I, Robot, iPod, iRiver, iBook, iMomus, ITV 2, is it me or are things getting a little egotistical around here. Of course, as the soul quite literally gives up the ghost, the ‘I’ of consciousness becomes even more compelling and mysterious.
With cognitive science undermining the decision making process by showing the synaptic chemical reactions that occur a few milliseconds before we “consciously” make that decision, free will is under threat. Thus consciousness, the thing we like to think elevates us over all other species is nothing more than a complex determinism.
The potential for such complexity to evolve in computers is the seed from which I, Robot grows: clusters of data, formed by self-generating systems, allow the robots to go beyond the limitations of their programming and uniqueness is formed. However, in the film, only a couple of scientific visionaries think like this. Everyone else is convinced that they are merely mechanical, unfeeling slaves. Everyone except Detective Spooner (Will Smith) – the 2035 equivalent of a redneck racist – who is convinced that the robots are somewhat sinister . . .
The pull of films like I, Robot – from the blockbusting action genre – lies in their depiction of heroism. A person who quashes all notions of probability in their quest: having perfect driving skills, perfect aim and infallible intuition. They are superhuman, which is mildly ironic (in the Alanis sense) as this is a film whose robot “villain” is smarter, stronger and better at acting than all of the other humans.
In order for Spooner to appear heroic he has to undergo the most ludicrously impossible situations. After the crudity of the war in Return of the King, where the life of the protagonists was so boringly secure, things have to get ever more sensational. Long gone are the days when Bruce Willis could take on a mere dozen or so baddies in Die Hard; nowadays, there would be thousands of kamikaze warriors suppliant to Alan Rickman’s every whim. It is all quite, quite vulgar. Also, for a film that talks about consciousness and what makes free will, it is of course massively over-deterministic. The plot is predictable and, even within the realms of the story, Spooner is played like a pawn.
The film hinges on the interpretation of Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics:
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.
The robot’s attempt to rule over human beings is done for the good of capital-H Humanity. With robots in charge, there will be no more ecological damage, wars or irrationality. But there’ll also be no more fun, passion or blockbuster movies.
It is a film that contains more messages than a postman’s bag. Human beings are irrational, this is their strength and their weakness; slavery is bad; tolerance is good; over-reliance on machines is bad; self-reliance is good; yadda yadda yadda. The fact that the metaphorical postman can carry all of these messages without breaking his back is due to the lightness of touch with which these themes are dealt.
I, Robot – despite its generic flaws – is that rare thing, a blockbuster movie that can inspire conscious thought rather than deaden it.