Bicentennial Man

Man or Ro-man?

Well, it was probably a mighty struggle, but Robin Williams (What Dreams May Come) put aside the ham for once and let the story breathe. Which is excellent, as movie adaptations of the works of Isaac Asimov are depressingly few, despite his huge influence on the entire field of science fiction. I’m delighted to report that the spirit of Asimov has survived the ravages of Williams’ ego and director Chris (Home Alone) Columbus’ tendency toward fluff-and-nonsense, and lives throughout this perfectly decent piece of sci-fi.

Unfortunately, this isn’t Isaac’s greatest story (developed into a novel with Robert Silverberg, then a screenplay by Nicholas Kazan (Matilda). It’s theme of  a robot who seeks humanity, thereby exploring the nature of humanity in the process, was old when Asimov began writing his robot stories, going back to Pinocchio and into antiquity. But it does a great job of summing up his thoughts and feelings on the subject of artificial intelligence, and gives a face to those thoughts and feelings. This movie will make it unnecessary for us to see any more scenes of Datas learning to laugh – but I doubt they’ll be gone for long.

The casting of Williams in the lead (and to a lesser extent, the choice of director) made me dread this film. That dread is reflected in some of the marketing – “Look! It’s Robin Williams as a robot! It’s Wacky!” – and I thought the best I could hope for was a remake of Heartbeeps, but all concerned were apparently inspired to reach beyond the work they’d done before and embrace something more thoughtful. Maybe it helped that Williams had to keep his mug hidden for much of the film.

The opening scenes made me wary as well. Sam Neill, a wealthy Bay Area clock manufacturer in 2005, purchases the latest domestic techno toy for his family, a new model humanoid robot they name Andrew. The family, and their home, are so scrubbed clean, orderly and lifeless (as are most of the other characters and settings) that I suspected they might be robots, too. Fortunately, Neill’s character is allowed the intelligence, warmth and imagination to appreciate and explore the fact that Andrew begins to manifest such virtues as creativity and affection, due to an anomaly in his wiring.

When the robot’s manufacturer seeks to quash this facet of their product, Neill resists and stands up for his new friend. Most robot stories would then devolve into a struggle and chase picture with military/industrial villains out to dissect poor Andrew, as his loving family helps him fight for his freedom. Thankfully, Asimov thought far beyond this premise. Andrew’s story continues on far beyond Neill’s death as the immortal robot continues his quest for humanity through searches for his own kind, a series of ‘upgrades’ that enhance his experiences, and even through relationships with those he seeks to emulate.

The makeup and design are marvelous, making natural Andrew’s march through the decades. We’ve come to take technical wonders in films for granted these days, since so much is now possible and so many films are taking advantage of the fact – but I wanted to be sure to recognise the contributions of art directors Bill Hinley and Mark Mansbridge, as well as the makeup achievements of Greg Cannom (Titanic, Blade).

The film is almost too smart for its own good. It’ll bore kids and a lot of adults, since it’s about ideas instead of action. There are times that it could use a few more jokes, but as a whole its nobility wins out over gags and melodrama.

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