STARRING: Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg

1999, 132 Minutes, Directed by: Chris Columbus

Based on works by Isaac Asimov and directed by Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire), this film stars Robin Williams as Andrew, a robot programmed for domestic chores and sold to an upper-middle-class family, the Martins, in the year 2005. The family patriarch (Sam Neill) recognizes and encourages Andrew's uncommon characteristics, particularly his artistic streak, sensitivity to beauty, humor, and independence of spirit. In so doing, he sets Williams's tin man on a two-century journey to become more human than most human beings.

Not as bad as some American movie critics made it out to be, but not really good either. Bicentennial Man tells the story of titular robot is somehow "different", and slowly becomes "human" over two hundred years of various upgrades and modifications.

Slowly the shiny robot with the facial expression of the tin man in Wizard of Oz and the body movements of Robocop turns into a subdued in the flesh Robin Williams. If this sounds familiar then you've probably seen it in Star Trek - Next Generation. Or maybe you've read it - besides its plot being a long-standing staple of sci-fi, the movie is after all based on the short story of the same name by grand sci-fi master Isaac Asimov and the novel The Positronic Man by Asimov and Robert Silverberg. (At one point the robot, bought by a very bourgeois family as a household appliance, recites Asimov's three famous laws of robotics. Quick, can you recite them?)

However, no matter how hard the movie tries, it cannot activate the audience's emotion chip with the apparent ease Data does his in Star Trek - First Contact. And it does try hard . . .

"Like its main character, Bicentennial Man is clunky and slow moving . . ."

In my review of the previous fantasy-flavoured Robin Williams vehicle, What Dreams May Come, I complained that the screenwriters wanted to elicit an emotional response from audiences by killing off on-screen characters. In Bicentennial Man this presents no problem: like the immortal Connor MacLeod in Highlander, Williams watches a lot of people die of old age throughout the movie's long running time. After all, he does get to live two centuries (hence the title) . . .

And while it would be a cheap shot to complain that the movie also feels that long, the truth is that after a promising start the movie begins to drag. Like its main character, Bicentennial Man is clunky and slow moving. The two centuries he lives through doesn't seem all that interesting either, I'm afraid: one keeps expecting the movie to have some wild fun with the changing fashion, technologies, architecture, etc. the Williams character lives through, but alas it never really materialises.

Here the film-makers could really have let their imaginations soar, but instead the briefly glimpsed cityscapes seems mundanely of The Fifth Element variety while some fashions (and interior decoration) curiously looks very 20th century. At times the Williams robot seems like a 21st century figure stuck in the 19th century!

While I've never read the works on which the movie is based, I have a suspicion that Bicentennial Man left all the stuff that made the material interesting enough to want to film in the first place. Throughout the movie I kept on asking questions ranging from the mundane (just how did the robot open a bank account of his own? How did he get a permit to build that house on the beach?) to the more philosophical (does the robot have a "soul" in any sense of the word now that it has acquired intelligence? What makes one human in the first place?). 

Unfortunately the movie weren't too interested in the questions it kept throwing up and is more intent on staging deathbed scenes set to a thousand strings orchestra (supplied by Titanic composer James Horner). This is, after all, a Robin Williams tear jerker . . .

Ultimately Bicentennial Man can be clumped together with other failed literary science fiction adaptations such as The Postman in that it could have been so much better when one considers the original material at hand. When the Williams character finally dies, one is curiously unmoved, unlike when another computer gets unplugged - namely HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey and he didn't even have a passing resemblance to the tin man . . .

You may have somehow gained the impression from the film's marketing that Bicentennial Man is suitable viewing for small children - wrong! The chances are your offspring would probably be bored out of their little skulls by onscreen proceedings. Plus, with all the people dying throughout the movie you might have some explaining to do. Unlike, let's say, My Favourite Martian, there is very little visual spectacle and no buffoonery whatsoever to hold the little 'uns' attention. Avoid.


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