June 25, 2009

I, Robot: A Critical Review

Posted in Essays, Film Criticism, Literary Criticism, Sci-fi tagged , at 12:44 am by j128

This following review is a discussion of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and the 2004 movie of the same name, including history of robots.

Isaac Asimovs I, Robot

Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot"

I, Robot is a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, first published in 1950, and despite its title it is not related to Eando Binder’s short story of the same name. Originally, when Mr. Asimov had wished to call it Mind and Iron, and objected when the publisher renamed it.

The omnibus contains nine short stories, set within a quasi-narration (that is seen as memories) by the famous Dr. Susan Calvin, a reputed robopsychologist of U.S. Robots, who works with robots and helps them out with behavioural, psychological problems. Susan Calvin is one of the most well-grounded characters of Mr. Asimov’s robot stories.

Many times over screenplays were written for a movie based on Mr. Asimov’s robot stories for Warner Brothers but the company didn’t accept any of them. The most notable attempt was Harlan Ellison’s screenplay, which was viewed with very positive responses from Mr. Asimov himself and he said it would be the best science fiction film ever. Mr. Ellison’s screenplay can be found in the book I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay. I have read it and it is definately appealing.

In 2004, a film titled I, Robot starring Will Smith was released in North America, and many fans had anticipated its release in full faith of it being a unique Asimovian film. However, many were disappointed as it had become a science fiction thriller with a deep leaning towards the “Frankenstein complex“, a colloquial term used by Mr. Asimov described as “a fear of robots and other artificial intelligence.”

Quite a few years before I had even read I, Robot I had seen many trailers for the movie, and even though at the time I wasn’t really aware of what it was about, I could definately tell it was some sort of anti-robot movie. When I actually saw the film about one and a half years ago, with references of Mr. Asimov’s stories in mind, I wasn’t impressed. Myself, I see the film as being rather lame and underdeveloped due to its high amount of action and violence, and totally lacking in character development and story structure – even during scenes of high-excitement, I was pretty aloof and there wasn’t a single moment of personal excitement for me. It was like, “Okay, what happens next?”

History of Robots in Literature

Robots have appeared throughout literature since ancient times. In Greek legend, was said to be a creature that patrolled the ancient island of Crete day and night, watching for intruders, and the animated skeletons in the legend of the Golden Fleece could be called robots.

But it was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that many believe the first robot appeared in literature, despite Victor Frankenstein’s Creature to be organic. Many refer to the Creature as “Frankenstein,” but it is the creator’s name, not the creation. In the story, Victor Frankenstein creates the Creature with several recent dead remains of people, and one night it becomes alive, and it destroys everything Frankenstein loves; in the finalty the Creature kills its creator. Thus, the origin of Mr. Asimov’s “Frankenstein complex”.

Incidentally the same year Isaac Asimov was born, it was in 1923 that the word “robot” was introduced into the English language by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s (pronounced Chapek) Rossum’s Universal Robots or R.U.R. The word robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “slavery, forced labour”, etc., from the Czech word rab “slave.”

Despite the etymology of “robot”, slavery was not the case in R.U.R. In the play, the robots are indistinguishable from human beings – as they are organic – and they are employed by humans. Through the course of the story, the human population increasingly becomes lazy up to the point where the robots are doing all the work – until one day, the robots revolt and attack the helpless humans. The robots later develop human qualities, such as the ability to love and reproduce.

Isaac Asimov’s Robots

Mr. Asimov describes in his introduction to Robot Visions that as he was growing up, he read tons of science fiction, especially the kind that dealt with robots, but he did get tired of the ceaselessly mediocre plot of robots rebelling and wreaking havoc until they were stopped at the eleventh hour, almost a cliché.

Mr. Asimov’s robot stories really eased the fear of robots so many people had and even more so when he made the idea of a robot take-over impossible with the Three Laws of Robotics, which state as follows:

  1. A robot may not harm a human, or allow a human to come to harm through inaction.
  2. A robot must obey a human’s orders unless they conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect itself unless this conflicts with the First or Second Law.
I, Robot 2004 film (tagline)

Promotional poster for "I, Robot"

The I, Robot Movie

Rumours of a sci-fi film based on Mr. Asimov’s robot stories spread quite quickly in the early stages of making I, Robot. For many years, fans had hoped a movie based on Mr. Asimov’s robot stories would be faithful to them and based on an earlier screenplay, particularly Harlan Ellison’s (see above). While his screenplay is, as mentioned, the most notable especially as he had personal support from Mr. Asimov, Warner Brothers shelved it due to the fact that at the time it would be very expensive due to the technology involved, but of course, as always, there could be other things in the shadows about the screenplay being shelved.

Anyways, the screenplay written for the film was never based on Mr. Asimov’s works, it was originally entitled as Hardwired. Sometime later 20th Century Fox acquired the copyright and around the same time, rights to Mr. Asimov’s works became available. The director was assigned, who is said to have begun referring to it as “I, Robot” almost immediately.

The film was released in 2004, having been filmed in Vancouver, B.C., but set in the U.S. around the year 2035. In the film, humanity has become accustomed to relying on their robots, and Detective Spooner (Will Smith) is constantly trying to condemn robots but with little success. He hates robots and sees no good in them at all and when the mysterious death of a prominent figure of U.S. Robotics (note the difference in the company’s name), a company that promotes the use of robots and manufactures robots. Spooner directly assumes the cause of death was by a robot, despite others insisting it was a case of suicide.

Spooner suspects one of the new line of robots,the NS-5s, nicknamed Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), yet the robot refuses he committed murder, and he even displays emotions such as anger.

To make a long story short, the high artificial intelligence V.I.K.I., which is what all the new robots are hooked up to (except Sonny), apparently corrupts the robots and the robots begin to revolt against the humans and initiate some kind of curfew. The previous robots, the NS-4s that had been replaced by the NS-5s, respond to the emergency and try to protect the humans only to be destroyed by the new robots.

Sonny, Spooner, and Dr. Susan Calvin defeat V.I.K.I and the other robots, which revert back to their normal state, and everything goes back to normal pretty much.

All that happens within the course of the film displays characteristics such as the Frankenstein complex, robot take-over, and saving humanity at the last moment. There are some references to Mr. Asimov’s works in the film, whether they’re obvious or alluded to, but they don’t really serve the same purpose as they do in the originals. These are some of the robot stories that are featured: “Little Lost Robot”, “The Bicentennial Man”, “The Evitable Conflict”, and “Robot Dreams”; a story that is prominent in the scene when Sonny is seen standing on a hill looking down at all the other robots.

I, Robot Trailer

Further Reading

I suggest reading Mr. Asimov’s I, Robot, and I would also suggest Harlan Ellison’s I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay. Both are readily available; in late 2004 Warner Brothers packaged the screenplay in book form with I, Robot featuring the DVD cover of the movie.

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