Monday, August 09, 2004

Rise of the Robots

I saw I Robot. They said it was based on (or was it ‘suggested’ by) Isaac Asimov’s book of short stories, drawing liberally from his well-known 'Three Laws of Robotics.' Anyone can see why these fictitious directives have become iconic - they don’t smart from legalese:
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 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.
In the movie, the 'Three Laws' set the stage for a high-tech action thriller. I enjoyed it - in a detached kind of way. I’m writing what I remember of the movie and the image that keeps coming back is Will Smith’s buff body. Then there's the oh so obvious product placements: Converse, JVC, Audi (not to mention U.S Robotics). That doesn’t say much for a movie that attempts to question the ugly side of technology and whether robots have the capacity to evolve higher intelligence. There were the requisite cool action set pieces, thrilling car chases, Matrix-like slo-mo, etc, but I must say they did feel staged. Like the attack on the police and the riot scenes. Where’s the danger? The action was fast and furious, but lacking in terror - the kind that the Terminator franchise had in spades (not the last one though). Okay, maybe I’m expecting too much out of an actioner.

Make no mistake: I like sci-fi. Still, what every old tired genre needs is not a bigger piece of canvas or a thicker coat of paint, but something that goes deeper.

Besides, a thoughtful philosophical underpinning would be welcome sop to cineastes who want something more than eye-candy. Like Blade Runner, which succeeds as techie noir, for instance. Or Star Trek: Next Generation’s First Contact which shed its highbrow pretensions without sacrificing brain or brawn. Even Steven Spielberg’s A.I had more emotional appeal in comparison, although it admittedly got sloppy towards the end. Same goes for Tom Cruise’s flawed Minority Report (also by Spielberg) which had its moments, but at least you empathize with the characters.

One thing that post-modern film-makers and script writers won’t give up is a surrender to meaninglessness, even if a lot of what makes it to the big screen deserves to be forgotten (anyone remember another Asimov adaption, the awful Bicentennial Man?). Vestige of a Judeo-Christian heritage you could say. Now this longing for purpose is either a useful plot devise or a punching bag, or both. In the movie, Sonny the ‘evolved’ NS-5 robot muses about his existence:
“My father made me for a purpose. Do you believe everyone has a purpose?”

Spooner (Will Smith's character) replies: "Designer, you mean."

While dystopian movies such as this take for granted the evolution of intelligence, any reference to “ghosts in the machine” is always telling. They cheat. They want their cake and eat it too. They've practically given up everything that defines humankind as a divine image bearer, but they just can’t bear giving up their souls.

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