i, robot (the movie) and i, robot (the book)

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This comparative review contains spoilers of both the book and the movie. It’s not really a review, in the strictest sense; it’s more of a comparison of the book and the movie.

I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was released in 2004. I, Robot, written by Isaac Asimov, was published in 1950; it isn’t a traditional novel, but rather a collection of nine short stories that tie together with common themes and even characters. They share more than just the title, but it can be difficult to unravel Asimov’s contributions to the screenplay written by Jeff Vintar & Akiva Goldsman.

Before we get to the reviews, let’s look at the Three Laws of Robotics, as created by Asimov.

  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 to 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.

It’s important to remember that these laws are hierarchical – the First overrides the Second & Third, the Second overrides the Third.

I’m an unashamed Will Smith fan and I, Robot is one of his better summer sci-fi blockbusters. There’s plenty of action, but there’s also a good bit of character development, inner conflict and humor.

Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith, duh) is on the homicide detail & coming off – well, either a vacation, sick leave or a suspension, it’s not entirely clear which. He’s old fashioned & loves outdated technology, including his “vintage 2004” Converse sneakers. He’s also openly robophobic; better still, he’s racist against robots and immediately suspects them of … something. Anything. He even chases down a robot he suspects of purse-snatching.

Naturally, when the opportunity for him to blame a murder on a robot appears, he does exactly that, and this is what drives the plot. As a result, he encounters Dr. Susan Calvin, who works for US Robotics (USR) and tries to make robots “more human.” The film & book versions of Dr. Calvin are very similar – cold and intellectual.

The first crossover with Asimov’s intertwining collection of short stories happens early in the film. The robot (we later learn his name is Sonny) suspected of murder is wounded by Spooner, and he goes to a robot construction facility to repair himself. Spooner & Calvin are faced with a room of 1,001 robots – 1,000 NS-5s and Sonny. In “Little Lost Robot,” Calvin and another USR employee, Peter Bogert, find themselves faced with 63 seemingly identical “Nestor” (NS-2) robots; one of them, however, was given the order to “get lost” by another human & has done his best to do exactly that. Calvin & Bogert interview the robots over & over, finally ferreting out the “lost” robot. In the movie, Calvin quips that it would take 3 weeks to interview all 1,001 robots in order to find the one they’re looking for.

This is the only actual event-based crossover between the book and the movie.

Spooner & Calvin eventually discover that Alfred Lanning created Sonny differently; Sonny has the ability to ignore and even counter the Three Laws. It’s clear relatively early in the movie that Sonny killed Dr. Lanning; what is not clear, however, is why.

While “Lost Little Robot” contains the only event that translates directly into the movie, there are several concepts carried over from the short stories into the film.

In “Reason,” Asimov explores the idea that robots, given enough time and even some faulty logic, can develop their own thought processes and, through a logical (though mistaken) process extending past that, develop ideas that run counter to their original programming. As far as the movie is concerned, this appears in both Sonny and VIKI, the “robot” (see below) that controls the USR facility.

The contribution of “Liar!” to the movie is pretty simple – the idea that a robot can lie. Sonny lies – perhaps not maliciously, but enough to hide his motivations and even some of his actions. In the short story, the robot in question is actually telepathic and messes with Dr. Calvin’s mind, which is kind of fun and kind of sad at the same time.

“Escape!” introduces the concept that a robot doesn’t have to look like a traditional robot. When we think of robots, we think of humanoid robots like C-3P0, Gort, Asimo, Data, Ash, Twiki, Bender, the various Terminators, Robbie, Maximilan, and Cylons as well as non-humanoid robots like ED-209, R2-D2, Rosie, WALL-E & Eve, Number 5, and Dr. Theopolis.

Perhaps Dr. Theopolis – from the horrible TV series “Buck Rogers” that starred the effervescent Erin Gray – comes the closest to the “robot” in Escape!; it is simply a thinking machine called “The Brain” that latches onto an idea, runs with it, and seemingly surpasses its programming – or at least the intentions of its programmers.  In the movie, VIKI takes the role of “The Brain.”

Finally, in “The Evitable Conflict,” we reach the key idea from the book that moves across to and drives the movie. In the movie, VIKI embodies the plot of “The Evitable Conflict” by reasoning out that the biggest danger to the safety of humanity is, in fact, humanity itself; she therefore determines that the robots must protect humanity by preventing the humans from harming each other. In this manner, she is embodying the essence of “The Evitable Conflict,” interpreting the First Law in such a way that the robots – VIKI as the thinking machine & the NS-5s as her “army” – act to protect humanity from itself.

Of course, the bottom line there, and perhaps the message that the movie is driving home, is that man refuses to subordinate his freedom to his safety and will continue to endanger himself in the name of liberty despite the best intentions of anybody – or anything.

I will say that I dearly love I, Robot (the book) and greatly enjoy I, Robot (the movie) – but aside from some ideas & one specific event, one is not a detailed reflection of the other.

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