Movie Review : ‘Bicentennial Man’

Synopsis: The film is a narration of various events in the life of an android – Andrew Martin (Robin Williams). Though the robot was programmed to perform menial household tasks, it soon starts to show signs of sentience. The Martins take note of this and allow Andrew to express his creativity. They make millions selling Andrew’s works. The story spans 200 years, during which Andrew learns the characteristics of human beings and longs to become one. Parallely, he battles to prevent his creators from terminating him.

Review: Bicentennial Man is an adaptation of a novella by Issac Asimov in the Robot Series. The novel ‘The Positronic Man’ was based on this earlier novella and co-authored by Robert Silverberg. It is directed by Chris Columbus, whose previous projects include the Home Alone series, Step-mom, Dare Devil, Fantastic Four, etc.

Soon after being ported to the Martin household Andrew develops a taste for music. Moreover, he shows curiosity and a creative potential. He also displays a unique sense of humor. And most remarkably he starts to show feelings of care toward the people around him. Complex issues are raised as Andrew seeks to get legal protection for his creative works. Andrew also starts replacing his mechanical body parts with organic ones. Andrew’s quest to become fully human is encouraged and assisted in varying degrees by succeeding generations of the Martin family. Interestingly Andrew happens to be last of his kind as his line of robots were stopped. Also the robot manufacturing industry do not want to produce self-reflecting androids like Andrew.

The scope of the story is very broad, which allows the director to explore in depth the nature of human realities. Contrasting the differences between a human and a robot facilitates understanding the essential qualities that make up human beings. To be human is to be mortal. Hence, Andrew has to give up his immortality and allow his positronic brain to decay, which is initiated on the Bicentennial anniversary of his creation, and thus the title.

Andrew’s human persona develops through several generations. However, the absence of any real conflict deprives the story of momentum. It could be said that the film is a collection of small episodes about the android Andrew, but an underlying lack of conflict leaves them as discrete sections without any sequential order. Also, one feels that the film is dragged on unnecessarily long.

Director Columbus underestimates the grasping ability of his audience by putting in text every theme of the story. Some of the dialogues are also redundant, where the scene itself had depicted the words quite clearly. One example is the scene where Andrew remarks how cruel it is to feel pain and yet not able to cry. This is unnecessary as the preceding sequence had made lucid the same point.

The design of the robot could also have been more refined as the one portrayed on screen has a factory-produced-household-appliance feel to it, which is incompatible with the subsequent evolution of the robot. The special effects and the futuristic settings were kept to a minimum and that serves the story well. Robin Williams gives a good performance and does not overdo his role. Williams’ talent for comedy could also have been tapped into more. The depiction of the world of the future is simplistically made without any attempt at extravagance; quite appropriately so. One question that begs an answer, however, is the lack of any radical change in the landscapes of civil society across a span of two centuries.

The movie makes some compelling statements about what makes us all humans. And credit must be given to Chris Columbus for handling a challenging theme reasonably well. However, the failure to utilize the full potential of the cinematic medium and the style of restating the obvious in text takes some sheen off the luster. Though it has to be regarded the best work so far by Chris Columbus, the film could have been a lot better.