Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Spinning Sound That You Hear

In the Golden Age of Science Fiction, a Grandmaster named Isaac Asimov decided to write some stories that ran counter to the tired, stale stereotype. You see, ever since the Czech movie RUR, robots had been depicted as sinister things. Man would make machines, the machines would be slaves and the slaves would revolt.

This pattern dominated SF writing from that point forward and became a tired, stale stereotype. Everybody wrote robot stories that cast robots in this same negative light.

Then Isaac Asimov thought that perhaps it might be interesting and novel to break the stereotype. He wrote stories about these two engineer-scientist-troubleshooters who had the job of going around diagnosing and fixing interesting robot problems. And the engine of these stories, the plot device that powered them all was the Laws of Robotics: Robots can't harm humans, etc. The structure of the "positronic brain" was such that it was impossible for the Laws to be broken. These short stories were collected in book form and published as I Robot. It was one of my favorite books when I was a kid.

This same riff persisted in the Caves Of Steel novel and the other stories involving the robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw. Also favorites of my youth.

Times wounds all heels, and in 2004, I Robot made its way to the silver screen. I saw the hypes and thought they showed a movie that it wasn't true to Asimov's central idea. So, I made a point to not see this movie.

Eventually, it made it to cable TV and I told Tivo to record it. What a horrid film. The spinning sound you hear is that of Isaac Asimov in his grave.

It seems that computers are truly a sinister, corrupting force, and you can see it in I Robot, the movie. But not the way you think. Pervasive CGI rendering allows the filmmaker to set up scenes where hundreds or thousands of robots can fill the screen and crawl around the screen like ants. Too many movies just sort of omit things like character and story and fill the screen with CGI. This is the sinister corrupting force of computers in cinematography.

That's bad, but what makes I Robot worse is that the nature of CGI in this film. Filling the screen with a hundred bug-like robots all moving around is just wrong. And when they did use the CGI for things like cars or traffic scenes, it looked obviously fake.

Oh, but wait, after the movie's been going on and on and on, the robots take over. Wow, imagine that. Sure, they say that it's to protect us from ourselves. But you know, robots always take over and kill their masters. If the robots don't think of it themselves, they can get the idea from old Star Trek reruns. And then Will Smith has to get the "plot device" and shoot it into the MCP. oops, that was Tron. Well, you can predict any movie's last minutes once they realize they need to push the Big Red Button and you know everything bad will happen to provide obstacles for the hero en route to said button. And when he stands/hangs/lies next to the Big Red Button, he'll have some Witty Remark that he'll say when he plunges the Plot Device into the MCP or whatever, killing it.

I pine for the Old Days when there were writers who could do better than parody the old tired stereotypes, but come up with novel treatments of something. Like Isaac Asimov did in I Robot, the BOOK not the movie.

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