Bicentennial Man graces itself with an enormously gifted idea — that a robot can become, in essence, a living, breathing human being — but loses itself amidst all the sentimentality and technicalities of achieving its goal. What most viewers will take away from this movie, I feel, is the novelty of living for 200 years, of seeing three to four generations of the same family grow up and die, instead of fully realising why this machine has chosen to live a mortal life.
And yet I like Bicentennial Man. It has charm and potential. It only lacks that final thrust to push it into greatness. The story is based on stories written by Isaac Asimov, the famed science fiction writer, and its hero, Andrew (Robin Williams), operates on the same Three Laws Of Robotics that will later govern Sonny in I, Robot. These laws are good for servitude I suppose, but, like Sonny, Andrew is built for something greater. He doesn’t exhibit the same drone-like obedience of the other robots. He is intelligent, independent, and has an insatiable thirst for knowledge. When his master and owner, Sir (Sam Neill), teaches him about sex, his eyes widen with awe, as if Sir’s words have been replaced with bleeps.
He slowly learns about human life and behaviour, and shows a deft aptitude for crafting small wooden animals. Sir is stunned. Robots have never made trinkets before! But he fails to realise that Andrew is not a robot; he is Robin Williams in supreme disguise. One might wonder if Williams was really inside that metallic suit; I prefer to wonder if the metallic suit still lives under the flesh of Williams after he makes his astounding transformation.
Andrew grows fond of the family, especially Sir’s youngest daughter, Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz), who spends most of her childhood on the beach. As the years pass and the children mature, Andrew grows in intellect and eventually becomes too smart for his own good. Sir releases him, and he embarks on one of those soul-searching journeys across America, providing the company that manufactured him with indisputable money-back guarantee status. The movie suggests that Andrew strides across the Utah desert, through rural farmlands and much of the great American wilderness, and not once does he complain of rusty joints or loose bolts. He is like the life-size version of the Energizer Bunny, only less animated.
His trek takes him to the shabby but sophisticated laboratory of Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), a reclusive scientist who luckily enough specialises in developing synthetic robot parts. The two form a bond, and before you can say “makeover” Rupert is decking Andrew out in all the latest accessories, including, but not limited to, a central nervous system and the male goody parts. The screenplay, penned by Nicholas Kazan, cleverly makes clear that Andrew will have the gun but not the bullets. By this time he has met Little Miss’ granddaughter, Portia (also Embeth Davidtz), who looks a lot like her grandmother. Genetic resemblance, Little Miss says. Sometimes it skips a generation. Or maybe the casting department didn’t have the girth to find another actress. Andrew falls in love with her, and she with him, but his mechanical limitations prevent them from having any sort of romantic relationship. It’s hard to tell who Andrew loves though — Portia, or Little Miss. One can only imagine the tricks Andrew’s positronic mind plays on him.
The creativity of the screenplay dulls itself at this point. From being in tune with Andrew’s dilemma as a robot who feels and thinks like a human, it disconnects with its subject matter and resorts to making its humanity more robotic. I wanted more of Andrew and his personal struggles. I wanted less of his love affair with Portia, who is destined to marry another man in spite of the screenplay’s persistent attempts to make her do otherwise. Williams does a marvellous job of inhabiting a robotic shell and then emerging like a newly hatched chick, but the movie around him fails to honour his triumph. Instead it makes me wonder if Portia is worth the price of mortality. Only Andrew knows the answer to that. Or maybe he doesn’t.
Best Moment | Charting the ageing of the Martin family, from the rise of Sir to the fall of Portia, his great granddaughter.
Worst Moment | Andrew’s confession to Portia in the church.