In a 1976 short story, sci-fi great Isaac Asimov wrote of a robot unexpectedly given very human emotions and abilities. Gradually, the robot seeks to become more and more human, raising profound questions not only about the morality of creating intelligent machines but about broader issues like humanity and immortality. In adapting this tale for mainstream moviegoers, however, screenwriter Nicholas Kazan and director Chris Columbus forgo the subtleties of these dilemmas in favor of greeting-card sentimentality. The result is an enjoyable, often touching picture, but one that fails to realize the richness of its concept.
The plot loosely follows Asimov's outline. The robot in question, played by Robin Williams, is acquired by the wealthy Martin family. Although they were simply looking for help with the household chores, it quickly becomes clear to the father of the family (Sam Neill) that the robot, which they have named Andrew, has great artistic and intellectual abilities. Andrew also becomes the closest friend of the youngest Martin daughter, known only as "Little Miss" (Embeth Davidtz as an adult). The film progresses, as the title suggests, over 200 years, and in that time Andrew is granted his freedom and embarks on a lengthy search for others like him. What he finds instead is an eccentric scientist (Oliver Platt) willing to help Andrew look and feel more like a real man.
Yet emotion, not science, drives Bicentennial Man. The film's heart is Andrew's relationship with four generations of the Martin family, particularly Little Miss and her granddaughter (also played by Davidtz). This story manages to be heartwarming and engaging, as does Andrew's struggle to find his identity. But all of these emotions partially paint over the plot's more intriguing implications. By the second half of the film, when Asimov's grander concepts begin to emerge, Kazan and Columbus too often choose obvious tearjerking over any true exploration. The film's vision of the future is drawn in similar fashion to the plot: sleekly beautiful but not fully thought out or explained.
Then again, perhaps we should not expect too much gritty sci-fi out of what may just be a futuristic family film. As seen here, the cityscapes and landscapes of tomorrow are indeed gorgeous to look at. The neat visual surprises include a double-decker Golden Gate Bridge. And the key futuristic detail, the robot star himself, is a lot of fun to watch. His movements strike an intriguing balance between fluidity and mechanics, while in the face, Robin Williams the robot is a curious metallic echo of Robin Williams the man.
Meanwhile, the antics of Robin Williams the actor are somewhat constrained by his robotic casing, but he does as good a job as anyone could in making Andrew a deeply sympathetic character. He receives excellent assistance from the well-cast supporting players, especially Neill and Davidtz. Bicentennial Man may not answer-or even seriously address--the moral questions it begs, but as long as you don't expect it to, you'll find it a worthwhile holiday movie.
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