Bicentennial Man (1999)

Based on the novella by Isaac Asimov (and its novel-length expansion by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, The Positronic Man), this 1999 box office disappointment was the first major studio Hollywood adaptation of an author who had maintained a reputation in the field from the 1940s through to the 1980s. It has a lot of problems, but is at least more concerned with exploring Asimov's world than the subsequent I, Robot. Though Bicentennial Mancame towards the end of Asimov's career, it was one of the culminating stories in a cycle he had been working on since his earliest published stories, exploring the nuances of his 'Three Laws of Robotics'. As often when works of written s-f come to the screen long after publication, Bicentennial Man is a strange mix of the still-cutting-edge and the faintly old-fashioned. Asimov's laws, predicated on an internal mechanism prohibiting robots from harming human beings, were always at odds with prevailing wisdom that the first thing robots would be built for would be to harm human beings. The rather undercharacterised, semi-utopian world necessary as a backdrop for this particular story is very unlike the kinetic, jagged, dystopian visions of late 1990s s-f literature and film, proposing a homogenised, Americanised world state which frees everyone from drudgery without creating an unemployed underclass and where the protagonist is left alone for long periods so he can get on with his own internal journey.

The film opens with wealthy clockmaker Richard Martin (Sam Neill) taking receipt of a new model household robot (Robin Williams), which his younger daughter Amanda (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) names Andrew. Through accident or fluke, perhaps caused when he is ordered to jump out of a window by the sullen elder daughter (Lindze Letherman), Andrew develops creative talents and questioning sentience. Over two hundred years, Andrew becomes more human, with the aid of robotics engineer Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), and progresses from dutiful servitude through manumission on Martin's death-bed to a romantic relationship with the granddaughter of the girl who named him (several generations of the family are played by Embeth Davidtz). Along the way, Andrew semi-accidentally invents artificial organ technologies which affect all mankind but is single-minded in his attempts to get the world state to declare him human, a goal finally accomplished when he chooses an 'upgrade' which enables him to grow old and die. A complex but unstressed development comes as Andrew is legally recognised as human and his wife orders her robot nurse to let her die with him: thus, the final scene of the film shows a robot breaking the second and arguably first laws of robotics by either killing a human or allowing through inaction a human to die. The implication is that Andrew's personal quest has opened up possibilities for human-robot interaction which may prove less benevolent than he intended – though that could as easily be oversight on the part of screenwriter Nicholas Kazan as an intended irony.

Long and lachrymose, mixing honest with hokey sentiment and a streak of Williamsish crazy comedy which oddly recedes the more like the star the originally tin-faced Andrew becomes, this deserves to be commended for its ambitions, even if it keeps tripping over its fuzzy premise and defaulting to conventional soap opera dramatics. As with most Chris Columbus movies, points are hammered home - an irritatingly perky girl robot sings If I Only Had a Heartas Andrew is inventing a mechanical organ - and big effects are swamped by lachrymose overscoring from James Horner, but there are patches of real melancholia in the grow-old-and-die sequences, and the insistent return to the question of what exactly a human being is lends the whole thing more weight than comparable efforts like Short Circuit even as it sets a not-entirely-happy precedent for Steven Spielberg's similarly-plotted AI: Artificial Intelligence. Steve Johnson's robot effects, evoking both the Tin Man and RoboCop, are above average, while Greg Cannom's old-age make-ups are among the most successful in film.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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