Isaac Asimov's I, Robot comes to the big screen this Friday. Starring Will Smith and enhanced by a Beep–N-Click $100 million+ budget, we're in for a clanking summer treat. The trailer seems very busy indeed, and Smith has become as much of a seasonal institution as fireworks and Lyme Disease. But it's those title characters I want to see, those half human/half Radio Shack beings that really look intriguing.
I, Moviegoer, can't wait.
What is it about robots? Why do mechanical men continue to fascinate us and provide Hollywood with such a bottomless bucket of creativity? No matter how many times the cyborg dilemma is examined, or how often the experiment ends with the same moral, it's a theme Hollywood revisits often. Maybe it's because robots have made for so many hits. And maybe it's that the questions they pose reveal so much about us.
Arguably the first movie robot, or at least the first hit movie about the inanimate come to life, is Frankenstein (1931). Granted, the monster is not metal, but the spare parts concept is there, and it provides the primal template. Though the 19th Century novel was written by Mary Shelley, there is something decidedly male-oriented about it and most other robot tales. The Frankenstein cycle teaches us that while women give birth all the time, men have to go to the garage to do it. And yet as fun as it is for these tinkering dads to build their own, they always seem surprised when their creations don't live up to expectations. Ask any Miami Beach grandmother about her kids who never call -- she's not surprised. Oi! But when the metal children of these mad male inventors break dad's heart, or worse, try to kill him, men always seem so mystified. And yet they keep trying.
In the '50s and '60s, movie robots represented the benign functionality that most audience members admired in their IBM Selectrics. These characters were part of an era that could speculate about "The World Of Tomorrow" and the machine's place in it, and thought of robots as a boon. The Day The Earth StoodStill (1951) featured a metal man who... stood still... that is, until you said the magic words. And when "Robbie, the Robot" appeared in Forbidden Planet(1956), he upstaged both a pre-Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen and pre-Honey West Ann Francis as the movie's most popular character.
The happy, metal sidekick changed in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and gave birth to the first untrustworthy machine. After a decade of sci-fi in which robots had helpful, if eccentric, personalities, the creepily soft-spoken Hal was a switch. And we wished he had one. Finding the "OFF" button for Hal proved tougher than building him, and though not a robot in the strict sense, Hal gave us our first taste of a machine that could hurt us by using our own worst instincts to do us in. It was a beat that was repeated in the 1979 film Alien , when an oddbot named Bishop tried to pull the exact same monkeyshines until he too was unplugged.
Robots, it seems, fall into two categories, those who do our bidding, and have sprightly personalities (Stars Wars  is chock full of them) and those who cross the line into our neck of the woods, making us ever more uncomfortable based on how close to "human" they are. Those, like the cyborgs in Blade Runner (1982) starring Harrison Ford, were particularly troublesome to interact with. Based on the Philip Dick novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (1968) both the story and the film asked us to question what it means to be alive. If you can program a machine to have the exact same experiences as human beings, well, what's the difference? In a more comic way, Robocop (1987) continued this '80s view of robots who are almost real. Planting Peter Weller's memories into a machine did not make them any less meaningful. And why should we deny a machine his memories just because we can erase them? This question was examined, in excruciatingly dull detail, in A.I. (2001) in which Haley Joel Osmond was given a longer life than the Energizer Bunny.
Which brings us to I, Robot.
The nine linked stories that make up the Asimov classic are the basis upon which all robot myth is built. And the question of whether robots are "real" is at its core. The rules of robots that have become cliché are based on this Asimov treatise and it is best known for laying out the Three Laws of Robotics. Robots, since they were built by us, can not harm us, or so say the laws, but when push comes to shove, who is smarter and who, more importantly, will prevail over the other? The book defied becoming a movie for so long for two reasons: 1. We'd already seen every moral permutation discussed in I, Robot on the average Outer Limits marathon and 2. Where was the story? What Will Smith and company have produced is a murder mystery that is only "suggested by" these stories. Like the book, the movie will hopefully explore the little seen extrapolations about robot ethics. The book features robots who tell jokes, robots who read minds and react when hurting human feelings, fine points never seen in the depictions of metal men onscreen so far. But if it ends like most other robot movies do, the humans will succeed because of our innate need to see freedom of thought and free will win -- the triumph of being "alive."
Bottom line in all these films is that to act like a robot is symbolically a negative, a sign that one is not alive. And yet we all know plenty of robots. (Al Gore comes to mind.) What fascinates us about the made up kind is to what extent it's like looking in a mirror. What do we see when we watch a being acting perfectly, never making a mistake, going through their day by rote? Is it a warning for us to loosen up? To feel more? Or is it an object of perfection we want to be more like? And to know that we are the ones to have built them in the first place goes beyond parenthood and into the realm of the divine. Maybe that's why they fascinate us so? It gives us a chance to play God.
Then again, maybe we just like to say: Beep-N-Click?