The Right Coast
July 16, 2004
I, White Person
By Tom Smith
I took sons numbers one and three to see I, Robot today. It was a perfectly pleasant waste of a couple of hours, with plenty of gee whiz technology and special effects on display. Its subtext or theme or whatever the appropriate lit crit term would be, however, was a bit alarming and puzzling.
The movie was unusual in that almost all the good guys were black and all the bad guys were white. The robots themselves, in particular the new N5 (or whatever) model, are super-whiteys. With their pale, glutinous faces, they look like somebody shaved all the hair off a convention full of well preserved DAR matrons. The robots are the ultimate ice people, emotionless and menacing.
Will Smith is having none of this, of course. He knows the robots are up to no good. Strangely, he is suspicious of the positronically-brained kind as a result of having been saved by one, at the expense of a little girl, because the robot calculated he had a better chance of surviving drowning than did the little girl. The mechanics of this accident take most of a scene to explain and aren't worth repeating now. Let's just say the exposition in this movie has some bugs in it.
(Spoilers to the plot, such as it is, follow.) Of course, it turns out the robots and the big central computer in the big, bad corporation have developed a heartless intelligence of their own, and want to take over the world, saving humans from themselves, even if it means killing a lot of us in the process. The robot race justifies this with a liberal construction of the three rules of robotics, but I don't think the movie is trying to be a parable in support of originalism.
But what is it? Heartless, pasty faced white robots attempt to steal the world, and can only be stopped by a passionate, intuitive black cop, who will not be slowed down by the accusations of prejudice thrown his way. The CEO of US Robotics taunts him with "You just don't like their kind," which phases Will Smith not a bit. He knows a sub-human when he sees one.
The female lead is a hyper-brainy white ice queen. The director must have told her to play the role as utterly asexual, because that's what she does. In a Hollywood where female litigators invariably wear tight black ultra-minis, don't tell me this is inadvertent. In fact, the movie is weirdly sexless for a Hollywood flick, except perhaps for the shots of Will Smith in the shower, Will Smith working out, etc. etc. I suppose the scene in which ice queen examines Smith's robotic arm might be considered sexy, but just barely.
The climax of the flick is like one of those dreams that don't require interpretation (A gigantic woman named Cravath was smothering me, but I was tied up with golden rope and couldn't escape!) The big central computer, named Viki, and holographically projected in the image of a nondescript white woman, is actually a big round electronic blob that floats in the US Robotics central atrium. Will Smith, Ice Queen, and the one good white robot must get to the blob and inject into in a canister full of little, swimming nanites, that will denature the gigantic, positronic brain. Does this remind you of anything? I know sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but come on. I am not sure from what crack-pot ideology comes the tenant that ejaculation will triumph over oppressive female, white, scientific oppression, but Immanuel Kant, it ain't.
So, in spite of appearances, this little sci-fi nugget lives up to our culture industry's predilection of producing gobbets of poison. In I, Robot we learn that whiteys are smart, but heartless and ultimately evil, even if they profess to have the best of intentions. We learn not to worry if this sounds like racial prejudice; remember the pasty-faces aren't really human. They don't have that inner juiciness that makes a bro a bro. Don't trust white technology; it will turn on you. Street smarts will beat tricknology every time. You go, sun people.
None of this has anything to do with Isaac Asimov, of course. He would probably be appalled at the movie, old fashioned liberal that he was. Why Hollywood should be turning out this slick little piece of fringe black racism, I have no idea. Some movies, such as Phenomenon, with John Travolta, are obvious ideological vehicles, in that case for Scientology. No surprize; Travolta, although a big talent, is a Scientologist nutter. But who woulda thunk of turning I, Robot into a sermon on don't-trust-whitey? I mean, really. Is nothing sacred? It's Issac Asimov as read by Leonard Jeffries.
It leads to the question, what does Hollywood have against civilization? They seem to have done pretty well out of the deal. But that is a matter for another day.