Book Review: Robopocalypse (by Daniel H. Wilson)
What happens when we make our robots too smart and they develop self-awareness? Naturally they try to kill us. Anyone who has seen any amount of sci-fi movies knows that. So yeah, Daniel Wilson’s “Robopocalypse” is nothing you haven’t seen or read before. Hell, there’s an entire movie franchise called “Terminator” based entirely around this exact same premise. Nevertheless, “Robopocalypse” is still one hell of a story, and should make a fantastic movie.
The book is currently being developed for the big screen with Steven Spielberg set to direct. I can’t think of a better director than Spielberg, because “Robopocalypse” is essentially “War of the Worlds” + “A.I.” + “Saving Private Ryan”, all movies that Spielberg directed. It’s metallic war madness, following a disparate group of human survivors as they try to survive the first days of the robot uprising (called Zero Hour), before eventually fighting back from different parts of the world. It’s a harrowing war movie wrapped up in a sci-fi setting, with “stumper” robots that grapple onto your leg and blow up, huge walking “mantis” war machines, and re-wired “spider tanks”. Awesome, awesome stuff that seems tailor made for the movies.
“Robopocalypse” is set in the near future, where robots are now commonplace and assist us with pretty much every type of physical labor we’re too lazy to do ourselves. They deliver our mail, drive our cars, pick up our burgers for us, and yes, even provide companionship as love robots. The big bad robot (or Rob, as they are (not so much) affectionately called in the book) is named Archos, who was created to be smart. Really, really smart. Of course, we just didn’t realize how smart the little bugger would be. In short order, Archos has murdered its creator and taken over the research facility where it’s being kept. It decides the world would be better off without humans. You know, that whole Skynet deal.
Suffice to say, soon our robots are rebelling against us, showing up first as little glitches here and there, and finally, full-blown World War III. Pretty soon they’re (in some cases literally) racing around our cities killing us. Cars run people over in the streets, other robots pick up weapons and start mass-murdering people. It’s basically a Metal Holocaust, with entire cities turned into killing grounds, bodies being dumped by garbage trucks. Real harrowing, harrowing stuff. Only the smartest and most resourceful of humans manage to survive by fleeing into the countryside. See, robots were built for the cities, but it takes them a while to evolve enough to start chasing us into the woods and hills. Thank God for woods and hills.
The book’s main character is Cormac Wallace, a photographer who becomes a leader of men as the war against the machine (called the New War) progresses. Cormac spends Zero Hour being protected by his more than capable big brother Jack. Cormac is actually our narrator for much of the book. Author Daniel Wilson employs what I guess is kind of a Found Footage style (in movie parlance) to the book’s multiple perspectives. Or at least, in the first half. At the end of the war (yes, he survives the war — no spoilers, this is how the book begins), Cormac locates a massive recording library that Archos kept, labeled “Hero”, that features recordings chronicling every aspect of the beginning, duration, and end of the New War. It’s through these recordings that much of the book’s first half is told. Then, uh, Wilson sort of drops it completely and just goes into a traditional first-person account of the war through various characters, including a new breed of robot that arises later in the book.
(Chris Hemsworth (above) was recently offered the male lead in Spielberg’s movie adaptation, and I’m guessing he’s playing Cormac. He’s already played almost the same role in the “Red Dawn” remake anyway and should fit right in if he says Yes to the offer.)
It takes a while to get used to Wilson’s constant shifting of perspectives, but once you become used to it, the book is what the kids call a real page-turner. There are, perhaps, a half dozen major characters in the book, and they are all separated as the story begins. About half of them eventually converge, while the other half remain in their own sections of the world, providing valuable assistance to the human rebellion in their own way, but never actually meeting the other major characters. I suspect this might change in the movie adaptation, since it doesn’t make much sense to introduce characters half a world who spends the entire war just going about their own thing, basically in a separate bubble. In novel form, it’s great to see what’s happening in, say, Japan, but it’ll probably feel too episodic in a movie.
For instance, one of the main characters is an aging Japanese engineer name Nomura, who lives in Japan. Nomura is an odd duck who lives with a love doll, but not just any love doll. Nomura’s love doll is old and wrinkly — just like him. When the Robopocalypse begins annihilating the citizens of Tokyo, Nomura survives. More than that, he thrives, creating a safe zone using rewired robots as protectors. His discovery would eventually become invaluable to the human rebellion, but Nomura never actually comes into contact with Cormac or any of the other characters. Another character is Lurker, a pimply faced British hacker who starts the novel as a real punk, but eventually grows into a hero of sorts, whose own contribution to the fight also becomes invaluable. Even characters who have relationships with one another never actually meet in the book. One of the book’s cooler characters is an old Native American cop who leads the tribes, whose son is a soldier in Afghanistan. The son is forced to team up with the Taliban to fight the robots running around the country killing everyone. In a somewhat hilarious moment in the book, the Taliban uses the rebelling robots as a sign to launch a full-scale attack on an American base, only to realize that the robots have no issues killing them, too.
If you had to find the perfect director for “Robopocalypse”, Steven Spielberg would be at the top of your list. For anyone else, the book’s killer robots, epic battle scenes, and artificial intelligence concepts may be really challenging stuff, but for Spielberg, who has already directed the likes of “War of the Worlds”, “Minority Report”, “A.I.”, and “Saving Private Ryan”, this is absolutely and completely in his wheelhouse. There are some stunning moments in the book that will look spectacular onscreen, and I honestly can’t think of anyone else who could orchestrate it all better than Spielberg. Easily, the most no-brainer connection between direct and material in a long, long while.
“Robopocalypse” the book is a pretty damn good read, but it should make for an even better movie. A big budget is a must, and with Spielberg at the helm, that’s a no-brainer, too. He’s going to get all the bucks he needs to make this thing. The only problem I can see is that the movie will look overly familiar, and that’s probably because, well, the book is, too. Like I said: “Terminator”, “War of the Worlds”, “A.I.”, “I, Robot” — it’s all been done before. The one thing those movies haven’t really done, though? Throw in a war movie angle. While the “Terminator” franchise has done that to some extent (the last movie, “Terminator: Salvation” was kinda a war movie), it never fully committed to the genre. If Spielberg takes that angle — opening with an “invasion” followed by a “World War Robot” of sorts — it could give “Robopocalypse” enough of a novelty factor to stand out. The second half of the book is pretty much all battle scenes, with the humans marching en masse to kill Archos.
There are a number of really great characters in the book that I can’t wait to see get cast — Cherra, Lonnie Blanton, and Mathila, to name just three. It’s too bad Dakota Fanning, who was in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is all grown up, because she would have been perfect for Mathilda. Then again, doesn’t she have a couple of sisters coming up the ranks…?