Sean Maher, tinybot reviewer
Based in part on two stories by Isaac Asimov, Bicentennial Man is a charming, beautiful and innocent fable chronicling a shiny household robots 200-year odyssey in search of the one thing that eludes him most, the very thing we all take for granted – humanity.
Andrew Martin (Robin Williams) is an NDR-114 robot butler, who arrives in a packing crate one day outside the home of a wealthy San Francisco family headed by Gerald Martin/Sir (Sam Neil). After a brief encounter, and a mispronunciation of the word android by the youngest sibling Little Miss, the robot gains the name, Andrew. The reactions to the robot’s arrival vary, for example, Sir and Little Miss are the most curious, Sir’s wife (Wendy Crewson) is hesitant and the eldest daughter Grace outright rejects him, treating Andrew like a piece of property that she can vandalise.
Andrew is an intelligent robot who has been designed to replace domestic servants, he performs menial tasks around the house such as maintenance checks, cleaning, cooking and tidying. At first, the robot is treated unkindly, Andrew jumps out of a window when told and he spends most of his time alone, in the basement – fixing things. However, Andrew is no ordinary robot, he’s much smarter and more ‘human’ than any of the other variants, although he’s just as blunt. Unlike others of his kind, Andrew has a personality and an appreciation of art and music. Andrew also acts on his creative impulses, at first it is suggested that these impulses may have been caused by some loose wiring or faulty programming, however, his manufacturers conclude that it is actually a positronic anomaly. Sir instantly dismisses these findings and when he returns home he instructs his family to treat Andrew as if he were a person. He later tells Andrew “You’re a unique robot. I feel a responsibility to help you become – whatever you’re able to be”. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are presented, an obligation for any of his cinematic adaptations, but they’re never really dwelled on.
Whilst taking Sir’s daughters to the beach Andrew accidentally steps on Little Miss’ favourite toy horse, he goes away and teaches himself to carve, then creates a new one for her. This random act of kindness is the catalyst for Andrew, who forges a bond with Little Miss that resonates through generations of the Martin family. The earlier scenes between Andrew and his master are some of the funniest in the entire film, the comic principle of these scenes is based on the social awkwardness of a robot who takes everything literally. For example, when Andrew learns the fate of most sperm he responds “One feels badly for them”. Whilst Robin Williams is trapped in his aluminium shell the film takes on a life of its own. In the latter half of the film, it gains a lot of heart but loses much of the humour that is consistent throughout the first hour. Robin Williams is great as the witty, intelligent and unequivocal robot, and he reveals a hidden depth beneath the shiny metal exterior, he has created a robot that is genuinely endearing. Perhaps a less experienced comedy actor would have been obligated to overact and emphasise punch-lines, whereas the machine gun-firing comedian shows a great deal of professionalism and restraint.
There are times when Williams clearly wants to go to darker, weirder places with Andrew, but can you blame him? Throughout the film Andrew falls in love with Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz), he upgrades himself with a shiny new robotic penis and then has sex with Little Miss’ granddaughter Portia (Embeth Davidtz). Did I forget to mention that they’re both played by the same person? I’m not sugar coating, Columbus does. Still, it’s enough to raise a few eyebrows in the Kardashian household.
Bicentennial Man is a simple morality tale that deals with the pathos of an android who has humanlike thoughts and emotions, but who must watch those he cares for around him age and die. Andrew does not understand how time works, at least not how time works for humans. Whilst at the deathbed of his beloved Little Miss, Andrew asks “Will every human being that I care for just…leave?” her daughter Portia sympathetically replies “I’m afraid so…” “That won’t do, ” Andrew says. This moment leads him towards a process of becoming, negotiating the intellectual and biological criteria to being considered human. Andrew challenges these throughout his life, he dresses like a man, relies on physical changes in his anatomy, and when all options are exhausted he seeks out robotic surgeon Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt) to perform a fatal operation that will alter his positronic brain, so that it will decay over time – his skin will also age. After the enhancements of various upgrades, external and internal, Andrew goes before the World Legislature, reveals his sacrifice and moves them to declare him a man. As he awaits confirmation on his deathbed on the two-hundredth anniversary of his construction, he tries to hold onto his final thought of humanity, but as slowly drifts of his final thoughts are with Little Miss.
Throughout the narrative, Andrew maintains that he should not be measured by the material of his being, but by the fabric of his character. It’s an important lesson for any young person, sort of like a futuristic version of Pinocchio, certainly in a thematic sense and at a basic plot level. Bicentennial Man has received much criticism for its soppy sentiment and decision to focus on the romantic aspect of the narrative, however, the power of this film, I think, is that it doesn’t just generate such sentiments without recourse because it really is about something. It is not some silly cold-blooded splatter fest where robots are depicted as sinister replacements to humans, as enemies to humanity (sorry action-porn aficionados). It’s a universal parable about slavery and freedom, love and prejudice, difference and acceptance, and ultimately – humanity. I’m not quite sure Bicentennial Man knows its audience and the final product is a mix-mash of sorts. It has a positronic brain filled with broad philosophical thoughts, which may go over the heads of many young viewers, but the heart at the centre of Bicentennial Man’s core is very much a human one. The older you get, the more you will appreciate this film, the more profound it will become. Most critics have pointed out that Bicentennial Man is a film devoid of conflict – they seem to have missed the point.
Part of the reason Bicentennial Man (1999) received mixed reviews and went relatively unnoticed is because previous family comedies from director Chris Columbus such as Home Alone (1990) and Mrs Doubtfire (1993) were commercially successful and led Disney to believe that marketing this film the same way around Christmas would make the film more profitable. Sadly they were wrong, the film flopped. Disney reportedly chopped $20 million from the budget and this upset Robin Williams, due to a loss of content the cuts brought on. However, Bicentennial Man is an ambitious and profound science fiction fable, with broad philosophical thoughts and a human heart at the centre. Most of the ideas are well presented, but it ultimately lacks that cutting edge to execute them all. However, this is a seriously good film, a hidden gem from Robin Williams, it may be too polite to demand your attention, but it’s certainly just as deserving.
Robin Williams as Andrew
Sam Neill as Sir
Oliver Platt as Rupert Burns
Kiersten Warren as Galatea Robotic/Human
Wendy Crewson as Ma’Am
Drama, Family, Science Fiction
Rated PG For Language and Some Sexual Content