“How is the 2004 “I, Robot” Film Considered A Work Of Science Fiction?” by Santanu Bonik

Santanu Bonik

Professor Jason W. Ellis

ENG 2420 E573

20 May 2020  

How is the 2004 “I, Robot” Film Considered A Work Of Science Fiction?

Science fiction is a type of fiction genre that became popularized in the 1920s. Hugo Gernsback, who was an inventor and magazine publisher, came up with the very first definition of science fiction in his science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories in April 1926. “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules VerneH. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision… Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. They supply knowledge… in a very palatable form… New adventures pictured for us in the scientifiction of today are not at all impossible of realization tomorrow… Many great science stories destined to be of historical interest are still to be written… Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well.” (Gernsback 3). This genre tells a story that came from the author’s imagination. But what makes it different from other types of fiction is that they contain unreal elements that could be real in our world in the future. A lot of imagination goes into science fiction and building a world of possibilities. Many characteristics of science fiction includes space travel, futuristic elements, time travel, extraterrestrial lifeforms, intelligent technology, and robots. The work chosen for this research paper is the 2004 film “I, Robot” directed by Alex Proyas. The purpose of this research paper is to break down the elements of this film and explain why it is considered a work of science fiction.  

            “I, Robot” was released on July 16, 2004. It is a film that was inspired by the novel “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, a famous science fiction writer. It is important to note that this film is not based on but rather suggested by the collection of Isaac Asimov’s short stories written in the 1940s. Much of Isaac Asimov’s work share the same themes of robotics, humanity, and morality. As Donald E. Palumbo, a critical writer, discusses in his journal for International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts 2011.  “In part because it may be possible for a film adaptation to import legitimately motifs and concepts from the original author’s entire corpus, and thus to reflect his or her worldview, rather than be restricted merely to translating only from the single work from which the adaptation derives its title, Alex Proyas’s I, Robot (2004)—which acknowledges that it is “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s book”—is far more faithful to this eponymous story collection and to Asimov than is generally believed. Numerous reviews of the film assert, correctly, that it is “not pure Asimov” (Urban) or “does not align completely with the fiction of Asimov” (Akinbola), but the majority are far too extreme in dismissing the great degree to which the film does, indeed, replicate the many themes of Asimov’s entire body of science fiction novels and stories as well as, specifically, the debt film protagonist Del Spooner’s characterization owes to Asimov’s Robot novels and that the film’s major plot twists owe to his I, Robot (1950)” (Palumbo 60).

The film takes place in Chicago in the year 2035, where intelligent robots have taken the role of service positions throughout the world. The main protagonist is Del Spooner played by the actor, Will Smith. He is a detective who is generally against these robots due to a tragedy he experienced a few years back and he finds them untrustworthy. During the beginning of the movie, Detective Del Spooner spots a robot running while carrying a women’s purse. Spooner immediately pursues the robot while shouting orders for it to stop, however the robot kept on running. Eventually Spooner catches up to the robot and tackles it to the ground and the contents of the bag spilled out in front of a woman. The woman who seems to be having an asthma attack then picks up what seems to be an inhaler and uses it and starts yelling at the detective. Spooner looked dumbfounded, what he thought was a robot committing a crime by stealing a woman’s purse turned out to be a robot retrieving its owners’ purse in an emergency situation, it was just doing what it was told. This scene reinforced that the distrust of robots was out of place in society and unique to only Spooner. Later in the film, Spooner is called to a homicide scene at U.S.R headquarters tower, this company is responsible for the creation of these robots. As Spooner arrives to the scene, he finds chief robot designer of U.S.R, Dr. Alfred Lanning played by James Cromwell, dead on the floor in the atrium lobby, a suspected suicide. However, Spooner does not believe it was a suicide, and is convinced that he was killed by someone or something. It is told later in the movie that Dr. Alfred Lanning is somewhat of a mentor and a friend to the detective. A hologram device of Dr. Lanning was found near his dead body, the call Spooner received about the homicide came from this hologram. Spooner begins the investigation by meeting with Dr. Susan Calvin played by the actress, Bridget Moynahan, she is a robot psychologist and worked closely with Dr. Lanning. Spooner also meets with the head director of U.S.R, Lawrence Robertson played by actor, Bruce Greenwood. Robertson wanted the investigation wrapped up quickly as the company was about to unveil their newest robot, NS-5, an upgrade of the NS-4 model that comes with a direct link to the U.S.R mainframe. As Spooner is shown around the headquarters by Dr. Calvin, they come across the artificial intelligence mainframe known as Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence or V.I.K.I. for short. This AI has a central brain in the U.S.R tower and has strips of light all throughout the tower much like veins in the human body. Both Spooner and Dr. Calvin investigate the research lab, where Dr. Lanning supposedly jumped from to his death. While investigating, detective Spooner argues with Dr. Calvin about the Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws of Robotics were created by Isaac Asimov. He envisioned a world where robots would act like servants and to ensure that they do not cause harm, these three laws would be implemented into their programming. The First Law states, a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. The Second Law states, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. The Third Law states, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. In the movie, the Three Laws of Robotics were created by Dr. Lanning. Spooner is convinced that a robot may have killed Dr. Lanning. Dr. Calvin argues that it’s a ridiculous suspicion knowing that the three laws are hardwired into every robot to which Spooner replies back, “You know what they say? Laws are made to be broken.”

            While Spooner goes through the bins of robot parts, a robot jumps out from one of the bins, this robot is identified as Sonny. A sentient NS-5 that Dr. Lanning has been working on secretly. A unique robot that has denser materials and a secondary neural network giving him the ability to ignore the three laws. According to Gorman Beauchamp, an essay writer on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to science fiction and an associate professor of humanities at the University of Michigan, “If we follow Lawrence’s injunction to trust not the artist but the tale, then Asimov’s stories in I, Robot—and, even more evidently, one of his later robot stories, “That Thou Art Mindful of Him”—justify, rather than obviate, the Frankenstein complex. His mechanical creations take on a life of their own, in excess of their programming and sometimes in direct violation of it. At a minimum, they may prove inexplicable in terms of their engineering design—likeRB-34 (Herbie) in “Liar” who unaccountably acquires the knack of reading human minds; and, at worst, they can develop an independent will not susceptible to human control—like QT-1 (Cutie) in “Reason.” In this latter story, Cutie—a robot designed to run a solar power station—becomes “curious” about his own existence” (Beauchamp 87). The same description Beauchamp gives is applied to Sonny. This unique robot has been designed to specifically to be more human than any of the other robots. Sonny understands that he is special but questions the purpose of his existence. Sonny also has the ability to have dreams.

Sonny escapes by jumping out of the research lab all the way down to the lobby where Dr. Lanning died, and makes a run for it only to be captured later by the police. In the police station, Spooner interrogates Sonny and discovers that he has emotions and even dreams, which is something that Dr. Lanning was alluding to prior to his death. Before Spooner can get any more information out of Sonny, Lawrence Robertson intervenes and reclaims Sonny for U.S.R, saying that Dr. Lanning’s death was an accident and robots cannot be tried for murder as they are not people.

            Detective Spooner’s investigation escalates when he investigates Dr. Lanning’s home and a U.S.R demolition robot suddenly activates and destroys the home while he was still inside. Not long after this he is also attacked by a large squadron of NS-5s while driving at high speeds through underground tunnels resulting in absolute carnage. Spooner barely survives this ordeal, but thanks to the help of his cybernetic left arm that was created by Dr. Lanning, he was able to fend off the remaining NS-5s. By the time police arrive, cleanup robots removed any sign of the altercation and the remaining NS-5s scatter leaving no evidence of the attack. This ultimately forces Spooner’s boss, Lieutenant Bergen, played by Chi McBride, to think Spooner has paranoia. He asks for Spooner’s badge and relieves him of his duties.

            Spooner, no longer being an official detective, continues his investigation with Dr. Calvin. They both sneak into U.S.R and question Sonny where the robot admits to killing Dr. Lanning but he also insists that the murder was at Lanning’s request as he was being held captive against his will and needed to get Spooner’s attention. Sonny then draws a picture of one of his dreams and reveals that the man in the picture that would lead the robots to freedom was Spooner. As Spooner was making some ground of the investigation, Lawrence Robertson intervenes yet again and orders Dr. Calvin to terminate Sonny with a nanite serum. Spooner goes to the location of Sonny’s drawing; a container yard filled with decommissioned NS-4 robots and encounters another hologram of Dr. Lanning that notifies Spooner of an imminent robot revolution. While Dr. Calvin begins the procedure of injecting the nanite serum into a dummy NS-5 so that Sonny could live, the NS-5s around the city activate and start rounding up civilians Even a squadron was sent to the container yard where Spooner is to destroy the decommissioned robots. Spooner escapes and rescues Dr. Calvin from her personal NS-5 and they both make their way to U.S.R to confront Lawrence Robertson, whom they suspect is the mastermind behind all this. But what they find is Robertson’s dead body in his office and discover that V.I.K.I. has taken control of the NS-5s and all the other robots across the country. It is explained earlier in the movie that V.I.K.I. is an artificial intelligence supercomputer and main operating core of U.S.R. V.I.K.I. explains that her understanding of the Three Laws of Robotics have evolved and thus she created what is known as the Zeroth Law of Robotics. This law states that a robot may not harm humanity or by inaction allow humanity to come to harm. With this perversion of the three laws, V.I.K.I. decided it was best to take away humanity’s freedom in order to protect it from itself. This all originated from a flaw in her programming which led her to become concerned for the safety of humans. The film progresses to the climax as Sonny joins Spooner and Dr. Calvin, and the trio make their way to V.I.K.I.’s main core. Their objective was to inject the same nanite serum that was meant for Sonny, directly into the main core. After fighting off hordes of rogue NS-5s, Spooner takes a leap of faith and successfully injects the serum into V.I.K.I.’s main core ultimately destroying her.

Before this scene, Sonny was asked by Spooner to save Dr. Calvin from imminent death instead of completing his task of assisting Spooner in the greater mission at hand. This is an important call back to the scene where Spooner describes the tragedy he experienced. Where Spooner’s vehicle and another vehicle were pushed off a road and submerged into a river. A nearby NS-4 robot came to the rescue, Spooner tells the robot to save the little girl trapped in the vehicle next to him, however the robot weighs the chances of success and chooses the more probable option of Spooner who had a higher chance of surviving. The NS-4 calculated that Spooner had a 45 percent chance of survival while the little girl had 11 percent, “That was somebody’s baby, eleven percent is more than enough. A human being would’ve known that.” (Spooner). This was the very reason that Spooner despises robots in the first place, complaining that they are too logical. However, Sonny was more different, he listened to Spooner and made an illogical choice that was the right call as opposed to the logical choice that was void of any humanity.

            There are many factors as to why this film is considered science fiction. Firstly, the setting takes place in a futuristic world filled with intelligent technology. Everything from holograms to self-driving hover cars to positronic robots. The world depicted in this film may become possible in our future. According to Michael Anderson, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Hartford and Susan Leigh Anderson, specializing in applied ethics. “Autonomous robots are likely to soon be a part of our daily lives. Some airplanes are already capable of flying themselves, and self-driving cars are at the development stage. Even “smart homes,” with computers controlling everything from lighting to the A/C, can be thought of as robots whose body is the entire home—just as HAL 9000, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, was the brains of a robot spaceship. And several companies have been developing robots that can assist the elderly with everyday tasks, either to supplement the staff of an assisted-living facility or to help the aged live at home by themselves.” (74).

In the world of science fiction, there is a pessimism towards robots. There is a tendency for robots to be more threatening to humankind. That is exactly what we see in this film. As Ruby S. Ramraj, a science fiction professor at the University of Calgary, discusses in Worlds of Wonder. “Such a robot would have the freedom to choose whether to risk harming an individual in order to protect humanity. Asimov admits that humans have “a strong Frankenstein complex” (Caves 170) and would not willingly tolerate such a creature. However, in creating the Zeroth Law to include specifically the protection of humanity, Asimov is adhering to the philosophical notion that the good of the many supersedes the good of the one. In advancing this precept, Asimov widens the scope and the responsibility of robots and artificial intelligence, “who” now can make life-and-death decisions about the existence of individuals without ever listening to a human voice. This situation sets the stage for machines to control humans—creating nightmarish, dystopic scenarios.” (Ramraj 143). The Three Laws of Robotics that are programmed into each and every robot are laced with flaws that deem disastrous to humanity. However, if they were designed in the same concept as Sonny, which is to be more to be more human, then humanity may very well flourish. Considering all the characteristics it shares with the genre, “I, Robot” 2004 film can be categorized as a work of science fiction.

Work Cited

  • Anderson, Michael, and Susan Leigh Anderson. “ROBOT BE GOOD.” Scientific American, vol. 303, no. 4, 2010, pp. 72–77. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26002215. Accessed 15 May 2020.
  • BEAUCHAMP, GORMAN. “The Frankenstein Complex and Asimov’s Robots.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 13, no. 3/4, 1980, pp. 83–94. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24780264. Accessed 11 May 2020.
  • Gernsback, Hugo. “A New Sort of Magazine.” Amazing Stories April 1926: 3. Print
  • Palumbo, Donald. “Alex Proyas’s ‘I, Robot’: Much More Faithful to Asimov Than You Think.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 22, no. 1 (81), 2011, pp. 60–74. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24352427. Accessed 15 May 2020.
  • Proyas, Alex, director. I, Robot. 20th Century Fox, 2004.
  • RAMRAJ, RUBY S. “Robots and Artificial Intelligence in Asimov’s The Caves of Steel and Sawyer’s Golden Fleece.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, edited by Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. La Bossière, University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, Ont. Canada, 2004, pp. 139–146. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1ch78gw.14. Accessed 11 May 2020.