I, Robot

“Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box; Religion is the smile on a dog”
- Eddie Brickell & New Bohemians, What I Am

Loosely based on an idea of Isaac Asimov's, I, Robot is the rare big-budget sci-fi that is slick, exciting and smart – like all three of Charlie’s Angels bundled together. And with exploding robots tossed in for good measure.

It’s natural to be suspicious of goofy summer blockbusters spouting epistemological riddles while giving their beefcake heroes ample chances to showoff their bow-flex bodies, but I, Robot works on so many different levels that you really need to suspend your disbelief.

Will Smith plays Del Spooner, a police detective in Chicago 2035. The world is largely on automatic pilot, with people giving up all sorts of control to robots, computers and other machines. Computers open doors, pilot cars, and oversee all information systems, while robots walk dogs, bake pies and do basically everything short of butt wiping.

Humans basically just… Well, go to work. Mass society seems to be as clunky and unrewarding as ever, despite the slave labor provided by these machines.

Robots are, of course, not human, and are subject to the three robotic laws, hotwired into their programming: 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. These laws render robots “safe” while reasserting their basic difference from human beings: Our moral privilege to choose right from wrong.

The laws are reasonable, logical safeguards to ensure robots understand their place in the world, but things go afoul when a famous robot scientist, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) ends up dead. At first the case is thought to be a suicide, but Spooner notices the shatterproof window scant seconds before finding a renegade robot at the crime scene.

Sonny (Alan Tudyk) isn’t like other robots. He seems to exhibit a free will and is not connected to the mainframe, where the other robots receive their information and programming. He is, in a sense, free, a creature without the laws embedded into his system, capable of making moral choices independent of the system around him.

Spooner follows the bread trail back with the help of a scientist who had worked with Lanning – Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) – which leads to a deeper conspiracy, involving the nature of free will and calling established categories of matter and essence into question.

Sonny could be a killer or he could be a saint, and the film allows for this sort of ambiguity, allows for the possibility that the machine might evolve into something more than a useful tool, might yearn for freedom, like a man This illogical spirit is called the ghost in the machine, but the terms could just as well describe how people connect in the mechanical world around them, how they rebel against organization and exert free will in the face of a cunning intelligence that is, in its nature, nothing more than a apparatus of control.

Man and machine collide in a world that tries to strip the definition of both.

Smith is seriously buff and the director isn’t afraid to linger on his body. One scene shows him waking up in the morning and immediately starting a rigorous exercising routine. Despite the heavy R&B background music and Smith’s own personal charisma, there’s a sense of the machine at work in the scene, a sort of unconscious reference to the way Spooner mistreats his body as a sort of organic mechanism.

The world is also oddly robotic, with men acting as machines using their bodies. Both men and women wear formless metallic suits, erasing their bodies, and the city surges forward less like an organic creature than a sort of clockwork beast, where every irrationality is transformed into a cold mathematic equation.

Men have become machine, so perhaps its natural for machines to become more human. That’s the conceit of I, Robot. The middle ground between machine and men has vanished, and there are strange opportunities in that uncertain space that used to divide them. Sonny and Spooner represent two types of synthesis between men and machine: The man who has allowed himself to become mechanical – both inside and out – and the machine that has been imbued with human emotions and uncertainty.

Spooner listens to a holographic message from Dr. Lanning, who tells him that he’s sorry, but his responses are limited. But like the hologram, Spooner is himself just a pre-programmed recording, responding to the world in fixed ways. One of the most eerie moments of the film occurs when we realize that even Spooner’s actions are predictable, part of some super-rational understanding of synchronicity.

The special effects are a bit too plastic at times, and only really succeed on the small-scale, in the faces of the robots, and when depicting how these creatures contort themselves. When the camera focuses on large, sublime landscape – usually the forte of these sorts of films – it fails utterly to capture the complexities of the enviroment, and looks cartoon-ish and silly.

I, Robot reveals the ghost in the machine, and it looks a lot like us.


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