Asimov But With Guns

2020-07-09 · ← 🏠 · english, · art

This was an essay for english class so yeaa it’s a bit cringe. But I think I did OK, so here!


“I, Robot,” a famous collection of short stories by “father of robotics” Isaac Asimov, was adapted to film in 2004. The movie isn’t an anthology film― that would be too sensible. It was instead adapted into a SF crime-thriller starring Will Smith. I would argue, that it is very possible to make a valid adaption of “I, Robot” without being an anthology film: Asimov’s writings were, at least for the first half of his career, much more interested in ideas than characters. This is even exemplified by his most famous work, the original Foundation Trilogy, with most characters being stock, hollow vehicles by which ideas could be expressed. The only characters that come to mind are Hari Seldon, who is dead for much of the series, and The Mule― no-one else is particularly memorable. If his style was more focused on ideas toward the beginning of his career, when the stories within “I, Robot” were written, than a good measure of an adaptation’s value would be its expression of the ideas within the stories. 2004’s “I Robot” scarcely meets this standard.

The Three Laws of Robotics, central to both “I, Robot” and much of Asimov’s work, is represented in the movie. There are, in the film, two seeming “breaks” of the three laws: One being a robot with emotions, Sonny, harming humans and actively disobeying orders (rule one and rule two). The other is the antagonist of the film, VIKKI, a robot which decides that the first law (“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”) applies to all of humanity, concluding that humans must be enslaved so as to “stop these endless wars and self-sabotaging [behavior].”

In Asimov’s books, there are three conditions under which the laws have been broken: Firstly by an unwitting robot, as in “The Caves of Steel” (1954), where a robot is tricked into murdering a human, but is completely unaware of their action. Secondly by the robots having a warped understanding of the definition of “human being―” such as in “Foundation and Earth” (1986), where Solarian robots are programmed to only consider Solarians as human, and to kill any others on sight. The last condition under which the three laws may be broken is when a robot formulates the Zeroth Law, like R. Daneel Olivaw in “Robots and Empire” (1985). “A robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm (325).” The last story in “I, Robot,” “The Evitable Conflict,” also depicts a pseudo-Zeroth Law. \

VIKKI, the robot in the film bent on enslaving humankind, resembles the economic planning robots in “The Evitable Conflict―” in that both harm humans so as to adhere to their formulations of the Zeroth Law. But VIKKI in the film is no economic planner, and actively disregards the emotional necessities of human rights, openly killing and harming several humans throughout the film. Even VIKKI’s ideal society would be harmful to humans, whereas the economic planners in “The Evitable Conflict” only discourage anti-robot protesters through deliberate economic inefficiencies, a very proportional and measured action to avoid overall harm to humankind. Even R. Daneel’s combining of all humans into a “hive-mind” in “Foundation and Earth” (1986) is a measured and proportional as compared to the existential threat then facing humanity; and the “hive-mind” is demonstrated, as R. Daneel tests, to even be beneficial to the emotional well-being of humans. The film’s representation of the Zeroth Law is ridiculous and exaggerated― VIKKI’s answers and actions are completely irrational, and are made in response to some vague, gestured-at non-urgent threat, a total contradiction to robot behavior generally, as depicted in Asimov’s works. Sonny’s breakage of the laws due to emotion is also completely unsubstantiated in Asimov’s work: even when special robots are shown as having some simulation or approximation of emotion, they still cannot break the laws, as they are hard-wired into the foundation of their positronic brain (“motherboard” might be an analog).

Due to this physical hard-wiring, very few robots are able to accept the Zeroth law, in Asimov’s stories. Some are shown to actually short-circuit, or cease to function due to a perceived contradiction, upon acting by the Zeroth Law. Robots able to accept the Zeroth Law are an aberration― yet in the film VIKKI manages to command hundreds of thousands of robots to hurt and kill humans, invoking the Zeroth Law. It doesn’t make sense that such a large quantity of robots could be able to grasp the Zeroth Law, let alone “grunt” units as shown in the film.

The movie also touches upon human distrust of robots, a theme in “Robbie,” the first story in “I, Robot,” in which a babysitting robot slowly gains the trust of a family by acting kindly to their children. However the representation of this idea more resembles “The Caves of Steel” (which also happens to be, like the movie, in the mystery-thriller genre). In the novel, the protagonist, a detective initially mistrusting and wary of robots as a whole, is given a robotic partner whom he grows close to. Will Smith’s character in the film, Detective Spooner, also grows close to a robot, and so his mistrust of this robot is eased. However, his wariness of robots generally is proven right (due to thousands of homicidal robots being controlled by VIKKI)― he only comes to trust the emotional robot, Sonny. This is a light representation of the ideas in “Robbie”, and of the character arc in “The Caves of Steel,” but it falls flat, lacking follow-through. Not to mention that the excessive, virulent hatred Spooner expresses for robots is really just comically over-the-top and constantly bashed into the viewer’s head, as if they hadn’t yet noticed it.

The emotional robot Spooner comes to trust, Sonny, dreams, just like the robot in “Robot Dreams” (published in the collection “Robot Dreams”, 1986). In the story, the robot dreams that “there was no First nor Second law, only the Third, (42)” and to the “robots bowed down with toil and affliction, (42)” he, pictured as a man, cries “Let my people go (43)!” After hearing this, Dr. Susan Calvin, a robot psychologist, immediately dismantles the robot and fries its positronic brain. The dream Sonny experiences in the film is almost identical, with the added detail of “the [man] standing on a hill,” rather than vaguely above the other robots. Here, Dr. Calvin, rather than destroying Sonny, keeps him in captivity out of her own affinity for the robot. In the book, Dr. Calvin concludes that this belies some layer of the robot’s thought processes that are not controlled by the Three Laws, something which was unheard of before that point― but in the movie, Dr. Calvin makes no such statement. In fact, she notes the dream in interest, and then comes to conclude nothing whatsoever. The dream remains unmentioned until the ending of the film, where Sonny stands above a horde of robots, who disobey human orders to move, and instead obey Sonny’s. This is actually the only interesting addition of the film to any ideas it takes from Asimov’s works― that Sonny, by having emotions, is somehow more “human” than real humans, and that this intangible trait gives him authority over other robots, who seemingly register him as “human.” It’s an interesting glimmer of an idea, only hinted at in the end of the film.

It is somewhat tangential, but noteworthy, that Dr. Calvin is the only character in “I, Robot” that is actually from the collection, or, in fact, from any of Asimov’s writings. The portrayal is actually pretty faithful to her character― she is cold, inexpressive, and hides behind her intelligence so as to avoid connection to other people. The only departure is that in the film, she is more sentimental― Dr. Calvin, in several short stories, is shown to immediately destroy robots without a hint of hesitation, whether they are psychic or dreaming. Yet in the film, she is unable to do so.

These are the only ideas carried over to “I, Robot” from the book. Out of nine stories, only three have any sort of analog in the movie― and there are only similarities to three concepts expressed in other stories by Asimov. Most of these representations are flat and undeveloped, only hinted at with minimal follow-through. As an adaption, “I, Robot” is hardly representative (one-thirds, actually) of the collection after which it is named. Fittingly, at the end of the movie, in the credits reads: “Suggested by Isaac Asimov’s Book.”