Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Movie Index

THE BICENTENNIAL MAN

Directed by Chris Columbus (1999, Columbia Pictures)
Starring Robin Williams, Sam Neill, Embeth Davidtz, and Hallie Kate Eisenberg

A robot watches humanity, and strives to become a human himself, at all costs.

 

 

B++

December 2nd, 2000 on Video  
   

This was a terrific story about somebody striving to be human.  The acting was superb, the dialog was sharp, for the most part, and the sequences that the robot encounters are well conceived.  Unfortunately, the movie falls short in terms of differentiating the robot from any other soul-searching person with lots of money. 

The three laws of robotics are broken time and time again.  This, after they are blatantly thrown at the viewer, and we agree with Sir that Andrew, the robot (or android, which is where he gets his name), should never do that again. 

All of Asimov's robot stories were about the Three Laws.  They dealt with the subtleties of living with laws of good conscience that humans are not compelled to obey, but a robot must.  His stories were about what happens when the Three Laws are put to the test, under circumstances the laws are not designed to operate in.  He dealt with robots becoming surgeons, and how the balance of the three laws had to be modified to allow hurt for the greater good.  In order to save a human being, one must first cut through the skin.  Some robots are designed to handle this, but others would go crazy if forced to watch this simple procedure. 

Andrew is only put to the test in the first few minutes of the movie, where one of the daughters tells him to jump out of a window.  A human ordered him to do it, so he did it, with no concern to his own well being.  But what if Sir told him never to jump out of a window again?  How would the orders prioritize when the daughter told him to do it again?  We never find out.  In the short story by Asimov, Andrew deals with these issues, but not while he is at home -only when he goes out into the world on his own.

Obviously the producers thought the subtleties of the Three Laws were too subtle for the average viewer, so they were not brought into the story except as exposition near the beginning.  And at the very end, a robot performs euthanasia!  Perhaps it knew that Portia would hurt more from loneliness than from dying. 

Fortunately, the movie provides motivation for Andrew's obsession in the form of love, rather than becoming human for the sake of it, as in the short story.  Andrew is actually in love with Little Miss, the younger daughter of Sir.  He is not well received by either child, and we are told (but not shown) that Little Miss tried to kill Andrew too.  It gets worse when he supervises the children on the beach.  He tells the older daughter to get down off some rocks (a robot bound by the Three Laws would have been up there with her, to prevent a fall), and Little Miss shows him her favourite crystal horse -but his clumsy hands drop it and it breaks into a million pieces. 

Saddened by the event, Andrew gathers some driftwood and learns how to form figures, and the little horse he makes reconciles him with Little Miss.  Hallie Kate Eisenberg is wonderful as Little Miss; she is extremely smart and can really act.  I was certainly impressed. 

As Little Miss grows up, she and Andrew get closer.  He is in love with her, but he does not know it is love.  She is in love with him, but thinks that he cannot reciprocate.  So he marries another man, and asks him to be an usher.  The wedding scene was incredible.  Very well done, panning to Andrew standing there in a tuxedo.  His projection of the first dance, afterwards, was also very touching, especially for Sir. 

As Little Miss gets older, she bears a son, who is very bratty.  Just like his father, we are told.  Andrew does his duties, but is never ordered around.  He has spare time, in which he crafts objects -such as clocks -and reads many books.  He seems to read them slowly, for leisure, as opposed to the woodworking manual that he read the first time, in which he turned page after page, and understood it all.  This is a key difference, and one of the subtleties of the movie.  And so he begins to understand Freedom. 

Andrew asks Sir for his freedom, and offers to pay the substantial amount of money that he earned from the sale of his clocks, among other things, in exchange for it.  Sir is furious, but gives Andrew his freedom and refuses the check.  Andrew builds a house nearby, in case Sir needs his services -but Sir is so mad at Andrew that he never asks to see him again.  Until he dies.  His last words are that he hopes Andrew can forgive him.  Andrew then decides to tour the world, looking for all of the other NDR model androids, in case others have developed his unique talents and desires.  It is a long trip, and it takes a generation, which passes in mere moments.  His mission is a failure, until he finds one robot in a marketplace exactly in the city of his birth. 

She works for a relative of the NDR designer, who refurbishes the robots for other purposes.  Unfortunately, she is simply a robot with her personality chip turned on.  There is a funny scene where Andrew reprograms the robot's personality, and it looks like she's going through a very, very bad mood.  Andrew and the tinkerer become good friends, and they work on making Andrew look more human.  Of course, he turns into somebody who looks just like Robin Williams!  Now we get to see more emotion, especially through facial gestures, which Williams is so good at.  But what is more important is that the transition is so natural.  Williams put so much personality into the mechanical robot that there is very little to distinguish besides hair and skin.  The robot was so human before that there is no suspension of disbelief when Little Miss recognizes him, even though she's in her seventies. 

There is a funny scene where Andrew walks into the house, and sees her at the piano.  But she doesn't know him.  We think it's because he has skin, but it turns out that she is not Little Miss at all -but her granddaughter!  Andrew is very upset that Portia looks so much like her grandmother, and he hates her for it.  But he still goes to see her because of who she is, and because he needs someone to talk with.  He rescues a stray dog, and the pet becomes his. 

He and Portia get along great after that!  They laugh together, walk together, and truly enjoy each other's company.  As Little Miss dies, Andrew goes to work creating artificial organs, to replace organic ones, so that Portia doesn't have to share that same fate.  They also make him more and more human.  He begins to realize that he loves Portia just when she reveals that she's getting married.  The reason that she can't run away with Andrew is because they cannot share the intimacy that a married couple does.  So when his tinkerer friend reveals that he can make Andrew fully functional, he jumps at the chance.  Then, he reveals his new plumbing to Portia, the old fashioned way.  They become lovers in addition to being good friends. 

But that is not enough.  They want to get married.  Andrew goes before the World Court and asks to be declared a Human Being, so that he can marry his love.  The court refuses, because humans are not immortal.  When Portia, decades older, reveals that she does not want to live forever, despite good physical health, Andrew does not understand, but he doesn't want to go on without her.  So he does some more fiddling with his body, pouring actual blood (or a blood-like mixture) through his systems, which will degrade them over time.  Then, he too begins to age.  Once again, he goes to the World Court and asks for status as a human.  As he waits in a hospital bed beside an ill Portia, the Court begins to announce its decision.  But Andrew does not get to hear the ruling.  He dies as they declare him Human.  Personally, I think it was the last thing he heard. 

 A humaniform robot then unplugs Portia from her machines, effectively letting her die.  The robot reveals herself as the robot with Personality, though why this was necessary I can't figure out.  Regardless, she broke the First Law, which is either impossible, or would drive her out of her mind. 

Robin Williams was spectacular in the role of Andrew.  He brought so much life to such a machine.  He was extremely funny, without being brash and openly blatant about it.  His humourous responses were pure Robin Williams.  "Two drunks walk into a bar-"  "Excuse me Sir, but would not two drunks walk out of a bar?  One goes into a bar to get drunk..."  This was followed by the knock-knock joke, and then something even simpler, none of which he really understands.  The scene where he recites a dozen jokes over the space of a couple of minutes was hilarious, as was his concern for the hundreds of sperm that die after trying to fertilize a woman's egg.  He was touching in the scenes where Sir, and especially Little Miss, died.  And his obsession with becoming Human was truly believable.  

It is interesting to note that there is not a shred of violence in this movie at all.  There is the implication of it in Little Miss' sister, who dresses rebelliously sensual, and who dates a possibly abusive biker, but they get the screen for less than a few minutes in total.  The sexuality was handled well, though I wonder how exactly Andrew experiences pleasure, and that his friend can actually connect his organ pleasure sensors to his brain in such a way that it could simulate the human experience.  I am very glad that Andrew did not get obsessed with being human, at experiencing everything as a human, getting new sensations.  He came close with his taste buds, but held back nicely.  He was obsessed with becoming human, but not with being human. 

This movie was great, so much that I can easily ignore the lack of adherence to the Three Laws.  This was more than a Robot Story, it was a story about someone starting out with no rights, dignity or respect, and growing so much that he earns all of that, and more.  He had honour, and we were cheering for him all the way.

 
   

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