Movie Review: Bicentennial Man
Posted November 26, 2014on:
Bicentennial Man is a 1999 film directed by Chris Columbus, and stars Robin Williams, Embeth Davitz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt and Hallie Kate Eisenberg. It’s based on the 1993 novel The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, which was an extension of Asimov’s 1976 Hugo and Nebula award winning novelette The Bicentennial Man. I’ve read a lot of Asimov (and a middling amount of Silverberg), but I haven’t read either the award winning novelette or the later written novel. So this review will be just of the movie, I can’t even speculate what scenes from the books the screenwriters skipped or expanded upon.
The story opens with an android being delivered to the Martin residence. Through the young daughter’s mispronunciation of the word android, the robot gains the name Andrew. Only Mr. Martin is excited by their new “gizmo”, and after the daughters both try to damage Andrew, the new family rule is that Andrew must be treated with the same respect due any member of the family. Soon the girls start treating him like a visiting cousin: someone who can help them with their homework, but someone they shouldn’t bother unnecessarily. After all, he is a “household robot”, he was purchased to help with housework, clean, garden, and fix things around the house. as the years pass, the youngest daughter, whom Andrew refers to as Little Miss, forms a special bond with him. (And yes, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are very quickly presented, but never dwelled on).
Asimov’s guesses about the future were entertaining and fascinating for me. The opening scenes take place in 2014, and commercial androids are commonplace and becoming popular for wealthy families to have at home. But there are no cell phones, no digital cameras, no facebook, no big screen tv’s, no home computers, very little digital technology. Even later in the movie, as the decades pass, flying cars and holograms make an appearance, but no mention of suborbital anything, or smart phones, or genetic modifications, or social media. And as the decades go by, even robots go out of fashion.
It quickly becomes obvious that Andrew has some unique programming. He shows signs of curiosity, remorse, creativity, an appreciation of music and art, and an interest in learning how humor works. He develops a hobby of carving wood and building ornate wooden clocks, and builds so many clocks that the family starts giving them away as gifts and selling them. Ok, so who should get the money from Andrew’s clocks? The Martin family? or Andrew? Is a robot (which is property!) allowed to have money, or even a bank account to keep it in? And what would a robot possibly spend money on?
Under the guise of the humorous social awkwardness of a robot who takes everything literally, Bicentennial Man is asking the viewer some pretty heavy questions. What and who do we consider human? Andrew was never human to begin with, so it’s prickly to say this touches on dehumanization, but I’m not sure what else to call it when the Martin family is offended when he asks for his freedom, and they respond with something along the lines of “why would you want to leave us? We’ve given you everything!” They are under no obligation to let him do anything. Even if they only ask him to do something, he is required to obey their orders. To Andrew, there is no difference between a request and an order. That is what he is asking to be freed from, that is what he finds so dehumanizing. But again, that question – Andrew was never human to begin with, so does he deserve to be treated as a person?
Andrew suddenly knows exactly what he’s going to spend his growing fortune on: getting upgrades and enhancements to be able to act more human. He wants to be accepted as a person, so he will look and act as much like a person as he possibly can. Over the next decades, he has occasional contact with Little Miss (who is now a grown up), and eventually meets Little Miss’s granddaughter Portia. It’s important to note that Andrew doesn’t understand how time works, and especially how time works for humans. We grow, we age, we get old, we have children, those children grow up, and he doesn’t understand the emotional connection to the passage of time. Even without an understanding of time, he values his connection to the Martin family (his family!), and for this reason, makes sure he can have a viable friendship with Portia, who at first, doesn’t like him very much.
By the time he meets Portia, Andrew has been upgraded to the point where he has skin (Robin Williams suddenly shows up! and I want to cry, because Robin Williams). Until he opens his mouth, you can’t tell he’s not a human. He’s even got a pet dog! The exact phrase “uncanny valley” isn’t used, but it is mentioned that humanoid robots were not in vogue for very long, and that consumers simply weren’t interested in them.
In Andrew’s “youth”, and even when he is befriending Portia, he refers to himself as “one”, not “I” or “me”. He has no individuality, he doesn’t understand the concept of self. There’s an odd dynamic happening here. He’ll do something very human, earning a caring and sympathetic look from someone, and then he refers to himself as “one”, almost sabotaging his own efforts to appear human. that little step of selfishness, of calling himself “I”, could take him a long way.
Bicentennial Man is a good, but not great movie. I loved the first third or so, but as it goes on it gets more and more rushed, and the directing falters. When Robin Williams’ voice comes out of a metal body, my brain read that as “android!”, but as soon as Andrew gets skin and looks humanoid, my brain read that as “quirky guy who doesn’t understand humor!”. I also couldn’t buy into the relationship between Portia and Andrew, which I blame on those scenes being too rushed. But that’s what you get when you jam a novel that spans 200 years into a 2 hour movie, and I imagine the original novel and novelette are much more compelling.
The closing scenes of the movie are how far Andrew has to go to be accepted for what he is, and for what he strives to be. He wants his dignity, his humanity, his “selfness” to be respected. I reached my limit of how human I was willing to take him for when he and Portia declare their love for each other. Yes, I get that he looks and sounds and acts like a human, but when he comforts her, is it just programming? And maybe that is my failing, my limitation, maybe that shows how easy I can dehumanize someone. Should I feel guilty since he was never human in the first place? I’m really struggling with this! My conflicting feelings make me feel like I am failing someone.
This is the first Robin Williams movie I’ve seen since his death, and I was really proud of myself for getting through it without crying (except for that last scene, and if you don’t tear up that proves you are an android). Everything about Bicentennial Man made me want to watch What Dreams May Come, also starring Robin Williams. That’s another story about understanding how others see you, and coming to understand who you really are, and how all of that has shaped your life. What Dreams May Come is a much, much harder movie to watch, but such a human one. I wonder what Andrew would think of that movie?