July 14, 2004

Asimov rolling in his grave

Edward Rothstein of the NY Times shows how Will Smith's new movie, I, Robot, deviates from Isaac Asimov's vision of robots and the future:
The movie's retro material, then, may be a kind of a wink at its antique source. But in his book, Asimov also declared war on those who think about robots with fear and trembling, dreading the dangers of technological change. The new movie, though, often seems to oppose Asimov's view. Spooner hates robots, and he may have good reason. So Asimov's old battles are being engaged yet again and may be worth thinking about because they touch on so much more than android design.

Asimov's robots can certainly seem born of a more innocent, less knowing world: one loves hearing children's stories, another malfunctions by drunkenly going around in circles, a third may or may not be masquerading as a well-meaning human politician. Surely this gently imagined future is hopelessly eclipsed now that we have seen the killer android of "Terminator 2" morph into any human shape out of blobs of mercury, or watched the machines of the "Matrix" trilogy rule the post-apocalyptic earth, plugging humans into energy pods with elaborate software.

The movie, as if troubled by its innocent origins, even tries to leave the book behind. (A more faithful adaptation is in a published screenplay for "I, Robot," written in the 1970's by Harlan Ellison.) Any similarities that remain are on the surface.

This film, directed by Alex Proyas, is actually a hybrid that developed out of a robotic murder mystery by the screenwriter Jeff Vintar and was then transformed after the acquisition of rights to Asimov's book. That hybrid character exists even in its views of technology. The movie wants to look backward toward Asimov and sideways toward Hollywood technothrillers. It promises a fresh embrace of technology while rounding up the usual technological suspects. It is torn between the two sides but is far more interested in one than the other.

This was not Asimov's approach. In 1956 Asimov explained that before beginning his robot stories he had tired of the typical robot plot about "the creature that turned against its creator, the robot that became a threat to humanity." That plot was there with the very invention of the word in Karel Capek's 1921 Czech play, "R.U.R." and became disturbingly perverse in Fritz Lang's 1927 film, "Metropolis."
Entire article.

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