An ambitious tale handled in a dawdling, sentimental way, “Bicentennial Man” filters the prescient vision of the late sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov through the touchy-feely sensibility of the “new” Robin Williams. This long-arc story of a robot’s 200-year journey to become a human being benefits from compelling thematic notionsand wizardly visual, robotic and makeup effects, but bogs down due to slack storytelling and an insipidly conventional approach. Since the pros will mean more to general audiences than the cons, as will the presence of Williams in an odd but accessible role, “Bicentennial” should rack up strong millennial B.O.
Partially based on a long short story written by Asimov on the occasion of the American bicentennial in 1976, Nicholas Kazan’s screenplay deals with issues regarding the appropriateness, morality and rights of artificially created entities, the definition of humanity and the desirability of immortality that are, if anything, far more pertinent now than they were a quarter-century ago. Unfortunately, it takes about an hour for the film to even suggest that it intends to be about anything other than a futuristic tin man, or that it will have such an epic scope. Furthermore, the higher the stakes grow in the later stages, the more director Chris Columbus resorts to obviousness and emotional pandering.
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The poky first half generates only sporadic light laughs, but will no doubt hold the interest of kids and easy-to-please adults as they try to discern whether Williams is actually inside the metallic-looking plastic suit that encases Andrew, a genial robot, not unlike a grown-up Teletubby, that’s been acquired by the upscale Bay Area Martin family as a combination maid-butler-cook-nanny. Unfailingly polite and obedient, Andrew has been programmed to obey three laws (first promulgated in Asimov’s landmark 1950 book, “I, Robot”): that he not harm humans, that he obey human orders and that he protect his own existence — the latter two with the proviso that they not conflict with the preceding laws.
The robot’s looks and movements, created by vet special effects designer Steve Johnson, are undeniably intriguing; the face and stature roughly resemble those of the star, but it’s clear that even details such as the eyes and eyebrows are mechanical, with no human elements visible. Gently amusing swishing sound effects accompany Andrew’s movements, and there are tip-offs in the vocal and physical timing that Williams is present, but after a while the stunt begins to wear thin; aside from little incidents such as a bratty girl ordering Andrew to jump out the window, no dramatic conflict or even engaging character interaction figures in the proceedings.
But the head of the family, who is simply called Sir (Sam Neill), eventually comes to suspect that there might be more to Andrew than metal, fiberglass and wire, and the robot shows a remarkable aptitude for sculpting and fashioning elegant clocks. Over the years, he also becomes the closest confidant of one of Sir’s daughters, Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz, as an adult), who would surely marry the gentle, honest and understanding Andrew rather than her fiance if he were only human.
Finally, about an hour in, the film lets on that it has grander thematic and geographic destinations in mind. Andrew, who has accumulated a small fortune over the decades, informs the aging Sir that he would like to be given his freedom. Then, 16 years later, when Sir dies, Andrew embarks upon a long odyssey to locate others of his ilk, who have largely been junked or reprogrammed. Search concludes back in San Francisco, where he finds the bouncy femme robot Galatea and her owner, Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), a benign Dr. Frankenstein who, inspired by Andrew’s enthusiasm and cooperation, begins crossing the scientific frontier between what is man-made and what might be construed as a true man.
Rupert’s brilliance enables Andrew to “upgrade” to human physical specifications even while remaining, technically, a robot; benefit here is that Williams is finally able to emerge from his encasement to be seen for who he is. Reunited with Little Miss, who’s now an attractive older woman, he also makes the acquaintance of her look-alike granddaughter, Portia. Her love story with Andrew drives the final, time-jumping stretch of the picture, which sees Andrew making appearances before a high-level international council in the hopes of being officially declared a human being, and altering his genetic makeup so that he does not have to experience the eternal disappointment of seeing his loved ones die off while he remains ageless.
The same story could easily have been told so that its themes would have hit home in sharp and meaningful ways. But Columbus’ approach is intended to cloak such topics as mortality and human identity in the warm glow of greeting card sentiment, which renders the prescription palatable for mass consumption but hopelessly diluted.
With the nature of his role effectively placing a straitjacket on his usual shtick, Williams emits expressions of personality as well as anyone could under the circumstances; at the same time, the underlying urge behind the performance is an obvious and sometimes cloying cry for sympathy for a being who just wants to love and be loved.
From a comic p.o.v., there is intermittent amusement, but only a handful of outright laughs. Character’s design and other future-gazing effects are excellent, including imaginative speculation about upcoming changes in the cityscapes of Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, the latter notable for a double-decker Golden Gate Bridge.
Supporting performances, particularly by Davidtz, Neill and Platt, are generally understated and appealing, while production values are sleek and strong.