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I, Robot (2004)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“What will you do with yours?”

Set in 2035 Chicago this movie starts as a much more optimistic view of the future of the modern city and its accompanying technology than that posited by Blade Runner, which I chose for comparison because it is a movie with a similar plotline and subject matter. The movie opens with Asimov’s Laws of Robotics shown over an underwater scene, which we discover is a dream when Del Spooner (Will Smith, very good in the role) wakes. Del apparently likes “oldies”/”classics” judged by both what’s on his stereo and his feet. On his way out he is met at his door by a delivery robot (from FedEx, they survive? Seems unlikely), who he shunts aside without any regard. The robot is mechanically polite and deferential in response.

On “Spoon’s” (Del’s nickname) way through town, we see a Chicago which is still easily recognizable, though the CTA looks better (perhaps divested by government). However, there are differences from the Chicago of today, e.g. robots in the sidewalk traffic performing menial work such as walking dogs and gathering trash. Billboards show moving images, one of which announces US Robotics’ rollout of a new line of robots, the NS-5.

Del visits his grandmother GG (Adrian Ricard). He likes the sweet potato pie she's made for him, but seems to not like robots, although she thinks he “of all people” should. After leaving GG’s place he spots a robot running with a purse. Although he has been shown wearing a holstered firearm, in this situation with the running robot, it is revealed that Spoon is a police detective. Most of the action so far has been to demonstrate that Spoon really doesn’t like robots.

After the robot/purse situation resolves to be a robot helping in a medical emergency, Del heads to the police station, where he has a discussion of the events with his superior Lt. John Bergin (Chi McBride). John thinks he should get over his suspicion of robots and asks if Del is back to work too soon, hinting, as did GG, about something not yet revealed to the viewer. In this discussion, Del asks a question of his boss which hints at a major theme of the movie when he asks him to define "crime." As John leaves, Del answers a homicide phone call with widening eyes.

He is off to US Robotics (USR) headquarters: a new and impressive skyscraper in the Chicago skyline. He manually drives his car (later in the film we discover this is radically strange in the world of 2035). His car has a computer advisor, which even when not doing the driving, counsels him on where to turn to reach his destination. At USR he flashes his police ID and is admitted to their offices. The death he investigates is that of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the movie's codifier of the three Laws of Robotics and creator of the positronic robot brain. Lanning has died in a fall from a great height in the USR offices. At the scene Del speaks with a programmed holographic figure of Dr. Lanning, which gives him cryptic hints that assumptions being made about the death being a suicide may be incorrect.

After talking with the cops gathering evidence, Del meets Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) CEO of US Robotics and “the richest man in the world.” It seems like an interesting coincidence to Del that Dr. Lanning would die during the same time period as a monumentally new series of robots are being debuted. He is not convinced that Dr. Lanning committed suicide, as seems to be the shared opinion of most other people. Mr. Robertson assigns robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) to escort him at USR during his investigation. While investigating they encounter two robots of particular interest: VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) – the central control system for the USR headquarters and the city’s traffic systems, among other things; and Sonny (voiced by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk): a unique robot whose appearance is similar to the NS-5 series, but who has special features. Those are the central players.

I, Robot is a mystery story as well as being a science fiction thriller, but it is more than those, as was Blade Runner. It deals with the question of what it means to be “human.” What is the nature of free will? With advancing complexity, how effective are rules? With the growth of machine “intelligence” what might be some of the unintended consequences?

The credits say the movie was “suggested” by Asimov’s book. Those expecting any sort of close adherence to Asimov will probably be disappointed. However, it is a very good story, with good acting and excellent direction from Alex Proyas. People who like SF, mystery or suspense will find much to enjoy. Those who like the “big questions” will also find good reason to watch.

Often many people develop confidence in things like the “Laws of Robotics” (or constitutions) and discount the ability of machines (or governments) to overcome the boundaries set for them. I, Robot demonstrates that when dealing with entities which attain a certain level of complexity, complacency and confidence in the power of words is a very dangerous tendency.   

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