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BiCentennial Man

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 17 December 1999

Directed by Chris Columbo.

 Starring Robin Williams, 
Sam Neill, Wendy Crewson, 
Embeth Davidtz, Oliver Platt, 
Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Stephen Root, 
and Lynne Thigpen.

 Written by Nicholas Kazan, 
based on the short story by Isaac Asimov and the novel 
The Positronic Man by Asimov and Robert Silverberg

Robin Williams trades in his transgender apron and brassiere flambé for a glistening suit of technologically immortal tin, some rapid-fire stand-up humor (you laugh in spite of yourself), and an amiable cyborg soul in search of a human heart along the neural pathway of life. This very slick, barely skin-deep fable spanning the 200 years that define the title, starts in the proverbial "not too distant future" and winds up two hours later with one of those sickly sweet, predictable endings whereby San Francisco and a multi-racial world tribunal substitute for the Emerald City and the whimsical wizard. In Andrew’s multi-generation journey, he does mange to find a sense of humor, boning up on 20th century Rodney Dangerfield and delivering, in blitzkrieg fashion, some fairly Williamsesque knock-knock jokes dealing with lip-less chickens. Click your red slippers Dorothy; here comes Holiday Ho-Ho-Hokum sprinkling with cheer, but devoid of pressing issues, Y2K fears, and anything closely resembling controversy.

Williams, encased for most of the film in a 35-pound encasement of silicone and plastic, does manage to bring his own special trademark to the character, and in lesser hands the film wouldn’t have worked at all as the sentimental, white bread comedy it is. As a family picture, it’s a decent, albeit distant, runner up to Toy Story 2, even if Bicentennial Man’s over-simplified, maudlin story manipulates more than pleases.

Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Mrs. Doubtfire, Stepmom) paints this Disney landscape with broad, bright colors and big capital letter themes: HUMANITY, LOVE, DISCOVERY. Columbus’ conventional vision comes across much like Star Trek lite (especially Star Trek: The Next Generation), his central character on par with STTNG’s Data, the android, personified with his emotion chip, chock full of innocence and wide eyed appeal for the masses.

Richard Martin (affable-as-ever Sam Neill) is the breadwinner of a picture perfect family, living comfortably in the Bay area with his doting wife (Air Force One First Lady Wendy Crewson) and two adorable daughters Grace ("Miss") and bubbly Amanda. The latter, affectionately called "Little Miss," is filled briefly by curly-haired Pepsi spokeschild Hallie Kate Eisenberg. Dad buys the family a gift, a NDR-114 robot, a.k.a. large household appliance, christened Andrew as it is uncrated before their eyes. Although sporting the latest Dolby sound and holographic projection system, the family isn’t impressed, the kids especially thinking the new nanny gadget is a stupid idea. His gears whirl and whiz as he cleans, cooks, and does other domestic tasks, his "family" unaware of a mechanical failure that eventually results in his unheralded (for robots, at least) individuality. Ma’am (as the cyber-butler calls Mrs. Martin) relegates the automaton to a underground cargo hold (Oops, sorry, Trekkies: it’s really a dusty basement) filled with knick-knacks of bygone days. Among this rubbish is a broken down 1923 Victrola (for those too young, this was a popular fore-runner of today’s CD players) that regains life as an inter-generational (and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan’s) hooking device in the hands of this life-size Mr. Machine (one of my fondest childhood toy treasures). Early on, after the robot begins to display anthropomorphic emotions and starts chiseling intricate wooden miniatures, "Sir" (Mr. Martin) realizes this ain’t your normal K-Mart model cyborg. Of course, being a fickle species, it then takes mankind a couple of centuries to figure out what to do with Andrew’s eccentricities and artsy/craftsy talents.

Since 200 robot years translate to 128 human film-watching minutes, get in your Time Machine and hang on for the condensed story of one robot’s global quest for a significant other and inner peace. Forty minutes through Andrew gets to open his own bank account, swoons over the grown Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz), but society still frowns on robots conversing with humans, let alone thinking of a social relationship. The next quarter hour quickly ages the Martin clan 15, then 12 years, through death, marriage, birth, and other time-line events. Blink if you must, but you’d probably miss Andrew building his house or taking time off to look for any android with similar imperfections as his own. While he traipses through South Dakota or the snowcapped mountains of Beaver, Utah, he has the hammer-headed idea this search will take some time (in robot years). But movie-watching minutes flicker by quickly, and the tin man begins a soul-altering acquaintance with oddball scientist/repairman Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), who slowly sets up altering the robot’s appearance (flubber surgery and hair implants) and plumbing (sensory receptors, most major organs), so much that he becomes unrecognizable by the now elderly Little Miss and her granddaughter Portia (again, Embeth Davidtz).

And so on and so forth. Yes, this is terribly predictable stuff, but audiences aren’t as demanding as film critics and should embrace this glowing seasonal effort, thanks to fine lensing by Phil Meheux and a large, exemplary special-effects team. This’ll go down like a good glass of eggnog.

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