Arch 443/646: Architecture and Film
Fall 2007

I Robot (2004)


Discussion Questions:

Remember, your images are ABOVE your name.

Please answer the questions below. Use paragraph form. Your answer should be around 400 words. Email me your responses in Word .doc format to: I will be posting these each week after the class. You should be prepared to deliver your answer in class -- but paraphrase, do not read it.


The director of iRobot made a conscious attempt to make his futuristic vision of Chicago more believable by layering and blending it into existing pieces of the city, recognizing that this is the way cities grow and evolve.

Think of the idea of the "Uncanny Valley" when pondering Sonny.

Bear in mind Freud's reference to vacuous or empty urban spaces as being uncanny - this in reference to the "unhomely" vs. the "homely". This theory being developed at the beginning of the Modern Movement when architecture had not yet been stripped of its "homely detail". Has the notion of the "haunted house" or the unheimlich changed at all with the evolution of clean modern architectural style?



Adam Brady
Compare Alex Proyas' GENERAL vision of Chicago 2035 with Ridley Scott's vision of LA 2019 from Blade Runner. One very "bright", the other "dark". Which do you find more believable? Why?

The futuristic cities of Los Angeles and Chicago, in Blade Runner and I, Robot respectively, are both set 30 years from their conception and their vision are quite dramatic of one another.
Los Angeles appears as a very dark and sinister place. The city fabric is scattered with factories and filth, rendering the city as one disgusting industrial park. The planets seems as it exists merely as a folly, consumed of its resources, and left in shambles. Only the sick and weak remain on Earth, as off-world colonies (never seen in the film) have been established as utopian societies, allowing those deemed worthy enough to escape the perils of a planet left in shambles.
The Chicago of the future is portrayed as an ideal visionary society. The city is clean, painted with sunlight, and filled with beautiful architecture. The city feels more like the Chicago of present day, with the main difference lies in the harmonious existence of humans and artificial intelligence. Advanced technology appears is every aspect of life and living, with means of assisting in everyday activities, allowing one to live with feelings of security, ease, and comfort.

The utopia that is Chicago of 2035 is more believable as a general vision of an evolved mankind. It still resembles a city, more importantly it still resembles its former self. Los Angeles of 2019, has becomes a ruined city. It makes no clear attempt in identifying itself.

The technology in the two films drastically differs from one another. That in Blade Runner almost seems too advanced for its current time. The artificial intelligence: known as replicants, mimic human movement and emotion all too well. Whereas in I, Robot, the artificial intelligence exist clearly as machines; a typical rendition of a robot. As well, the mass technology found in the city reflects that in existence presently, but in more advanced form.

I, Robot resembles a world, in such that humanity has come together to form a common bond and better itself through technology. Though in this future, it appears that a large corporation appears to be in power (U.S.Robotics), but its underlying intentions are to server mankind, through the distribution of its product to help and protect others.

As in Blade Runner, the city of I, Robot is controlled by a massive corporation (U.S. Robotics). But as the film progresses we find that their intentions are much different than the corporations in Blade Runner and the other films we’ve viewed. Through the distribution of their product, their robots; they intend to serve humanity by helping others, creating a lifestyle filled with ease and comfort. They have attempted to create an ideal world, which many of us would like to exist in the future.



Cassandra Cautius
Compare Alex Proyas' GENERAL vision of Chicago 2035 with Ridley Scott's vision of LA 2019 from Blade Runner. One very "bright", the other "dark". Which do you find more uncanny? Why?

In Ridley Scott’s BladeRunner the depiction of Los Angeles is dark, damp, and plays on immense rift in scale and vertical projection through the city. Ground level here appears as if a sewer system, grade is not the plane of green and growth but would appear as sub levels of the city of the future. This dystopian future metropolis is lightyears away from the backdrop set by Alex Proyas in his film; I Robot. Chicago here is recognizable. The city structure we know today remains intact, yet apparent on it is the skew and pull of time and progress. The skyscrapers of our day are not engulfed in a brand new monstrosity of urban form as would seem the case in BladeRunner, instead they are simply dwarfed by the new towers of a new generation rising higher then previous logic would allow. This is completely realistic and reflects the way in which we today watch our cities grow slow and steady and upwards.  It would seem however that this is exactly the form of growth that would countinue and eventually the city will find its inhabitants subsumed in a new monstrosity the likes of which BladeRunner’s L.A. stands as a fair warning.

Personally, I find the future metropolis of I-Robot to be far more uncanny. In fact I found the entire film to be the most ‘uncanny’ one we have yet encountered in the course. The movie opens with Detective spooner in his dwelling place which cannot be found too far removed from any home in which someone would live today. When Spooner steps out of his apartment and into the city space all forms look familiar, the roads seem at a standard width, the sun reaches the ground there is green space and pedestrians busy on errands. Nothing feels quite out of place except the mechanical noises issuing from the drones or robots mingling in amongst the humans.

In this setting it is specifically technological advances that have out progressed general  development. Where Bladerunner paints a vivid warning to the speed of general advancement and development, but 22 years later I-Robot is displaying a very specific vision, one that can relate to each and everyone watching the film.  Life there is not so dissimilar to life here, save a few specific signs that do not instill comfort in the viewer regarding human progress. Specifically the robots so comfortable and humble amongst the humans, the vast tunnel highways and cars that pilot themselves.


Alexander Chan 
Compare Alex Proyas' use of recognizable Chicago architecture in the urban scenes of iRobot with Ridley Scott's use of the same in Blade Runner. Which do you find more successful/believable in terms of convincing the audience that this IS the inevitable future of the respective city.

I believe that Proyas’ vision of the future Chicago is believable because it offers a familiar yet distant possibility of the city’s evolution. In other words the city is not that different from present day however it still offers new and unique circumstances that currently don’t exist. One approach that Proyas uses to interpret the future environment is to add onto the existing urban elements like highways superficial treatments to create new synthesis of old typologies.

Cars in I, Robot, unlike Blade Runner and Fifth Element, do not fly but still travel over roads. Proyas suggests that because technology has rapidly increased, highways have also gotten faster than before. The existing typology of the highway exists but it is seen in a new light because of its hyper interpretation. Consequently other things such as fashion, automobiles and commercial store facades seem similar to our current standards but with a slight twist to make them seem futuristic.

Blade Runner differs from this approach because it offers a believable fantasy of how Los Angeles could possibly become. While I, Robot successfully created a very plausible and familiar environment, the focus of the backdrop is less direct than Blade Runner. One could even comment on how I, Robot was superfluous with its constant periphery references and re-interpretations (for example the blatant produce placement throughout the whole movie) while Blade Runner utilized all aspects of its environment to portray a dark awful dystopia. Take the neon signage in the Los Angeles Chinatown, they are seen more as foreign hieroglyphs than pragmatic identification for the store.

I believe that Blade Runner and I, Robot differ so greatly in their urban definitions because both films are attempting to do something different from each other. Blade Runner was trying to alienate and confuse its audience with perversions of the sunny coast of Los Angeles. The only way to understand and appreciate Blade Runner’s immensity is to see it from a bird’s perspective high in the air. Proyas’ Chicago was bright and sunny trying to invite us into the film. In many of the urban shots people can be identified or are visually at the same scale as the surrounding buildings. It is like looking at a traditional Japanese landscape print where people are working in the foreground with Fuji Mountain in the background. There is a compression in Proyas’ urban landscape that makes it easier to acknowledge on a human scale.

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David Henderson
Compare Alex Proyas' use of recognizable Chicago architecture in the urban scenes of iRobot with Ridley Scott's use of the same in Blade Runner. Which do you find more uncanny in terms of the inevitable future of the respective city?

Both Blade Runner and I, Robot use similar techniques in the portrayal of the city of the future, yet they show quite different possible futures. I, Robot shows a society very similar to our own in a very recognizable city, whereas Blade Runner shows an unfamiliar decaying world dotted with familiar objects and buildings from the past. Speaking in terms of Dr. Mori’s theory of the “uncanny valley” the robots in I, Robot are teetering at the first peak on the human likeness graph while the replicants in Blade Runner have already plunged into the depths of the uncanny valley. The cities in these movies portray the feelings of people towards artificial beings, one negative, one positive.

In Blade Runner, there are scenes where you see familiar buildings mixed into the urban fabric, but they look run down and oddly out of place. The city has been built up around them and they have been forgotten and have fallen into disrepair. This feeling of strange familiarity towards the city can be related directly to Dr. Mori’s theory. Although his theory is about the similarity to humans, the same mentality causes similar reactions in the portrayal of the future of a city. As the replicants are too similar to humans to be accepted, the notion “uncanny valley” is played out in not only the portrayal of the replicants themselves but the portrayal of the city and society of Los Angeles in 2019.

As previously mentioned, similar techniques were used in I, Robot. Again, the feelings of the people towards the robots are depicted in the vision of the future of Chicago. Robots still look like robots and have not yet plunged into the uncanny valley, although they do throughout the course of the movie as they attempt to gain control and the level of their collective intelligence is realized. The vision of Chicago in 2035 is an optimistic one where robots and humans live in harmony, where new and old coexist peacefully. Unlike Blade Runner, not just a few, but many of the buildings of our present are shown to still be a part of Chicago in the future.

With these thoughts in mind, I found I, Robot to be a far more uncanny vision of the future especially due to its similarities to our own society. The believability of the future Chicago is what makes I, Robot more uncanny. It is interesting to compare these two movies as they are both filmed and set in different eras, yet the distance they are set in the future from the time they were filmed is very similar. Blade Runner was set 37 years in the future whereas I, Robot was set 31 years in the future. As we approach 2019, it looks increasingly unlikely that the future of Blade Runner will become reality, but the future depicted in I, Robot still almost 30 years away seems somewhat plausible. In this respect, the dark, decaying world of Blade Runner is very uncanny, but its introduced to you in that manner, whereas in I, Robot, we watch the artificial beings plunge into the uncanny valley. This transformation process played out in the movie is what makes I, Robot the more uncanny of the two.


Minwoo Lee
Compare the urban position and representation of the iconic "towers that represent the bad guy" in iRobot and Fifth Element. How do the characteristics of the architecture support the plot of the films? Now pull in Metropolis 2001 and 1927 and their towers of power...

The portrayal of the iconic towers in I-Robot and The Fifth Element are very similar in many ways.  The symbolic reference of power and dominance in extreme verticality of the towers are clearly visible in both movies.  The dominance of the tower in the city’s skyline portrays the hierarchical status of corporations in the city functions.  The world of the future that is characterized by control and power exercised by the corporations, against which even the government is incompetent.

The head office located at the apex of the towers creates a sense of fear and doubt towards this corporate control. The trust in the systemic functions of a corporation, belief that companies function on a reliable logic for profit by serving the people dissipates once realize that a person, subject to identical fragilities of any other human being, is in control. There is an acknowledgement of the possibility that the controlling system of the city and the commodities that infiltrate the daily lives of the people are not as transparent and reliable as they once were. When the controlling power is located so far above anything else that it is impossible to monitor it, there is potential for corruption. 

Despite these similarities, the perception of these towers is very different in the overall context of the city. The tower in The Fifth Element is in complete alienation from the city, completely detached from means of control such as law enforcement. Even the visual portrayal of the tower is characterized by the decaying industrial feel that is keen to harbouring some sort of criminal activity. On the contrary, the USR corporation tower is located in the city core, where it exists as an integral part of everyday life. The movie specifically portrays the accessibility of these towers by displaying the building from a human scale. The USR tower is characterized by the pristine and modern image of a corporation that implies a sense of transparency and trustworthiness in its actions.

This difference of portrayal is key in supporting the plot by emphasizing the conflict between the different dualities. In the Fifth Element, the plot revolves around the conflict between the greater good against the corrupt few, where the system needs to fight against the individual. The visual representation of industrious and decaying tower helps in strengthening the image of corruption. However, in I-Robot, the emphasis is reversed in which an individual must fight the seemingly perfect system. The positive portrayal of the tower connotes its powerful presence amongst the people and its impenetrability, thus emphasizing the struggles of protagonist in which to discover the truth.


Paula Lee
How do familiar objects of "our era" increase our ability to relate to this future environment? Does nostalgia reduce the impact of the uncanniness of the future environement, or does the contrast make it more severe?

The familiar objects of our time such as a sushi bar, boutiques and garbage trucks makes possible for the viewers to see future as another real living space by making the scenes more real as reality that we know presently gets projected in each scenery. In other words, these elements of present reality are utilized as a tool in the film to reduce the feelings of fear one might feel from a drastic change in future reality from present reality. Change is said to be a factor of fear for human, as change cause instability and possibility of an unknown outcome- disrupting the natural course. Even though the presentation of the movie’s setting seems definitely different from present cities, the use of these familiar places or objects reduce the amount of tension caused from the destruction of present reality in what film project as future reality. Personally, I feel these elements work really well in reducing the feelings of unfamiliarity of the unknown future cityscape. If the movie was made without these elements of nostalgia referring back to the viewer’s knowledge of reality, then it would have seemed hard to relate to and more uncanny as the connection between the viewer’s reality and futuristic scenes of the movie will be missing.


Evelyn Lo
Comment on the effectiveness of the use of existing Chicago streetscapes on making the film feel Uncanny - or not.

The use of the existing Chicago streetscape in I Robot creates a more believable future, as it portrays less of a dystopic world (as in Blade Runner, Metropolis) and instead depicts a future that viewers recognize, a future that does not so starkly contrast our own world of today. The uncanny is the unsettling, disturbed feeling that comes from seeing something that is familiar and recognizable and desperately striving to be 'real' but fails to do so because of one or few distinct features that seem 'off'. The futuristic city of Chicago, however, does not fall under the category of uncanny, as it appears comfortable, familiar, and thoroughly realistic. There are no distinctly 'off' characteristics, and any element of the future is softly blended into the city that they become nearly imperceptible.
Furthermore, Freud describes urban spaces that are devoid of people and life, as cold, unsettling and uncanny. The streetscapes of Chicago as depicted in this film, are quite the opposite - the streets are bustling with activity and people, and the spaces feel dense, and everyone is found to be in close distance within each other.  The streets are depicted in a rather neutral palette, a warm concrete hue, and are brightly lit, again making viewers feel comfortable with the city streets.

Despite being a city in the future, Chicago resembles very much the Chicago of today. The elevated metro line that plays a large part in the Chicago urban infrastructure is still very much present, daily life has continued uninterrupted- public transportation is still very much in use (unlike the hovering cars in blade runner, fifth element) , garbage disposal trucks are still prevalent (unlike metropolis where all the garbage is disposed of in zone 2) and sushi bars are still popular venues. Daily life continues to occur on one ground plane, and still very much adheres to the laws of gravity. 

In using existing Chicago streetscapes and recognizable infrastructure, the film portrays a futuristic world that is in fact, not uncanny at all but is completely realistic and not so farfetched at all.


John McFarlane
How is architectural transparency (ie. extensive glass) and urban position used to make the US Robotics headquarters seem less potentially "evil" and therefore, more uncanny?

Public prominence and the use of glass in buildings is often associated with transparent actions and accountability and can be used to convey the sense that the occupants of the building have nothing to hide from public scrutiny. From this position the siting and extensive glazing of the US Robotics headquarters contrast with the malevolent ambitions latent within it and this conflict of seeming good and being evil generates a feeling of the uncanny.

Since the US Robotics company is largely comprised of good intentions, however, (Doctors Alfred Lanning and Susan Calvin and Lawrence Robertson are all revealed to be good people and only Viki can be seen as evil) the use of position and transparency could also be considered canny and appropriate. The development of more complex and less categorical characters in I, Robot compared to The Fifth Element’s Manichean stylization for example, doesn’t lend the film to a clear analysis on the basis of good and evil and makes the perception of what is uncanny uncertain.

Neither reading is satisfactory from that position in any case because they oversimplify the meaning of glass in buildings. Transparency and reflections have been a central thread in architectural discourse since the beginning of the Modern Movement and the technical innovations that made walls independent of structure and therefore made the use of glazing more meaningful through the freedom of application available. The extensive use of glass in buildings can itself be seen as uncanny as illustrated by Jacques Tati in the confusion it creates for Monsieur Hulot and Barbara in Playtime and investigated through the dialogue on Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion:

Its composition around a focal point is destabilized: the structure of the pavilion is corroded by that same flow of reflections of the senses and in the mind which dissolves any presence in its interior. Glass has rendered the building of a uniform world impossible. (source: Quetglas, Josep. Fear of Glass: Mies van der Rohe’s Pavilion in Barcelona. Basel: Birkhauser, 2001.)

The use of glass in its modern format – large expanses broken only by mullions – can be read as a manifestation of the uncanniness inherent in modernity. This position is the most effective from which to evaluate the US Robotics headquarters because that sense of the uncanny as a fundamental part of modern life is what the extrapolated realities proposed and morally explored by Isaac Asimov revolve around. The headquarters building is uncanny not because it looks friendly but because its glazing and position represent modernity in all its dualities.


Sava Miokovic
If we think of the designers/inventors of the Robots in iRobot in the same vein as the robot/android designers in the other films, how does the lab space of iRobot compare to the laboratories represented in Metropolis 1927 and Metropolis 2001?

The first image is of Dr. Lanning's laboratory.  Robot parts and scientific instruments are scattered throughout the room.  The room appears as a well-used workshop.  The laboratory in Metropolis 1927 left the same impression.  Although, the room is somewhat dark, it does not have the psychotic, disturbed atmosphere of the scientist's laboratory in Metropolis 2001. 

The laboratory in the last two slides seems to express societies greatest scientific achievement, the creation of life.  This celebration occurs through the well-crafted space; having a strong materiality, organized and clean, and a luminous glow.  The space is like a more advanced operation room in a hospital.  This reference is made strong through the lab coat of Dr. Calvin, the colour palette, the silver tools, and the operating chair.  This laboratory, like a hospital, is place were the threshold between life and death is encountered. 

The laboratory in the last two slides strongly references a church.  Like a church, there is a strong symmetry and we enter along the central axis, framed by a colonnade, which is the glowing tower lights in this case.  The alter is replaced by the operating chair, which traditionally lies below the dome, but in this case is replaced by the circle structure above, equivalent to the base of a dome, which allows light to flood down.  A strong uplifting sense is created by this light in addition to the light towers adjacent to the operating chair, which are split, having the longer piece on the upper half, therefore drawing the eye up.  The reference to the church plays up the feelings of the uncanny generated by the human creation of "artificial" life. 



Reena Mistry
We are prepared to think of the representation of the robots in uncanny terms. Are there any aspects of Dr. Susan Calvin that also give rise to feelings of the uncanny? Perhaps compare her to Sonny.

Dr. Susan Calvin plays an intrinsic role in developing the robots that define the uncanny nature of the film. As the “chief robopsychologist”, her logic is undeniably linked to the rationality and systematic operation and behaviour of the robots. The manner in which she recites information, her rational behaviour, even her perfect stance, portrays her character in almost a more mechanical way than the robots themselves. Sonny, though a robot, is sometimes much more human than Dr. Calvin. His curiosity and even his ability to trust and dream (revealed as the plot develops) can be starkly contrasted with Dr. Calvin’s portrayal (at the beginning of the movie) as an emotionally detached and purely rational scientist.

When confronted with Agent Spooner, who suggests a robot was capable of committing a crime, Dr. Calvin is not only sceptical, but incapable of comprehending how programmed laws could be broken. According to the robot’s programming, the three laws make them incapable of harming humans. As a result, Dr. Calvin is more willing to trust a robot than a human. She relentlessly trusts her world of structure, rules, laws and control and though incredibly intelligent, she struggles to see and understand outside of this imprisoning paradigm.

Essentially, human impulse, intuition, emotion, and even sense of humour are denied in her character and result in the disturbing notion that the producer of robots is even more robotic than the robots themselves. In many ways, Dr. Calvin’s close relationship to robots severs her relations with other humans. This is exemplified by her trust and respect for robots, affinity for Sonny, and obvious contrast with Spooner, who foils her character by his complete distrust and scepticism of robots. The greatest uncanny notion is that Dr. Calvin’s complete trust in the robots causes her to support their full integration into society; the mistake that society blindly makes that allows the robot revolution to occur. 


Melissa Ng 
The idea of the "supreme" robot/(being?) is presented in Metropolis 2001 and iRobot. Compare Tima and Viki in terms of intentions, actions and characteristics. Does one feel more uncanny than the other? Why? And what about Leeloo?

The idea of the supreme robot presented in iRobot presents a religious dimension as part of the film’s narrative.  Viki is seen as the supreme being, though humans are the true creators of the robot race.  This is evident in the robots’ allegiance to Viki.  The newly superior robots, which have been created to be more ‘human’ than its predecessors, no longer respond to serve their originating function as machines to assist the human race.  Asimov, the author of the original novel of which IRobot was loosely based, investigates the ideas of robotic confusion during more complex situations.  He further elaborates that the solution to this confusion and difficulties formed during crises may be eradicated with the ability to form an underlying logic to evaluate the situation.  This capability has been granted to two robots in the film: Viki, the ‘supreme robot’ and Sonny, who ultimately is not only the savior for the robotic race, but for the human race as well.  Viki’s logic causes her to override the three laws or commandments imposed by humans in order to prevent the self-destruction of the race due to the nature of man.  Viki, though seemingly flawless and almighty in its created intention, develops to be the most flawed machine from them all; her incomplete capability to understand the world and the human race inevitably leads her to deficient reasoning showing her weakness to comprehend complex situations beyond statistics.  Her inhuman-like characteristics, both physical and mechanical, contrasts with Metropolis 2001’s Tima and Fifth Element’s Leeloo.  Tima and Leeloo’s intended creations were both to become the universal saviors of the human race – to create a better place for all of mankind.  Also, both ‘supreme beings’ are designed as humans – they possess not only the form of women, they hold the emotions as well.  Furthermore, the actions of these robots are the result of mans’ exertion – though seen as ‘supreme beings’, humans still maintain control.  Contrastingly, Viki’s actions are the result of her own assessment and her aspiration to save the human race from itself is one of which was made-up on her own without human application.  Furthermore, she is designed to look like and act as a machine; a holographic image of a woman’s face represents her existence.  Sonny, on the other hand, is designed much more closely to Tima and Leeloo.  He is equipped with the ability to learn, feel, and dream.  His nature is reminiscent of a true being, and his existence and function still remains honest to his creator; he becomes a savior only as a result of his instilled purpose.  The most uncanny robot is Viki.  Her role in the film is suggestive of a classic Frankenstein story.  The remarkable creation of man ultimately brings destruction back unto the creator. 


Aisling O'Carroll
Significance to the uncanny (valley)? Any ideas?

The development of the plot in Alex Proyas' I, Robot can be clearly compared to Doctor Masahiro Mori's thesis on the Uncanny Valley. Mori's theory suggests that the human emotional response towards objects, whose appearances and movements are similar to that of a human, plunges deeply into a repulsive response as the appearance and motion become less distinguishable from that of a real human. As the appearance and motions again become less distinguishable, the emotional response becomes positive once more. In Proyas’ film we are initially presented with a future Chicago, full of robots, yet seemingly harmless robots. These early models appear to be constructed of metal bodies, similar to the archetypal tin robots we are familiar with. This model inspires little reaction, however quite soon into the film we are introduced to the new NS-5 robot. This robot is a much more advanced model. The face and parts of the body are formed with a translucent membrane, resembling skin, while the legs and arms are connected with mechanics which look like muscles and tendons. The face of the NS-5 is most notably similar to that of a human; the eyes’ realism has greatly improved since the earlier models, and the form of the face is much more realistic as well. Our first encounter with the NS-5 is at the scene of Dr. Lanning’s apparent suicide, so our natural reaction is to be apprehensive of it, however, its appearance and seeming human features make the viewer much more uncomfortable and distrustful. This reaction perfectly follows Mori’s theory of the uncanny valley. As the robots become more human like, we become more repulsed by them. As the movie progresses the NS-5s gain more human characteristics, like the ability to override the Three Laws of Robotics, engrained in their systems. The set of the film gets continuously darker as the film progresses, significant to the idea of falling deeper into the uncanny valley. At the deepest moment, when the NS-5’s are working together as a mass revolting, the earlier robot models are reintroduced in the scene at the waste site. These earlier versions now inspire a sense of empathy as we recognise them as non-humans, without human capabilities. At the end of the film, when Sonny explains that he promised Dr. Lanning that he would do anything he asked, it becomes clear that he was simply following orders, as he was programmed to do, and not acting on his own in Lanning’s murder. This is the final step in the journey down, and back out of the uncanny valley for the viewer in Proyas’ film. Spooner, the main character, follows a similar trail through the film, however he seems to be the only one who experiences the uncanniness of the robots, which actually elevates the sense of uncanny for the viewer.

The scenes of contact between robots and humans affect the response of the viewer. Dr. Calvin plays the role of mediator between the humans and robots, and in the scene where she is supposed to terminate Sonny’s program, she touches his hand to comfort him first. This is uncanny in that she seems to recognise Sonny as having emotions and feelings, to require comforting in his termination. When she touches Spooner, inspecting his robotic arm, the response is different, as Spooner is clearly a real human, but his arm is robotic. His arm only seems to generate an abnormal response when it is damaged and visibly robotic, or when he uses it in ways a real human arm could not be used. Dr. Calvin is able to read the machinery of his entire arm through the skin by touching. Dr. Calvin in many respects plays a similar role as mediator to that of Freder, between the workers and the managers.


Shannon Ross
Compare the style and attributes of the automobiles used in iRobot with the (police) vehicles used in Blade Runner. Which seems more futuristic? Which more successful in feeding into the urban nature/style of the city?

The automobiles used in iRobot seemed much more intelligently designed than the police vehicles used in Blade Runner.  They are much more sleek and aerodynamic.  In Blade Runner, the machinery of the cars is exposed and they seem unfinished.  The vehicles in iRobot are more plausible as a representation of what the cars of the future might look like because they show that they design intelligently when they take into consideration the benefits of aerodynamics.  Both cars convey equally well the urban style of the city in which they are placed.  In iRobot, the sleek minimalist style of the city is reflected in the design of the vehicles and similarly in Blade Runner the rough and raw style of the city is reflected in their vehicles.


Terry Sin
In iRobot cars might "float" (thinking Metropolis 2001) but they are still fairly connected to the ground. Compare how this feeds into these two films and their representation of urban space - as compared to cars that actually "fly" (Blade Runner).

In all three films, I, Robot, Metropolis, and Blade Runner, urban space is represented in layers at enormous scales. However, by observing the relation between these spaces and the representation of vehicles, we are able to better understand the nature of these worlds. In both I, Robot and Metropolis, the cars hover in a futuristic manner near the ground, but never travel higher than a human being. This may be because the urban fabric is still firmly rooted in the ground. However, in both cases, there is also the presence of an extremely tall skyscraper that represents power, control, and wealth. The only way to travel vertically in these structures, is by being privileged enough to be part of the corporation. Thus, a regular person is still stuck to the ground.

In Blade Runner, the urban spaces created by the Tyrell Corporation seem to be squeezed together, as though the great pyramids have forced spaces together at the human scale. The pyramids are also like a solid collection of skyscrapers with no infrastructure for transportation between them. This then relates to the necessity of actual “flying” cars, as it is impossible to travel in any other way. However, the only ones allowed to fly are the police, ones with control and power. Otherwise, the rest of the city is traveling on bicycles or regular wheeled cars.

In all these cases, this hierarchy of power and altitude creates a sense of the uncanny. It seems eerie that the only the privileged can travel to the heights that humanity have reached in the future. In I, Robot, the idea of the floating car seems unhomely, because it is so similar to a actual car. It is a familiar brand (Audi) and has similar attributes of a modern car, but floats lightly above the road. Furthermore, the idea of the automated system of driving carries a sense on unease, with a hint of even more danger without being in control.


Helen Tout
Comment on the relationship of Isaac Asimov's "3 laws" (the major piece of influence) to the development of the uncanniness of the plot of the film. How does this differ from the other robotic characters we have looked at this term?
Some links for you...

Asimov’s three laws provide a framework for a feasible way to ‘control’ the actions of robots in a hierarchal society where robots are the lowest common denominator. Robots are stronger, faster and more capable for accuracy than any human being and are therefore seen as a threat by some. But most people in the I, Robot world trust robots implicitly because of the three laws which they believe to be safeguards.

Robots are programmed to think rationally and logically whereas a human might often make decisions irrationally based on instinct and emotions. Because of this rationality robots can often make logical decisions that may take into account the protection of human life, but may be construed as evil in human terms. This can also lead them to be tricked or to harm a human being without their knowledge. A few examples of this are if a human tells a robot to add a chemical to a drink and then tells the robot to serve the drink to a human and the result is that the drink is poisoned and the human dies. Another instance where a robot is only thinking logically is Del Spooner’s tale of how he was in a car accident, and a robot saved his life instead of the life of a child because he was more likely to survive statistically.

Throughout I, Robot we are aware of the enslavement of robots to the human race, but we constantly see them breaking the laws in a way that does not make sense to us. This is because Viki is actually controlling the robots through the uplink towards what she believes to be the greater good of humanity but in actual fact is a totalitarian regime. Robots have the laws hardwired into their positronic brains, and can therefore not break them, but their own logic flaws this system because their judgments are based on an absolute logic that does not necessarily make decisions that are beneficial to humanity.


Jamie Usas
Sonny is far less "human looking" than Tima, Maria/robot, The Golem, and even Leeloo. Describe the aspects of Sonny's character that lend to issues of the Uncanny Valley.


The film adaptation of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), presents moments of android to human interaction that question the nature of “Human” with an honesty seldom achieved in science-fiction cinema.  The robot, “Sonny” (Alan Tudyk), while identical in appearance to all NS-5 model robots, persistently blurs the line between humans and machines by subverting ideas of homogeneity and conformity, paradoxically displaying human emotions such as anger, fear, and love, all of which are uncommon to other NS-5 robots.  Sonny refers to himself by name, stating “I am Sonny” when addressed by Detective Spooner (Will Smith), signifying a conscious understanding of subjectivity and therefore individuality.  Sonny, later makes the distinction between uniqueness and commonness when speaking objectively about himself with regard to the collective of NS-5 robots, stating “They look like me [...] but they are not [...] me,” signifying his own self-awareness.  Sonny's individuality is first symbolized within the narrative when he is hiding among hundreds of NS-5 robots [ Image 1] with the hopes of discouraging the pursuit of Detective Spooner, who is threatening individual NS-5 robots at gun point.  Spooner admits that while most of the robots will not be threatened by his action, “one will,” at which time Sonny reveals himself and confirms Spooner's suspicion.  This illustrates Sonny's individuality through both Sonny's defiance of conformity, and Detective Spooner's anticipation of Sonny's transgression.   Later, when addressed by Calvin before his scheduled deactivation [ Image 2], Sonny does not respond.  When questioned by Calvin for a reason explaining his unresponsiveness, Sonny explains “I was dreaming”.  Thus, Sonny approaches the uncanny valley through his subjective relation of human experience.  This is the first moment that the robot speaks of human experience in a subjective present tense (“I was dreaming”),  rather than the objective past tense, (“ I have had dreams”), implying that Sonny is no longer relating the objective, passive idea of the dream, but specifically the subjective act of dreaming.  The juxtaposition of Sonny's non-human form and hyper-human articulation creates a state of uncanny discomfort in the viewer, and therefore progresses the viewer towards the uncanny valley.  Sonny pushes the viewer further into the uncanny by relating his personal fear of death when asking Calvin “will it hurt?” moments before she is to deactivate him, confirming a sense of his own mortality and finite nature.  The viewer is challenged to further question the nature of “human” when Sonny successfully mimics a human gesture in a moment of crises.  While holding Calvin at gun point [Image 3], Sonny signals Spooner with a wink, referencing the first encounter between Spooner and Sonny, during his interrogation.  During the encounter Sonny had observed Spooner wink at another detective.  Upon Sonny's inquiry as to the meaning of the wink, Spooner replies “It's a sign of trust.  It's a human thing, you wouldn't understand.”  The reconnection to the first encounter between Sonny and Spooner, via Sonny's wink, implies not only Sonny's understanding of “trust,” but more importantly Sonny's very human invitation for Spooner to “trust” him in a moment of extreme crisis.


Susan Varickanickal
There are different "styles" of robots used in the film. How do their varying characteristics feed into the Uncanny. How do these different characters relate to each other?

In the film “I Robot”, several types / styles of robots have been created to perform specific tasks for the members of society.  As the design of the robots advance, new series of robots are created.  This feeds into the idea that technology is always evolving, and that is was the robots are, species of technology.  They were created as household appliances to aide domestic life; however, the advances in their design brought them new responsibilities, such as search and rescue, and other civic duties. 

The varying characteristics of the robots feed into the Uncanny by their ever-increasing roles in society.  Their design make-up has rendered them efficient tools in carrying out specific duties in society, jobs that were once carried out by humans.  Robots have now reached a new level of value, where their skills are more valuable than a human’s, replacing them in them in the work force.

As technology evolves new species of robots are created that are more efficient and practical, which renders the older models unnecessary.  In the film the older robots are seen being put into storage, as their services are now no longer needed with the advances in the newer models.  The newer models are then shown destroying the older specie of robots.  This interaction between the robots also feeds into the uncanny as they are seen in combat with each other, behaving in a human-like manner.  They are at war with each other, both species expressing emotions and characteristics of humans.  This idea creates the feeling of strangeness because these are only machines, and should be replaced over time with more efficient models; however, the battle between the robots creates a sense of strangeness in the human viewer as the robots behave in a more human-like fashion rather than as tools or machines.      


Chao Lun Wang
How has the use of CGI changed the impact of the architectural imagery OF THE EXTERIOR URBAN SPACES in this film - compared to the more "traditional" techniques used in Blade Runner and Fifth Element? Do you think the feelings that arise when "architects" watch this film are substantially different than the general public in this regard. Explain.

With the development of computer graphics imagery, the scenes in I Robot has become much brighter than its early precedence, Blade Runner, which strategically uses a darker and rainy atmosphere to camouflage the crudeness of CGI in the 80s, which also explained why all the scenes are of the night. In contrary, Fifth Element, a more recent precedence to I Robot, has gotten much brighter. However the environment appears too surreal since it is done with scaled physical models that are rendered by studio lighting.

There has also been a progression of cutting down on the set designs from earlier works to the more recent ones. Blade Runner used human-sized Hollywood sets to create much of its urban environment, while Fifth elements used scaled model with the green screen to render its urban environment, then in I Robot, computer graphics has totally replaced physical set-designs.

The Architectural imagery of the exterior urban spaces in I Robot adapts the modern day buildings and structures and overlays layers of futuristic elements onto the scenes using a CGI technique that montages rendered graphics and lighting onto existing images of the city. This method to create an environment of the future suggests a possibility that an urban fabric of today being able to propel into the future. This is not the case for either Blade Runner or Fifth Element. In Blade Runner, the city of Los Angeles has been portrayed as a slum. Historical building has become abandoned while massive structures are erected in the hell-like fabric. While in Fifth Element, no real environment is used to render New York in year 2263. Everything is imaginary with no reference to anything that the viewer is familiar with.

As an architect, watching I Robot while focusing on the exterior urban spaces suggests a sense of propelling permanence of our architecture into the future, and offer clues of how urban spaces designed nowadays can adapt to the technological development in the future. Conversely for the general public, they may find such rendition of the future not exciting, since many people who goes to a Science-Fiction movie would expect to see an urban space that is totally alien, and one that is more in-sync to the technologies portrayed in the film.



Benjamin Wong
How has the use of CGI changed the impact of the architectural imagery OF THE INTERIOR SPACES in this film - compared to the more "traditional" techniques used in Blade Runner and Fifth Element? Do you think the feelings that arise when "architects" watch this film are substantially different than the general public in this regard. Explain.

I, Robot portrays a modern world that, through some form of evolution, has still retained the feelings of the unhomely of Modern architecture.  This is very much evident in the CGI architectural imagery of the interior spaces.  The U.S. Robotics building, specifically, shows a sleek, modern building.  It certainly functions impeccably well, operated by a computer, VIKKI, so that little or no human action is needed to regulate it.  It even appears to provide for adequate sunlight to create a healthy work environment.  What it lacks, however, is that homely feeling that answers to the metaphysical needs of living people.  People need buildings that do more than look aesthetically pleasing and function well.  Places such as Spooner's or Gigi's homes, where there is a clear lack of the technological advancements seen throughout the rest of the city, are the places that seem the most homely.  In reference to the homely vs. the unhomely, therefore, the idea of the uncanny is produced.

In comparison to the "traditional" techniques in Bladerunner and The Fifth Element, the technological advancements in graphics which made I, Robot possible seem to be much more effective in conveying the uncanny.  Although each film portrays the future world fairly realistically by incorporating certain elements of the present world, the CGI in I, Robot was able to portray much grander gestures of a future architecture.  They really allowed for an opportunity of the film to tap into the imagination of the audience, with the present as a basis for their inventions.

"Architects" might certainly appreciate this aspect more than the general audience, because of a different level of knowledge about architecture.  There is certainly a larger pool of knowledge on the subject to tap into with the CGI graphics.  At the same time, the goal of these CGI graphics is really to create a certain atmosphere by evoking set images of the mind.  In this respect, perhaps it is really not all that important how knowledgeable the viewer is of architectural precedents.  The same effect is achieved.  Regardless, it is certainly necessary for this level of realism and use of precedents in order to maintain the integrity of this future world in the film.


Erin Corcoran
Do the filming angles feed into the sense of the uncanny more or less than in any of the other films that we have viewed this term?

Filming angles are often used within futuristic films as a way of demonstrating the impossible scale of the architecture of the urban environment of tomorrow.  By using the angle of view to create vertigo-inducing views downwards from great heights, or dizzying views of dauntingly tall towers as viewed from the ground level, the film maker tries to give the viewer a sense of what it would be like to inhabit these environments, and also make a commentary on the inhuman aspect of the large scale of these projects. 

This technique, as employed throughout the film I Robot, is used to separate the human action elements from the over-designed perfect areas of the corporation’s headquarters.  As the largest building in the city and the heart of the robot revolution, the USR building represents both the promise of the future and the ultimate failure of design that fails to take into account human function.  The uncanny element within the film is the use of both scenes within the city displayed at the human scale (the grandmother’s house, streetscapes) and scenes within the futuristic USR zones.  This forces the viewer to attempt to join together the parts of the city that they can most identify with with the portions of the city that seem most surreal or impossible.

This juxtaposition of familiar and surreal as uncanny is also used within Tezuka’s Metropolis as the characters transition from the various zones into the city above, and within the Truman show as the setting of the film begins as familiar and slowly develops into something unbelievable but still meant to be accepted by the viewer as real.  Like the concept of the uncanny valley, the uncomfortable element is not present by itself within either the artificial world or the familiar; it is present within the transition, where the familiar and the impossible are so close together but still so different as to be uncomfortable to the viewers interacting with them. 


Matthias Heck
Compare the use of neon/discrete colour, in this film with Fifth Element or Blade Runner. How is it different/the same? How does it feed into the uncanny or the plot?

Usage (or non-usage) of colors and lighting is an important aspect that helps creating different atmospheres in movies. One can see that clearly in Blade Runner, where a dark and shadowy environment necessarily leads to a desired gloomy and sinister atmosphere in the whole (film noir themed) movie. In terms of lighting, there is a big contrast between the intense neon lights and the all-embracing darkness in the cityscape of the future Los Angeles. In the interiors there is even less, spare lighting. This is a strong disparity to the Fifth Element, which is supposed to take place in a hip and lively world, hence the usage of loud colors, intense and bright lighting and consequently, more distinguishable materials and textures.

I, Robot on the other hand, is more subtle in terms of lighting and colors, as it relies on discrete colors that blend in with the surrounding architecture. In the interiors more convenient white and light blue colors dominate (for example in the USR labs) with the exception of red alarm lights in a few scenes. Illuminated advertising using neon lights is a common urban and lighting theme in all mentioned movies. It stands out in Blade Runner due to the overwhelming presence of darkness and the sheer amount of product placement. I, Robot however has many daylight scenes and only few night shots, so we mostly see a sunlit cityscape of the future Chicago, which is characterized by a slightly modified skyline. The city basically appears to be an amalgamation of glass, steel and mainly concrete and shades of gray. This especially applies to the vast urban space in front of the USR building, which seems to be a heavy, monolithic concrete structure that acts as a contradiction to the surrounding "light" steel and glass high-rise buildings.

In general, lighting and color is an aspect that does not stand out that much in I, Robot, so it feeds into the credibility of the shown utopia and the whole plot, as it seems more realistic and more believable. Hence, concerning the uncanny, the lighting in this movie largely works against an uncanny feeling, and there are only few exceptions: the activated robots that are under VIKI’s control for instance, have a red light on their chest plate, which evokes the association of a human heart. This particular association is especially uncanny in a certain way, as only the inhuman and menacing robots have that feature.


Suzanne Gibson
Unlike Blade Runner, which seemed to be shot entirely at night, or Fifth Element, which tended to feel more like daytime, iRobot makes particular use of times of day in its filming and plot. How does this alter the feeling of the spaces in the film? How does this feed into its believability? Does this affect the sense of the uncanny at all? - either in terms of creating discomfort in the urban spaces or in creating feelings of the "unhomely"?

I Robot uses time of day to alter the feelings of space and time in the film, the use of both day and night shots helps to strengthens the believability of the movie and in doing so creates a greater sense of the uncanny.  Of the futurist films seen so far in class I Robot is the only one that marries both night and day in the film, in comparison Blade Runners setting is dark while The Fifth Element takes place in bright ‘day’ like conditions.   Although I Robot uses both day light and night conditions to tell a story, the quality of the environment also sets it apart from the other two movies. 

Blade Runner, uses a sinister darkness to betray a dark and unbecoming related, the environment of Blade Runner is wet, misty and perpetually dark.  Darkness is typically associated with danger in part because darkness conceals potential dangers.  The idea of darkness as a cover for the unknown can be seen in both movies, both Blade Runner and I Robot uses darkness and a means to conceal potential dangers. In I Robot everything evil happens either in natural darkness, or in the cover of artificial lighting in what would other wise be a dark condition, for instance the suspicious suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning although not seen by the audience happened at night. Similarly detective Del Spooner takes a trip to the USR robot storage facility in the cover of darkness to discover that the NS5’s are destroying the other robots, and there Spooner access Lanning’s hologram, who explains that the three laws that govern robot behavior can only lead to revolution.  Upon returning the city Spooner and the audience see that the robots have mobilized and are revolting against humans. Both of these scenes take place in darkness using the audience’s preconceived notion of darkness to enhance the feelings of discomfort.  The only major action scene that does not take place in natural darkness but rather artificial light is the scene where Spooner is traveling in an underground tunnel, where his vehicle is boxed in by several USR trucks that then open and armies of NS5’s jump out and begin attacking his car.  This scene lit by fluorescent lights, takes advantage of the dark shadows formed in the tunnel emphasizing the contrast between light and dark, making the scene as uncomfortable to watch as the night shots.

Unlike Blade Runner, I Robot also takes advantage of day lit scenes.  The Fifth Element, which is shot almost entirely during the day, uses highly stylized lighting that is too bright to be considered natural; it is the unnaturalness of lighting that causes feeling of discomfort.  Unlike The Fifth Element, I Robot uses daylight to calm and create feeling of recognizable reality, although despite the attempts to mimic reality it should be noted that skies are too perfect and unmoving, both being static. Day light is used as a pause in the action, it is used as a time to reflect on the nights events, as seen at the end of the move as the revolution is being cleaned up and the events that lead up to the revolution have become understood.   

I feel that the reason the director of I Robot diverged from the pervious examples is that there was a desire to create a reasonable and believable reality the audience would be able to relate to. By having a believable reality the visual effects and story line become inscribed in a time and space, despite the potential for them being far fetched they can be related to in a way that is understandable.  The other two movies are very different from I Robot, both the directors of Blade Runner and the Fifth Element chose not to create environments that could easily relate to the audience, in both movies the change of the environment is as much a part of the future as is the technologies that are presented in the movie. 

Kate Gould
The unhomely or uncanny has been related to the notion of the emptiness of large urban spaces or anonymity. Relate this definition to the development of both characters and urban/architecture in iRobot.

In the movie I-Robot there is a particular feeling of the unhomely or uncanny in their portrayal of large empty urban spaces, which leave the individual feeling small and uncomfortable.  In these spaces a feeling of , the opposite of claustrophobia, could be experienced where the individual completely looses themselves in the crowd.  Freud referred to empty urban spaces as being uncanny, as they remove any real sense of the individual.  This feeling of anonymity in the public realm is central to the architectural language and character development in the film I-Robot.

I-Robot portrays the future of Chicago in 2035, showing two distinct sides of the city.  They contrast their new vision for the city, with large vacuous spaces surrounded by looming skyscrapers with real shots of the city in more familiar neighbourhoods.  These latter scenes create a very homely atmosphere, using real shots of Chicago and bringing in items from today that make it seem familiar.  For example Spooner’s apartment is filled with modern day devices and creature comforts such as his grandmother’s sweet potato pie.  One really feels the difference between these very individualized private spaces and expansive urban spaces which often feel very devoid of real human presence.  In these massive urban plazas, even when they are occupied, the individual is dwarfed by the architecture and hence it feels empty. 

The uncanny nature of anonymity can also be seen in the relations in the movie between humans and robots.  The main character Spooner feels that this relationship is actually very harmful, as they are unnecessary.  Humans would become redundant as robots are taking on more and more of their personal tasks.  This can be seen in the first image where the factory to create the robots has been completely run by the robots as well.  One can no longer see the hand of the craftsman in these anonymous robots.  As such he also despises the anonymity of a robots work, when compared to the individual creative energy of a human.  He thinks that objects created by a robot have lost any uniqueness, which is shown in his nostalgia for items from the 21st century.

The final image of the robots beneath the bridge is reminiscent of imperial Rome, a city filled with slaves, a worrisome underclass that has the might decide that their lot needs improving.  In the prophecy they need a savior to help them gain their freedom and individuality.  This points them away from anonymity towards being more human.



updated 23-Dec-2007 9:29 AM

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