What does it mean to be a man? What are the essential qualities, the defining criteria? Based on a pair of Isaac Asimov’s stories, the robot drama, Bicentennial Man, asks these key questions. While its overall analysis is simplistic, there’s a good story at the film’s core. By that key virtue,
Robin Williams stars as Andrew, a human being who happens to be born in a robot’s body. To assist with household chores, he is purchased by the Martin family (in one of the most optimistic views of technological progress since Strange Days) merely five years from now. However, Andrew is different from your run-of-the-mill robot: he is unique, displaying characteristics of curiosity, independent thought, and creativity.
Andrew’s emerging consciousness is first noticed by his owner, “Sir” (Sam Neill), who encourages him in his exploration of creativity, all the while aware that Andrew is merely a piece of property…not a true person. However, “Sir”‘s daughter, “Little Miss” (Halie Kate Eisenberg, and, later, Embeth Davitz) doesn’t share that distinction as Andrew becomes her closest friend.
As the march of time progresses, Andrew is retrofitted with more-and-more human-like accessories, thanks to the work of brilliant android researcher Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt). And yet, as Andrew continues on his quest for humanity, he must watch those he cares about grow old and die. Such is the curse of an immortal robot; a curse Andrew desperately desires to lift.
Robin Williams’ movies as of late have been plagued by an overwhelming dose of sentimentality, and Bicentennial Man is no exception. Once again, Robin is cast as a near-perfect figure struggling for a righteous cause, who along the way encounters both great joy and great sorrow. Robin coasts through another fluff role, only challenged by the task of emoting under heavy prosthetics.
The key weakness of Bicentennial Man is the humor. Although essentially a drama at its core, no Robin Williams film would be complete without its fair share of comedy. And yet when the jokes begin to roll here, the movie grinds to a complete, shuddering halt. At first, it seems that the humor might be muffled by Robin’s heavy robot makeup. However, as he becomes more expressive, the jokes become more pained. The ultimate cause is simply an unfunny script.
The dramatic storyline of Bicentennial Man is a good one, although a bit oversimplified. We are never allowed to understand what it must be like not to be able to feel. Robotic figures throughout science fiction, from Pinnochio to The Tin Man to Lt. Cmdr. Data, have all shared Andrew’s basic dream: to become human. Yet, we are isolated from the essence of Andrew’s desire. If we were to take the film literally, the chief reason for becoming human is to experience sex. And, while some may see that as a worthy goal, there has got to be something more fundamental at work.
The makeup throughout Bicentennial Man is well done. Robin Williams’ robot suit is well crafted (with only the joints looking oddly non-robotic). But the makeup crew also succeeds at the rare job of creating convincing age makeup. Kudos.
Bicentennial Man has its flaws, and plenty of them. However, even though its script may not live up to the central story ideas, the film does have its moments. And, if you pay attention to the dramatic storyline of a person yearning to be free, you can overlook the film’s many faults.