I, Robot

I, Robot July 27, 2004

It was a toss-up: I, Robot or Catwoman? I, Robot won. Be warned: this may be a bit of a spoiler.

I am always prepared to like a Will Smith film, and this one started off okay. I, Robot is a sci-fi action film based on the collection of short stories of the same title written by Isaac Asimov and published in 1950.

Science fiction is an okay genre for me; I don’t seek it out because it seems to always be a variation of the same theme (I am willing to be enlightened on this, however): what is the nature of the human person? True, the human person is a universe, but with one outstanding characteristic: free will and consciousness: the ability for a person to reflect on him or herself reflecting (to put it simply.).

This film is about robots that evolve – or are evolved by Dr. Lanning, played via holograms by James Cromwell. Like Frankenstein, Lanning has created a monster, and he gets the monster to promise to kill him – though we don’t find this out right away. Lanning has even named the high end robot: “Sonny”. And yes, the humans then kill (i.e. are recalled – can you imagine the cost?) all the other robots that have gotten out of hand.

The film seems to be predicated on the logic of Asimov’s rules of robotics (though if you do some research on the internet you’ll find that sci-fi experts now question the absolutism of the rules) :

(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.


Certainly Del (Will Smith) questions these rules but the female lead, Dr. Susan Calvin (lots of talk about free will here; I wonder if Asimov chose the name on purpose; played by Bridget Moynahan) believes in them absolutely. Her job is to make the robots seem more human. The recurring chant throughout the film was that V.I.KI., the central brain of the robotic computer system, kept proclaiming how logical “she” was.

The plot seemed forced to me, though average summer fare. What bothered me the most however, was the ending. Just when this film could have asked intelligent and existential questions (like Blade Runner) about what makes a human being human, and the consequences of our dependence on technology or where it is taking us, the film seems to veer off into the free range of a “feel good” ending. Del and Dr. Calvin are rescued by Sonny; they shake hands with Sonny and send him off to find his own way, since that’s what it means to be human. He then ends up at the dump where the old robots have been exiled to act as a kind of redeemer.

A feel good ending does not mean a “postive” one for I, Robot. If it were positive, robots would be robots and humans, human. The film ends, at the very least, in an ambiguous manner regarding human nature and the act of creation. It questions, then posits, that if humans evolved, then machines can, too. If the writers are being ambiguous, then it seems they don’t know the difference between humanity and machines … and this seems very pessimistic regarding the nature and future of human race.

The film’s final ambiguity might lead one to consider that the film is a commentary on where humanity might be heading, rather than affirming a specific existential reality, e.g. that what makes us human is free will and consciousness. I don’t think this is the case, however. The film is too much about high concept entertainment than big ideas.

This is not an intelligent film, it’s a feel good film with the usual car chases and even a robotic revolution. These terms (intelligent and entertaining) are not always mutually exclusive, because “smart” can be entertianing, too. But the distinction is often the difference between an average film and a really good film that makes you say, “Ah ha!”

I am still waiting for the best film this year.

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