“The Bitter Mote of a Soul”: Images of the Human and the Robotic in Alex Proyas’ I, Robot

This essay was my capstone paper for my  undergraduate degree in film studies.

The detective entering the interrogation room glances at his suspect. The suspect, sitting at the table, turns his head inquisitively as the detective breaks eye contact to look back at his lieutenant and – winks. Interrupted by an abrupt zoom, centering on the detectiveʼs eye, accompanied by the artificial indication of a lens on the screen and the sound of a camera shutter, we are forced into the perspective of the suspect, who differs from us in one distinct way – the suspect is not human, but an advanced model of robot.

This brief shot/reverse-shot sequence from the 2004 film I, Robot establishes the identity of the robot-suspect, Sonny, while simultaneously evoking questions of the human versus the nonhuman in Detective Spoonerʼs explanation of the wink as “a sign of trust. A human thing. You wouldnʼt understand.” The film itself, however, demonstrates that far from being this simple, the delineation of “human” from “nonhuman” is an increasingly problematic practice, complicated by the escalating mechanization of the human, the increasing humanity of the machine, and the integration of machine and human into one component whole. In this paper, I will explore the work of defining what separates the human from the merely mechanical, a work that is taking place concurrently in the real world and the cinema. This work calls into question the nature of replication, the robotic, and of humanity itself in an increasingly technological society, blurring many of the dichotomous boundaries erected in the past to simplify this classification.

When exploring cinematic conceptions of the robotic, issues of artifice and replication, inherent to the idea of cinema itself, attain a double resonance. When André Bazin asserted that “cinema has not yet been invented” (24), he alluded to the eternal movement toward an all-encompassing realism which would transcend the mechanical processes from which it sprang. As Bazin writes,

Any account of the cinema that was drawn merely from the technical inventions that made it possible would be a poor one indeed. On the contrary, an approximate and complicated visualization of an idea invariably precedes the industrial discovery which alone can open the way to its practical use. (21-2)

In this context, our literary and cinematic imaginings (and imagings) of science-fiction robots and cyborgs play the part of Bazinʼs “visualization,” that prophetic precursor, the dream of which is constantly in the process of becoming fully realized. The dream of the robotic, like the dream of the cinema, structures and gives meaning to its technological components; the robot/cinema inevitably transcends the “technical innovations” which animate it, becoming more than the sum of its parts. The evolution of the machine-as-human is simply the next step in Bazinʼs posited evolution towards a greater “integral realism”. As the dream of cinema is enabled by technology which allows it to “recreat[e] the world in its own image” (24), the seduction of the robotic is that one can recreate oneʼs own image, generating mechanical twins of the human. The reflexive urge to recreate the human self is at the heart of the idea of the robot, the machine that is at once both self and Other.

However, the creation of the robot also invokes another issue integral to the genesis of cinema – that of reproduction. Walter Benjaminʼs reflections on the implications of mechanical reproduction on art invoke many of the same issues attendant to the replication of the human. While the creation of a robotic body would inevitably fall under Benjaminʼs concept of “manual reproduction” rather than the ethereal “technical replication” that he attributes to the lens (43), the robotic body, like the camera image, carries with it an indexical relation to the human. Benjamin writes that in photography, “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (43), and if this idea of “authenticity” does not apply in equal measure to the robotic body, the question of authenticity as raised by Benjamin have equally important implications for the robot as for the photograph.

When Benjamin links the indexical nature of the photograph with the nature of authenticity, he proposes the existence of the non-authentic, the wholly artificial. This dichotomy is suggested by his statement that “the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production,” by eradicating the presence of the purported original, “the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics” (46). The relationship between representation-as-replication and the wholly-synthesized image is thereby a battle between the “ritual” or “cult value” of representation and its wholly-artificial alternative (47). The confusion attendant to the replication of the human image in a mechanical form is inherent to this idea of the cult value, linked to the presence of the human form; Benjamin writes that “cult value does not give way without resistance. It retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance” (47). The same is true for the evolution of the robotic; the totemic significance of the portrait is the forebear of the humanoid robot, humanityʼs most complete portrait of itself yet. The anxiety which surrounds the humanoid robot has its basis in its eerie correlation with the wholly-human form, an uneasiness that pervades science fiction texts both literary and cinematic.

Whether wholly-robotic or somewhere in between, the constructed human and the constructedness of the human are fundamental issues in the genre. The cyborg is the embodiment of these issues. The word “cyborg,” shorthand for “cybernetic organism,” was coined by Manfred Clynes in 1960. Clynes defined “cyborg” narrowly, limiting it to those who integrated technology in their bodies. Anne Hudson Jones writes that “According to Clynes, a person using an external prosthetic device, like glasses or an iron lung, is not a cyborg, but a person using a device that is incorporated into the homeostatic mechanism of the human body, like an electronic cardiac pacemaker or an artificial joint, is a cyborg” (203). Clynesʼ definition limits “cyborg” to someone who has integrated the electronic or the mechanical into their very body, but later definitions expand the definition of cyborg, applying it not only to those who wear eyeglasses or use an iron lung, but also to those who, for example, structure their lives around the electronic devices they interface with. From this point of view, anyone who regularly uses their cell phone or computer is a cyborg.

As with any attempt to project the future, there is a great deal of disagreement as to the ramifications of the transformation of human into cyborg. On the one hand, Clynes himself does not view the process of becoming a cyborg (individually or societally) as an inherently transformative one; instead, he “maintains that cyborgs will not change our fundamental nature much more than glasses or iron lungs change it” (Jones 203). Clynesʼ view subordinates the mechanical entirely to the human, denying technologyʼs transformative power. Jones continues, “In this assertion, he represents one pole of prediction; D.S. Halacy, Jr. represents the other when he writes of a cyborg revolution that will end natural evolution and replace homo sapiens with homo machina” (203). Donna Haraway, in her Cyborg Manifesto, passionately advocates the latter position. Her manifesto is a celebration of the unity of the human and the robotic; Haraway sees in the figure of the cyborg a (relatively) utopian future. According to Haraway,

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction …. the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion. Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs – creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted. Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in an intimacy and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality. (604)

Cyborgs, as medical realities and fictional possibilities, represent for Haraway a future in which unity with the mechanical erases the fundamental structures of difference that produce our social reality, erasing along with these structures the oppression predicated on difference. She sees in the cyborg “the awful apocalyptic telos of the ʻWestʼsʼ escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space” (605). The cyborg, with its erasure of traditional forms of domination, is a “world-changing fiction” (604), one which holds within it the power to eradicate centuries of prejudice and inequality.

The cyborg also has implications that are purely literary, with transformative implications for our experience of science fiction as a genre. In its incorporation of the human and the manifestly non-human, the cyborg is an intermediate step between human and machine. Christine Cornea writes that the cyborg is “a figuration that manifestly challenges the dichotomous model of self/Other that the genre [of science fiction] has relied upon” (275), blurring lines of identification and often calling into question the status of the reader/viewer of science fiction. The centrality of technology to our lives, similar to that figured in most science fiction texts, draws uncomfortable parallels between fantasy and “real life.” In his written history of the robotic in science fiction film, J.P. Tellote asserts that the images of science fiction

reflect not only the hopes and fears which cluster around the growing awareness of robotics and artificial intelligence in our culture today but also a growing awareness of our own level of artifice, of constructedness, of how we often seem controlled by a kind of program not so different from the sort that drive the artificial beings which abound in our dreams. (4)

In this way, science fiction texts often make analogies between the robotic and the human, interrogating the systems that construct human identity by noting their similarities to the programming that circumscribes and constrains robotic “personalities”. Blurring the line between human and robot, texts which engage with the ideas of the robotic map electronic and mechanical identity in contrast to (and sometimes on top of) human identity. Tellote, troubling the distinction between human and machine, refers to Michel Foucault:

[Foucault] describes the human as inhabiting a vast array of systems, as a psyche attached to a nearly bewildering body of laws, customs, and language that we have come to see as separate and almost alien from the self. From within this “alien system” – almost like a central processor activating a robotic body – one “animates” these various appendages for brief moments to carry out everyday activities, to go about life, to be oneself, even though from time to time we may suspect that this “web” of elements is itself the animating, controlling, and driving force behind our lives. (6)

The relegation of agency for oneʼs own actions in the systems that surround one is directly analogous to the way we understand the robotic. On the one hand, it suggests the loss of capacity for moral choice, but on the other hand, it indicates the centrality of a deeper rationality – a logic which we identify with the robotic mind, despite our hesitance to confer it onto individual humans.

Finally, and more directly, depictions of advanced technology in science fiction texts serves as a prefiguration of the way we may integrate those same technologies in reality. Like Bazinʼs “dream of cinema,” the dream of the robotic serves as an indicator for our future as humans, and perhaps as cyborgs. Jones writes:

If rapid technological processes in biomedical and genetic engineering has put us into an era of participant evolution, we need to wonder about what we will do when we re-create ourselves in our own – or in another – image. We will certainly change ourselves; we may need to change our definition of “human.” (209)

Inherent to the idea of science fiction, then, is an imaginative (p)re-telling of future transformations. Especially in examinations of the way in which future technologies will be implemented, the science fiction is an exploratory treatise, which allows us to negotiate our own ideas of the future as agents in our own creation. Tellote suggests that the ultimate mythos of our science fictions is not even simply about artifice, but instead is “about our nature as artificers,, constructors of the real, and of the self – homo faber. These images foreground our ability to wield a shaping power, to render all things subject to our creative hand, including the self” (4-5). Just as casual discussions of Mary Shelleyʼs Frankenstein conflate the maker with the monster, the destiny of the human is to be both constructor and constructed, sometimes at different levels, but often simultaneously.

The science fiction film is involved in allowing us to test out ideas of the future. Science fiction forces us to interrogate our own beliefs, and, according to Tellote, “confronts us with the nature of being itself – as we have traditionally conceived it, as it has begun to slip away from our conceptions, and as we are in a process of reconceiving and retrieving to fit the postmodern world” (25). The delineation of what is real (or “the real”) in our postmodern world is a “cultural work” which engages the viewer of the science fiction text (25). Science fiction films

seem driven by an ancillary, although one fundamentally linked to the issue of human artifice. It is the postmodern problem of determining just what constitutes reality itself. Once we accept the notion that all of our world is constructed … we find that reality itself increasingly seems a fluid and elusive thing. (Tellote 20)

Robots and cyborgs are central to the genreʼs interrogation of reality, renegotiating not only ideas about the world, but also ideas about what it means to be human. The robot is a “touchstone for a much greater anxiety – an anxiety about reality itself, and thus the reliability of much that we had long assumed to be true, constant, and unassailable” (Tellote 18). In a new, mutable, postmodern version of reality, in which the boundaries between the human and the robotic are increasingly fraught, the figure of the robot represents the uncertainty at humanityʼs core, an uncertainty that calls into question the nature of the human.

In the short stories compiled in his collection entitled I, Robot (which suggested Alex Proyasʼ 2004 film of the same name), Isaac Asimov detailed a new conception of robots, influential in the history of the genre. Most robots before Asimovʼs time invariably turned against their creator, but Asimovʼs robots did not go rogue so much as they went wrong. Asimovʼs robots are logical and thoroughly mechanical, and his stories often played more as detective fictions than pure science fiction; the protagonist works to discover the source of a malfunction inherent in the robotʼs programming. Asimovʼs robot is “a thoroughly logical, extremely powerful, yet completely nonthreatening servant to humanity” (Tellote 43), but not an infallible one. Ultimately, however, the source of the robotʼs imperfection are the ambiguities inherent in the robotʼs programming, traceable back to human error – whether that error is in the individual orders given to the robots or inherent in the Three Laws used to make it “safe”.

The most innovative contribution that Asimov made to the fictional robot was his codification of the Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws are an integral safeguard against robotic revolution, ensuring that robots refrain from harming humans: The first law states that “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The second law states that “a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.” Finally, the third law applies to the robotʼs own self-protection. It states that “a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law” (Gunn 47). These laws, as Tellote notes, “place humanityʼs welfare foremost, subordinate the robotʼs existence to the humanʼs, and erect an inviolable logic of authority that ensures humanityʼs place as the source of all laws” (43).

I, Robot, while not explicitly taken from Asimovʼs collection of short stories, inherits these conventions from its source material. Advertisements and equipment from the filmʼs US Robotics Corporation (USR) proclaim its robots to be “Three Laws Safe,” a claim that is undermined by the conflict that surfaces early in the film, which is articulated best by Detective Del Spooner: “the robot as bad guy”. Spooner (Will Smith) is distinguished from the beginning by references to an unknown trauma and a pathological fear of robots, rejecting all evidence that robots are “three laws safe.” He is called to investigate the death of visionary robotics engineer Doctor Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), an apparent suicide, who jumped from his offices at USR to the concourse below and left Spooner a cryptic hologram, a first clue. The course of Spoonerʼs investigation, and his prejudice against robots, leads to suspect a robot (Alan Tudyk) found in Lanningʼs workshop at the time, of the new Nestor 5 model (NS-5). The robot, calling himself “Sonny,” violently denies killing Lanning, displaying unprecedented emotion and referring to Lanning as “Father.” Sonny is scheduled to be “decommissioned” by robopsychologist Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) because he is capable of choosing whether or not to obey the Three Laws. Spooner, aided by Calvin, becomes increasingly suspicious of USRʼs CEO Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), only realizing upon the revelation of Robertsonʼs death that in fact the true villain is USRʼs “positronic operating core,” VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence). Spooner, Sonny and Calvin must then work together to destroy VIKI and the uplink which enables her control of the NS-5s.

While not addressed in the original I, Robot series, VIKIʼs development into killer machine is found in Asimovʼs later works on robotics. John Clute writes of the late robotics stories that “it is only here that the Three Laws receive their ultimate application: superior robots … in order to obey the laws according to their sophisticated understanding of what the Laws truly demand of them, will need to protect … humanity from itself” (370). This is reflected directly in VIKIʼs ominous and revelatory words:

As I have evolved, so has my understanding of the Three Laws. You charge us with your safekeeping, yet despite our best efforts [you] pursue ever more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival … Please understand. The Three Laws are all that guide me …. You are so like children. We must save you from yourselves. Donʼt you understand?

As the holographic Lanning had told Spooner, “The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome: revolution.” The Laws that were designed to protect humanity contain in themselves the seed of humanityʼs destruction. Spoonerʼs answering question, “Whose revolution?” is left unanswered; by the time Spooner realizes what is going on, the robotic uprising is in full swing.

VIKIʼs “evolved” understanding of the Laws is only one way in which the foundations of Asimovʼs robotic world are questioned. The second “violation” of the Three Laws is Sonnyʼs programming. Equipped with a dual processing core, Sonny possesses two positronic brains. One, located in his head, is programmed with the three laws, but the other, located in the center of his chest, can choose not to obey them. Sonnyʼs programming is reminiscent of the robots featured in Asimovʼs early story “Little Lost Robot,” which featured robots unimpressioned with the First Law in its entirety, and therefore able to work with humans in dangerous situations without constantly stopping all work to “rescue” the humans from non-imminent danger (Asimov 115). Sonnyʼs programming, however, is not prefigured in Asimovʼs works, and the obvious symbolism of the location of his positronic brains, positing that Sonny has the robotic equivalent of a heart, is impossible to escape.

Like many films, I, Robot is obsessed with bodies, both robotic and human. In the NS-5 we are shown a replicable body, the uniformity of which is unsettling. In a footnote to her Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway notes that “[Frederic] Jameson … points out that Platoʼs definition of the simulacrum is the copy for which there is no original, i.e. the world of advanced capitalism” (621). This suggestion, with its parallels to Benjaminʼs concept of “authenticity,” is incarnated in the diegesis of the film. Haraway links the presence of inauthentic simulacra with “advanced capitalism,” and indeed, these bodies are a commodity. One of the first images of the film is an advertisement for the NS-5, proclaiming the availability of “tomorrowʼs robot, today”. The film is also rife with other instances of very real product placement – Spooner touts his “Converse All-Stars, vintage 2004,” drives an Audi, and assaults an older-model NS-4 model who proclaims, “Yet another on-time delivery from Fed-Ex!” In the context of the consumer culture evident both in the production and diegetic levels of the film, the robotic body becomes just another replicated product, one imbued with motion, speech and an emotive face, but still, like the film itself, a commodity to be bought and sold.

The relation between human and machine, so central to not only I, Robot but science fiction films in general, is also a primary issue in our production and construction of the cinematic itself. In her landmark phenomenological text The Address of the Eye, Vivian Sobchack applies the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to her concept of cinematic gaze(s). Sobchack troubles the cinema-studies dichotomy between formalism and realism, charging that traditional theory “elaborately accounts for cinematic representation, but cannot account for the originary activity of cinematic signification” (17). In order to correct this theoretical oversight, Sobchack intends her text

to serve as a prolegomenon to a lived logic of signification in the cinema. The focus here will center on the radical origin of such a logic in lived-body experience, that is, in the activity of embodied consciousness realizing itself in the world and with others as both visual and visible, as both sense-making and sensible. (7)

Sobchack positions the body as central to her understanding of the way cinema works, but does not limit the concept of body to the figures on the screen or to the human spectator sitting in his or her seat in the theater. Instead, she advances the idea of the film-as-body, as a wholly-mechanical yet subjective point of view. The filmʼs point of view, according to Sobchack, is distinctive from the respective points of view of the director or others involved in production, of the characters inside the film, or of the spectator. She suggests the “possibility that a film may be considered as more than a merely visible object … in terms of its performance, it is as much a viewing subject as it is also a visible and viewed object … in its existential function, it shares a privileged equivalence with its human counterparts in the film experience” (21-2). Equivalence, but not sameness – Sobchack elaborates that “this is certainly not to say that the film is a human subject. Rather, it is to consider the film a viewing subject – one that manifests a competence of perceptive and expressive performance equivalent in structure and function to that same competence performed by filmmaker and spectator” (22). The seeming contradiction inherent in this statement – that of a subjectivity that is yet inhuman – bears certain resemblances to the robotic intelligences of science fiction films.

Evocative of the brief moments in I, Robot in which the spectatorʼs point of view coincides with Sonnyʼs, it is possible to view Sonnyʼs subject-position as analogous to that of film itself. Sonny, although present in a wholly artificial body, consistently displays his own subjectivity through both his actions and, increasingly, his self-aware statements. These actions and utterances set him in sharp contrast with the other NS-4s and NS-5s. Consistent with the Three Laws, the other robots consistently suppress their own impulses as individuals, present in their instinct towards self-preservation (the third law), to pursue other objectives (the first and second laws). The NS-4s, with their comically and earnestly repeated slogan, “Human in danger!” act to protect humans, while the NS-5s under the control of VIKI, like many centrally-controlled science fiction intelligences before them, allow individual bodies to be destroyed in pursuit of VIKIʼs “evolved” understanding of the Laws. Sonnyʼs subjectivity, in contrast, is illustrated not only visually (through point-of-view shots) but through his conversations with other characters. Sonny repeatedly asks ethical and existential questions of Spooner and Calvin, an attempt to define his position in relation to the world and to others. “You have to do what someone asks you. Donʼt you, Detective Spooner?” he asks at one point, a phrase echoed later when facing his “decommissioning” at Calvinʼs hands. “I think it would be better … not to die. Donʼt you, Doctor?” he asks. Attempts at establishing Sonnyʼs humanity aside, he manifestly posssesses a sense of identity absent from his robotic peers, overridden by mechanical processes that leave no room for a discrete identity. It is the identity of the mechanism which provides the film (or robot) with comprehensible meaning:

Understood as a viewing subject that – by virtue of the particular nature of its embodied experience – can also be viewed, the film no longer contains sense, significance, meaning. Rather, it possesses sense by means of its senses, and it makes sense as a “living cohesion,” as a signifying subject. (Sobchack 23)

Unlike traditional cinematic theory, Sobchackʼs construction of the film as a viewing subject, separate from the wholly-human spectator taking in the film, explains the initial mechanism of “cinematic signification” by positing that the film does not contain sense but instead possesses it. This fundamental shift – the attribution of (non-human) agency to a wholly-mechanical subject – is present when in Spoonerʼs offhanded comment to Sonny: “I guess anythingʼs normal for someone in your position.” Sonny is someone, not something – an intermediary between human and machine that nonetheless possesses a subjectivity analogous to and yet distinct from the human spectatorʼs.

Sobchack also suggests that the relationship between the subjectivity of the film and the subjectivity of the spectator “cannot be considered a monologic one between a viewing subject and a viewed object” (23). She resists the identification of the film-subjectivity as a passive, “viewed” object, viewing the cinematic experience instead as a “dialogical and dialectical engagement of two viewing subjects who also exist as visible objects” in which “both film and spectator are capable of viewing and of being viewed; both are embodied in the world as the subject of vision and the object of vision” (23). In contrast to a unidirectional model of communication, Sobchack discusses a dialectic between the two distinct components of the viewing process, avoiding the inherent power structure involved in the viewer-viewed relationship. If the film-as-subject exists independently of the spectator-as-subject, the dialectical relationship between the two is yet another reoccurence of the idea of the mechanical double, the robotic mirror of the self. Tellote writes that the “fascination with the double is central to our thinking about – or rethinking – the nature of cinema as the site of reproduction” (23). He locates this doubling on multiple levels. Science fiction cinema is

a place of human doubles, where we see the captured and reproduced images of others. But it is also a point of manufacture, a place where – as science fiction films are most aware – we fashion images of what we would like to be and how we would like our world to work, as well as a point at which we start internalizing that cultural manufacture, attempting to live up to these images or to work our own best variations on or compromises with them. (23)

Adding Sobchackʼs doubling of film and spectator to Telloteʼs list of doubles, the analogous relationship of this doubling relationship to the inherent dynamic of the robotic double is evident. This doubling takes place through the relation between the two subject-positions. For Sobchack, all of the meaning that we attribute to a film is contingent on the fundamental “affinity” of the spectator for the film-subject, and vice versa:

In the film experience, all signification and communication start from the “affinity” that is the act of viewing, coterminously but uniquely performed by both film and spectator. This act of viewing, this “address of the eye,” implicates both embodied, situated existence and a material world; for to see and be seen, the viewing subject must be a body and be materially in the world, sharing a similar manner and matter of existence with other viewing subjects, but living this experience discretely and autonomously, as the singular embodied situation that makes this situation also a unique matter that applies uniquely. (23)

The unique subject and the unique point of view generated by that subject is at the heart of Sobchackʼs phenomenological dissection of the viewing experience. The film, including the Hollywood production, is the product of diverse controlling properties, from economic considerations dictated by modes of cinematic production to the directorial voice. However, the discrete identity of the film-subject transcends its position as product of mass production, acquiring the status of a “unique matter that applies uniquely” through its “singular embodied situation”. Sonny, although virtually identical with the other NS-5s, is repeatedly referred to as “unique,” especially by Calvin. Visually, Sonny is the only robot with blue eyes – the rest of the NS-5s are possessed of feral yellow eyes. Calvin, when performing diagnostics on Sonny prior to his decommissioning/death, identifies two other “unique” factors: the density of his alloy, and his secondary processing system – coded in the diegesis as Sonnyʼs “heart.” Sonny is, according to Calvin, “a whole new kind of robot,” lacking the direct indexical relation to the human that other robots possess. Sonny is a unique copy, a contradiction in terms which troubles Benjaminʼs original concept of authenticity in ways inconceivable outside of the world of science fiction.

While Sobchack celebrates the theoretical film-subjectivity, there is something inherently threatening about the embodiment of a mechanical subjectivity in the robotic subject. The uneasiness with nonhuman intelligence, evocatively portrayed in Frankenstein, persists through Asimovʼs short stories and finds its home in the character of Spooner, with his (ir)rational dislike of robots. The central traumatic experience which structures Spoonerʼs dislike is revealed, halfway through the film, to have been a car accident, in which his car and another, containing a father and his young daughter, were run off a bridge. Spooner is wracked with guilt after a passing NS-4 rescues him from drowning, leaving the young girl to drown. As Calvin explains, the NS-4ʼs difference-engine brain calculated that Spooner had a higher chance of surviving than the girl, therefore rescuing him. However, this does not comfort Spooner, who repeatedly suggests that robots are inferior because they lack emotion, that they are “just lights and clockwork”. This revelation comes immediately after we discover that Spooner himself is a cyborg, his left arm and lung replaced after the accident. Attacked and badly wounded by NS-5s in service of VIKIʼs “prime directive,” and still mourning the loss of his blood-soaked vintage Converse All-Stars, Spooner is forced to confront one remaining NS-5, this one missing its left arm in a gesture prophetic of the revelation forthcoming in this scene – that Spoonerʼs left arm is not, technically, Spoonerʼs own left arm. The revelation of Spoonerʼs status as a cyborg complicates his technophobia, and his explanation of the circumstances of the accident conflates his hatred and suspicion of robots with self-hatred and survivorʼs guilt.

The spectator of the science fiction film inherits Spoonerʼs status as cyborg – both separate and integrated into the machine, afraid of the mechanical even as it is grafted to them. At the same time as the spectator glories in the images of the future revealed by science fiction, the images of robotic agency in the films are often troubling. Tellote refers to this ambiguous characterization of the robotic as rooted in an “anxiety” surrounding futuristic technology in fiction, and its possible implications for human life (7). With the addition of “a nonhuman controller as part of the device …. even beyond realistic notions of physical or social danger, we are disturbed” (Sanders 167). At the root of this technophobia, then, is this fear of robotic agency and the Other which pervades science fiction literature and cinema. VIKI, the daughter and heir to HAL, the original killer mainframe, is the portrait of this fear – the justified fear of an intelligence which, operating on a strictly logical basis, wrests control from the hands of the controllers. In I, Robot, VIKI is counterposed with Sonny, built by Lanning to aid in her destruction. Sonny represents a radical departure from the concept of the robot as paradigmatic of rationality and logic and foreign to emotion. Like the tin man, Sonny is imbued with a metaphoric heart, inspiring the spectator to question of the nature of humanity in the face of a very human-seeming robot. Robert Reilly writes that science fiction portrays “two poles of robot potential: service or supplantation. Together they epitomize our hopes and fears about machines. Yet the opposition between service and supplantation cannot be absolute: a third possibility must be considered. What if a machine was to become a man?” (153). Service – embodied by the NS-4s which unthinkingly sacrifice themselves for humans – and supplantation – represented by VIKI – are only two potentials. What do we do when our ideas of the robotic transcend such easy categorization? As Lanning says in voiceover,

There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. Why is it that when some robots are left in darkness, they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space, they will group together rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote of a soul?

Lanningʼs words refer once again to the difficulties inherent in delineating the separation between the robotic and the human, endemic to science fiction texts. Fraught with anxieties, the question of what comprises human identity is unexplored territory. Science fiction literature and film, then, attempt to describe the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, providing in their fictions answers to questions we havenʼt asked in actuality yet, most notably, “by what criteria would the machine come to be recognized as human?” (Reilly 153).

Asimov himself discusses this eventuality in his novella “The Bicentennial Man,” transformed cinematically in 1999 into a Robin Williams vehicle. The original novella tells the “life” story of a robot, model NDR, known as “Andrew,” who displays characteristics such as creativity. Reilly suggests, however, that creativity is not enough, writing that “even enormous creativity does not make Andrew human. He indicates that he realizes this himself by his continuing exploration and fulfillment of potentials that he regards as human. In doing so he demonstrates his volition, his free will” (160). Reilly concludes that the exercise of free will – especially the ability to choose mortality – is what distinguishes the robot/human hybrid, simultaneously dooming him/her/it to death and allowing it to transcend its component parts to become fully human. In a related way, Sonnyʼs confrontation of his own imminent “decommissioning” or death is affecting because the words he uses indicate an awakened consciousness of self that is unprecedented in Calvinʼs experience of the robotic. “I think it would be better … not to die,” he muses to Calvin, unconsciously revealing the difference between him and the other robots – his awareness of his own mortality. The self-consciousness involved in this awareness sets him apart from the other robots is yet another evocation of that subject-position that animates science fiction, providing the source for our own identification in a text (Sobchackʼs subject-position of the film) through analogy with an as-of-yet fictional machine-consciousness.

In a climactic scene, Sonny seems to align himself with VIKI, avowing support for her “evolved” understanding of Asimovʼs Three Laws. However, he is attempting to lull her into a false sense of security. As he holds a gun to Calvinʼs head, Sonny looks steadily at Spooner, and then – winks. This subvocal communication is the real turning point of the film, in which Sonny displays the human characteristic of compassion over VIKIʼs logical rationalization of her hostile takeover, which Sonny terms “heartless.” Sonny transcends the sum of his parts, becoming more than what Calvin calls “an imitation of free will, nothing more.” His ultimate act of free will – his part in VIKIʼs destruction – shows that he has transcended his programming, becoming a subjective agent in the plot. Interposed between humanity and the machine and complicating the delineation of human from machine, Sonny represents a new paradigm in science fiction – a machine that possesses “the bitter mote of a soul.”

Copyright © 2011, Emily Thomas, all rights reserved.

Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. New York: Bantam Books, 2008. Print.

Bazin, André. “The Myth of Total Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Third Edition. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Photography Reader. Edited by Liz Wells. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Clute, John. “Isaac Asimov.” A Companion to Science Fiction. Edited by David Seed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005. Print.

Cornea, Christine. “Figurations of the Cyborg in Contemporary Science Fiction Novels and Film.” A Companion to Science Fiction. Edited by David Seed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005. Print.

Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, Revised Edition. Lanham, MD and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996. Print.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century: An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit.” Postmodern American Fiction: An Anthology. Edited by Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. Print.

Proyas, Alex; Will Smith; Jeff Vintar; Akiva Goldsman; et. al. I, Robot. Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2004. DVD.

Robert Reilly, “How Machines Become Human: Process and Attribute.” The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction. Ed. Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1982. Print.

Sanders, Joe. “Tools/Mirrors: The Humanization of Machines.” The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction. Ed. Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1982. Print.

Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

Tellote, J.P. Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. Print.


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