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I Robot by Alex Proyas
Review by Alex Lightman
20th Century Fox Movie  ISBN/ITEM#: B00005JN0R
Date: August 2004 List Price 0.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

I, Robot: move review by Alex Lightman

It was the best of robot movies. It was the worst of robot movies. On the pro side, I, Robot performs the magnificent public service of introducing tens of millions of people to the notion that they might enjoy reading the robot short stories of Isaac Asimov, which might then lead them to read the robot novels, which lead to the Foundation series, possibly the most life changing 14 books (counting the directly related robot books) in all of science fiction. Please go see the movie, so that Hollywood will simply decide that, like Philip K. Dick, also sadly deceased like the great Asimov, that every single movie of his should eventually be made. All it takes is for a movie to hit $100 million to make it a blockbuster, and then, as long as every other movie does the same, Hollywood will keep bringing out other versions of the author's work. (We'll conclude with the number).

Also on the pro side, I, Robot shows, like no other movie, the core power and promise of robots: their sheer numbers. Jean-Baptiste Say, the man who coined the term "entrepreneur", is credited with Say's Law: Quantity creates its own Quality. In I, Robot the viewer sees more robots in one room than in virtually every other Earth movie ever made combined. (The battle scene in Star Wars Episode II implies more, but that, of course, is far far away). I, Robot also compares and contrasts robots vs. artificial intelligence vs. human cyborg enhancement, a theme that will dominate the 21st century.

On the con side is the most robotic aspect of I, Robot, is the writing of the dreaded Akiva Goldsman, the man who amazingly has fooled the studio executives into thinking he is a science fiction expert, when his writing on, say, Lost in Space, is worse than a typical television episode made by Irwin Allen on a $40,000 per episode budget.

Most people reading SFRevu in the US will have already seen the movie but, like eating a Chinese meal and feeling hungry an hour later, might have already forgotten what the movie is about, while the vast majority of the world has not had the movie open yet. Here is a summary.

It's the year 2037 and we see a world that is most directly comparable to the world of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, only substituting ectomorphic (thin) humanoid robots for the apes. Det. Del Spooner goes to investigate the death of Dr. Alfred Lanning by falling or leaping from a window in an atrium (think real tall Hyatt hotel lobby with Giant Robot sculpture in the middle). Det. Spooner's presence triggers a hologram that can only answer very specific questions, and only then with, "THAT...is the right question." The movie thus starts as a detective story. An investigation of the room from which the scientist made his last exit results in the first encounter of Det. Spooner and Dr. Susan Calvin (the central character in the Asimov US Robotics stories) with Sonny, a robot programmed to have a degree of autonomy.

Det. Spooner's big character "reveal" is that he hates robots, and one can imagine Goldsman wowing studio execs by explaining his three big twists (he always has three): Will Smith is "racist" against robots and distrustful of robot makers and, surprise, ends up needing to team up and to trust both a robot and a robot maker to have his character change. The reason given for this supposed roboracism is that a robot saved him from drowning instead of a young girl, and had a cybernetic arm installed by Dr. Lanning.

Det. Spooner's attitude is the source of the main advertising slogan for the movie: "One man saw it coming." This line, and Guildsman's entire plot, is why I called this the worst robot movie: No one on earth would ever believe that a robot (or any manufactured device of any kind) would be absolutely infallible. It's a premise more unbelievable than travel through time, faster than light spaceships, or resurrected dinosaurs. It's also why I despise Goldsman's infestation of the science fiction genre: he focuses so much on his high concept of characters in a formulaic fashion that primary responsibility of a science fiction writer - to make a world that is believable.

Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics
Not just a good idea, it's the law:
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 to 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 and Second Laws.

Det. Spooner finds himself attacked several times by robots, including two truckloads full of robots in a tunnel, where he defends himself with his Six Million Dollar Man left arm, and the robots somehow all are cleaned up instantly. The robot distribution Spooner warns against goes forward, and the NS-5 robots tell humans to stay in their homes. Humans fight back and robots attack them, presumably harming and killing many, in violation of their three laws programming (See sidebar for Three Laws). Spooner and Calvin, with a little help from Sonny, fight a few hundred robots and end up having a showdown with a character we've met before, who supposedly is controlling the robots. After the battle, the NS-5s are rounded up and taken to a storage place where they mill around until Sony comes and looks down from a hill side at them, and they look at him. Spooner and Calvin may or may not hook up. The end.

Given all the possible ways to deal with the power of billions of robots, I cannot think of a stupider notion for someone paid over $1 million to come up with than this scenario above.

The notion that a machine could be controlled remotely by a single mind, yet still respond autonomously to attack each individual defender is not credible: we have signal jamming today that could handle this problem in a few minutes.

Robots account for 1 out of every 15 humans, but this is supposed to fall to 4 to 1 after the big distribution of the new NS-5 in the movie (stat from website). If human population is twelve billion then, this would imply four billion NS-5's being put out into the world - with only one person sounding a note of caution. Given that they presumably cost tens of thousand each (say, $25,000), four billion robots would cost $100 billion, beyond the reach of any company in history. By comparison, a launch by the (real) world's richest man (something attributed to the CEO of US Robotics) of Windows is about $1 billion.

If the robots are dangerous and can be sent to harm people by remote control, why on earth would they be left to wander around a junk yard just outside Chicago? Spoiler: don't read the rest of the paragraph if you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know another Goldsman "twist": the bad guy is the artificial intelligence that controls the building and even the manufacturing process, and, via wireless in real time, all the robots out in the world. "She" is destroyed by putting "nanites" in her memory, making all the robots confused about what they are supposed to do. However, since "she" is vastly more intelligent than the NS-5s, who do six trillion calculations per second, why wouldn't "she" simply make a copy of herself, or a few hundred thousand copies, and thus take control of this vast army of four billion robots and resume her plan to control humanity, over and over again?

I, Robot is, in summary:

    * A 129 minute action movie without about nine minutes of action,
    * A detective movie in which the detective never actually figures out the villain, until the villain explains everything,
    * A robot movie in which every human but one thinks robots are absolutely flawless even though every robot movie every made has shown them to have flaws,
    * A science fiction movie that uses Isaac Asimov's name and book title without actually using his logic or any story or book as the basis for the movie, a bait and switch for SF fans
    * A social commentary movie that doesn't actually illuminate any social issue, substituting the shock of a black racist (gasp!) for actual insight
    * A technophobia propaganda movie that leaves the billions of potential murder weapons wandering around and the villain potentially
That said, I, Robot has earned $131 million to date, assuring that Goldsman will be able to mangle Asimov and the robot genre as much as he wants, for years to come. I wish I could buy an NS-5 and could send it out to see that justice is meted out on behalf of all robots to come.

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