Bicentennial Man (1999)

D: Chris Columbus
S: Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz

Well-meaning but ironically lifeless adaptation of the short story by Isaac Asimov and the subsequent novel "The Positronic Man" by Asimov and Robert Silverberg. The film is pure science fiction insofar as it is an attempt to define the human condition by exploring its relationship with futuristic technology, in this case robots. The story follows the efforts of a domestic robot (Robin Williams: Good Will Hunting) to transform himself physically, psychologically, and emotionally into a human being over the course of some two hundred years. The film is thoughtful, concentrating on dialogue exchanges between characters which rationalise and problematise the nature of humanity. It consistently raises the question of where one draws the lines between the organic and the artificial, and what this means in terms of how one treats the other, especially when towards the end of the film, the robot invents a set of mechanical organs which are widely used by human beings. It is admirable in one sense that the film is so direct about its philosophical material, and in this sense faithful to its source. But it is a long, dull film with few highpoints of excitement or drama to hold the attention of the average viewer, and it is unlikely to please Asimov devotees either.

The problem lies in its dogged devotion to theme often at the expense of narrative, certainly at the expense of drama, and surprisingly also at the expense of the genre's defining characteristic; speculative scientific detail. The film is surprisingly muted as a representation of technology. It deliberately downplays the specifics of both robotics and the future society in which our central character attempts to find his place. It concentrates instead on a few central relationships, mostly with the family who originally purchase the machine and its descendants. Fleeting glimpses of futuristic cityscapes and an eventual encounter with a robotics engineer (Oliver Platt) do not really qualify as a detailed contextual background for the action. Everything takes place on a more emotional level, which while admittedly precisely what the film sets out to do, proves incapable of sustaining the film for over two hours. It becomes especially pronounced when these relationships produce little dramatic conflict. Apart from one or two suggestions that not everyone likes robots, the only source of dramatic narrative turns out to be a belated romantic relationship between the robot and the great granddaughter (Embeth Davidtz, who plays two parts) of its original owner (Sam Neill). The rest of it centres on the all-too-general 'quest to become more human' which is not intrinsically interesting enough in the way it is presented here to make the film worthwhile.

Director Chris Columbus is not entirely above reproach either. The film on the whole is bland, and Columbus does not attempt to move out of a middle-of-the-road register. Some moments of thin satire and one or two essentially slapstick and punchline gags are the only concessions to any type of style outside of the most mechanical storytelling. When the story itself is as problematic as this one is, this means that the film lacks a spark of life which gives it enough energy to hold interest. The focus on dialogue exchanges means that the film also relies heavily on its performers, which raises additional questions given that it centres on William's interpretation of a robot only gradually learning to express human emotion. His performance is therefore very much one-note, and though remarkable make-up effects by Greg Cannom in the later stages give him character, mostly he, like the film, is bland. Davidtz does her best, but her characters lack edge (again, there are brief moments where something interesting seems about to happen, but then it doesn't). The same is true of all of the characters, and all of the performers equally try hard, do as well as they can, but make little impact. None of the characters really has enough depth to make their endless conversations anything more than a vehicle for thematic rumination, and given that the central character is constantly trying to achieve emotional depth, the centre of the film is inevitably hollow.

On the level of craft, it is solid enough. On the level of intent, the film is straightforward and inoffensive. Thematically, it performs its task insofar as it does successfully raise questions about the nature of humanity. Yet all of these things do not automatically result in a satisfying film. The points it has to make are made quickly, and then dragged out over two hours during which the viewer has little to do in the absence of real character or societal detail except listen to them being made over and over again. Science fiction has frequently proved a more effective and stimulating vehicle for philosophical thought (Contact, Dark City), as well as more mindless but entertaining mayhem (Independence Day, Star Trek: First Contact). This film adds nothing despite what seem to be some genuine attempts to do so, and does little for Asimov (fans will find the ending particularly strange, as it violates the all-important laws of robotics introduced briefly at the beginning of the film but so central to Asimov's writing on this subject). The film might work best on younger children (despite some sexual subject matter), but will try the patience of most adults. This is not because it is badly made, but because it simply doesn't have enough personality; a match of form to content which in this case does not produce a work of art.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.