Movie Review


I, Robot

Production Company: Twentieth Century Fox
Director: Alex Proyas
Principles: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan
Rating: PG-13 for fantasy violence and brief partial nudity

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- "Laws are made to be broken," says Detective Spooner (Will Smith). Dangerous words when those laws are all that stand between mankind and a race of stronger, tougher, faster robots. In the surprisingly thought-provoking science fiction thriller I, Robot, inspired by Isaac Asimov’s seminal short story collection, a murder has been committed, an emotionally scarred detective is on the case and he suspects the unthinkable - the murderer is a robot. There’s only one catch. Robots are incapable of harming a human … or are they?

Will Smith searches for a robot that might have broken a law once thought inviolate: that a robot cannot harm a human. All images copyright © 2004 20th Century Fox
After seeing I, Robot, I had the strangest feeling. I didn’t know where to start my review. Not because the film had no meaning or message, but because it was jam-packed. In fact, I, Robot is a virtual compendium of all the ethical, philosophical and spiritual questions that have haunted the concept of artificial life - particularly artificial intelligence - for hundreds of years. I go back so far because Asimov, the godfather of robot literature, began writing about them in response to the story pattern that had dominated virtually all tales of artificial humanoids. Call it the "Frankenstein Syndrome," although it predates the 1818 novel. It goes like this: Man creates artificial man. Artificial man turns out to be a monster. Monster turns on his creator, usually killing him. Monster kills himself, or is killed by other men.

Asimov had other ideas. He saw the possibility of an artificial man - specifically a humanoid robot - as the product of engineering and reason, not an act of arrogance and heresy. Asimov created "The Three Laws of Robotics," an ethical code for robots akin to the Ten Commandments governing robots’ relationship with mankind and safeguarding humans from any danger posed by robots. Those laws are:

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 the 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.

Will Smith's hunt for a killer draws the attention of one very special robot, Sonny (left, front). All images copyright © 2004 20th Century Fox
These laws are central to the film, and they create the backdrop for the murder mystery and philosophical musings of the characters. Spooner is deeply prejudiced against robots for reasons that are shockingly revealed as the film progresses. While the rest of the world sees robots as servants of mankind, providing relief from drudgery and dangerous vocations, he sees them as usurpers, eliminating jobs and falling into every facet of life. When the very scientist who invented the robots leaps to his death in what is assumed a suicide, Spooner suspects foul play. Is it a coincidence that the death occurs on the eve of the rollout of a newer, more advanced domestic robot? Why is U.S. Robotics, makers of the robots, automatically replacing all older models with the eerily human-like NS-5? And despite the company slogan that the NS-5 is "Three Laws Safe," can we ever really be safe when there is now one robot to every five humans, and one in nearly every home?

Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan race to stop a threat to the citizens of Chicago -- and possibly, to the entire world. All images copyright © 2004 20th Century Fox
Although no robot has ever committed murder, Spooner is convinced that there are loopholes in the three laws, and that the more flexible NS-5 might reinterpret the laws to some sinister end. Complicating his investigation is the suspicion that he is somehow a pawn in a grander scheme, and that his hate of robots is somehow being manipulated to lead him off track. As the story progresses with all the explosions, car chases and whip-lash action expected of a summer flick, it also ponders the nature of intelligence, self-awareness, the existence of the soul, individuality, free-will verses predestination, prejudice, the dangers of sole-source monopolies, the conflict between the rule of law and the law of compassion and the unpredictable anomalies common to programmed logic - often called "Ghosts in the Machine."

More importantly, I, Robot explores the timely question of when does a mission to protect become a license to enslave. How much personal freedom can safely be surrendered for the sake of promised safety and security? This question, though found in a science fiction film, could have just as easily sprung from today’s headlines. With all this going for it, all I can say is, get a group together, go see I, Robot, enjoy it - and let the debates begin.

Gregg Tubbs is a free-lance writer living in Columbia, Md.

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