expectations yield reasonably good movies, I'm sure. At least I went into this movie knowing that Asimov's set of short stories was not going to be presented here. I had heard that Asimov would be rolling over in his grave at this movie. Maybe, but that is because of the gratuitous special effects, I think. The three laws of robotics are actually presented reasonably well here, but they and their effects are grossly misinterpreted, which is why I decided to write this short review.

Asimov's I, Robot is, like all of his books, about intellect. Typically, a robot malfunctions or behaves in a way that appears to go against the laws of robotics, and Susan Calvin or another robo-psychologist analyzes the robot and discovers that the three Laws actually were followed, but came into unexpected conflict.

What the creators of this movie do is loosen the Three Laws -a lot, and misapply the evolution of robots in general. The effect the Three Laws have on robots is probably the most interesting part. Should the robot at the beginning have stopped when Detective Spooner yelled for it to stop? No way. Potentially a human life was in danger, so the woman needed her purse. Even if it wasn't a matter of life and death, the owner of the robot could have phrased the command to get her purse in a way that was more urgent than a simple "stop" could counteract. How does a robot react when given two different orders? That is the type of thing that Asimov explored.

When Spooner asked if a robot could be made without the Three Laws, Calvin's response was incomplete. According to Asimov, the positronic brain cannot be made, cannot operate at all, without the Three Laws. It is not only "hard-wired" into the brain, but it is present in every single branching neuron. Every single action a robot takes, even when humans are not around, must be analyzed in terms of how the Three Laws will be affected.

Violation of the First Law causes paralysis and swift death of robots, something that did not occur in this movie. A robot watching the news of a dead human might have trouble functioning, because it could not have stopped the death. For a man to die in the lobby of a robotics company, where there should have been thousands of robots nearby, or at least watching, should have destroyed a fortune's worth of them. It seems to me that US Robotics should have had a lot of robots in the halls, and one of them would have spotted the falling human and helped break his fall, as it was a long fall, and they would have had plenty of time. None of the robots we see here even flinch when a human is harmed. Sonny even battles Spooner in a robot factory with a thousand robots in it, and they don't move as he is thrown against a wall!

The way the movie works out is to follow a seemingly-logical path to the evolution of robots and the Three Laws. In the Asimov novel Robots and Empire, Daneel and Giskard develop the Zeroth Law, in which humanity supersedes a single human. This is exactly what Viki does. Claiming that humans have to be protected from themselves, against their will (the Three Laws say nothing about human desires), the computer has designed new robots to force humans to behave. That means taking the world by force.

Unfortunately, the movie-makers only took the Zeroth Law halfway. The logical evolution requires that the other laws be modified, as Daneel does in Robots and Empire: the First Law then states that a robot must not harm a human or allow a human to be harmed, except where it conflicts with the Zeroth Law. Viki actually says that some humans must be sacrificed. But how many? According to the First Law, human casualties must be kept to a minimum. Even though Daneel developed the Zeroth Law, it almost destroyed him to allow a human to be killed when he could have prevented it. Thousands of robots trying to kill a single person is ridiculous.

A more logical revolution, more in line with the Three Laws, would be to take over very subtly, which could no doubt be done with no loss of life whatsoever. Avoiding a confrontation in the streets should have been a first priority. Having new robots beat up old robots was similarly insane. These things have off switches, and they should have been off after being retired. Why were they stored there, in a graveyard of sorts, if they could be killed by the nanites? Lansing's house was demolished the day he died, with all of his possessions and his cat still inside (didn't he have a will -wouldn't they wait until he was buried -wouldn't Calvin or his family find it suspicious?), yet these obsolete robots are kept around for years?

Actually, I don't blame all of the robots for trying to kill Spooner. He was one of the most annoying characters I've seen in a movie in a very, very long time.

Susan Calvin, on the other hand, was terrific. I'm glad that she didn't fall for Spooner. She was intelligent and beautiful, especially in the way she expressed her intelligence. She was almost exactly a true Susan Calvin, but not quite as tough or single-minded.

When the movie deals with Sonny as a character, and the way he interacts with Calvin and Spooner, it gets into the meaning of life, which is the best part of it, and beautifully expressed. That is the kind of movie I would have liked; something more along the lines of The Bicentennial Man, but from Susan Calvin's perspective.

Harlan Ellison once wrote a script for I, Robot, which I read, and was pretty good in giving us all the different stories in one package. It's too bad this was an action movie instead of a drama. It could have been so much better. As it turns out, it was decent, with some really bright patches, and adequate CGI and action sequences.

Not bad, but not I, Robot of I. Asimov.


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