Film Reviews:

Bicentennial Man

(Chris Columbus, USA, 1999)

[Bicentennial Man]With eyes set firmly on as wide an audience demographic as possible, the marketing of this Robin Williams vehicle emphasised the family-friendly angles and its star. Fortunately, and somewhat unexpectedly, the film itself is more rewarding than the syrupy promotion suggested. It's based upon two sources: Isacc Asimov's short story of the same title, plus Asimov and Robert Silverberg's novel The Positronic Man, and set (initially at least) in the 'not too distant future', where wealthy family man Sam Neill buys a domestic robot, which they name 'Andrew' (Robin Williams) to help out around the home. Before very long, a design malfunction results in Andrew, an overly chatty, and keen to please, C3PO type, craving human emotions. As we witness Andrew's development over the two hundred years of the title, his inquisitiveness expands, seeking to understand his origins, what happened to the rest of his kind, and how he can modify his construction to become ever more human-like. His ultimate goal: to have human companionship.

[Bicentennial Man]Although the science fiction source material is referenced throughout, it is never allowed to dominate the characters, the script delivering as much character study as lightweight SF. Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics are introduced early on when a pre-recorded presentation pops out of William's head and the scene, like too much of the movie, is played as much for laughs as it is for drama or thrills. For the majority of its two hours and fifteen minutes running time, Williams is clad head-to-foot in a silver plastic suit that plays down both his human traits and his performance. He's actually quite restrained, sympathetic and well-cast. So too are the other two key roles. Sam Neill as the slightly selfish and indulgent head of the family gives a good performance that sees him age over many years from young father to death bed-bound grandfather; and Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Neill's daughter Amanda finds herself enamoured with Andrew's innocence and honesty.

The story arc for Bicentennial Man uses a familiar SF device of a machine wishing for humanity; a theme normally approached by filmmakers so as to focus on the thrilling potential of such a concept (see RoboCop, I, Robot, even Blade Runner, for example). However, with an unimaginative director like Chris Columbus steering proceedings the thrill potential is never explored and the results are too frequently anodyne. There are though some nice parallels with society's obsession with plastic surgery as Andrew uses software and hardware 'upgrades' to enhance his appearance and human characteristics. It's also good to see the passing of time, a device exploited far too infrequently in cinema, used as both a backdrop - seen in the increasingly futuristic backdrops and set, and a plot element: by the end of the film Andrew is seriously outdated (the machine equivalent of ageing), something that contributes to him seeking out his last, few remaining peers.

The film's biggest problem is the schizophrenia that stems from the script. Feeling very much like a film of one style was scripted by one writer only for it to be taken into a more popularist direction by another writer brought in at the behest of the studio. It utilises three main themes: a character study, a comedy of manners, and an SF man/machine plot; none of which work successfully in their own right. The overly long running time merely emphasises the schizophrenic nature of the plotting that switches between these three approaches with annoying regularity. Although not without its charms, simply dropping the 'humorous' angle would have both serviced the source material better and given audiences a far more satisfying film. 6/10

Rob Dyer (April 2007)

See also:

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Blade Runner
I, Robot

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