starring Robin Williams, San Neill, Oliver Plat, Embeth Davidiz and Wendy Crewson
writtenby Nicholas Kazan
directed by Chris Columbus
Based on the novel The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg which, in turn, was based ion an earlier short story by Asimov, Bicentennial Man is the heart-warming tale of the quest of a robot to achieve humanity over the course of his 200-year ‘life.’ In the process it is a film pregnant with pithy reflections on the human condition, again, death, loss, accommodation to inevitable change, and more.
Williams plays the android robot, Andrew Martin, created and powered up in April 2005. Created as a household appliance, Andrew takes his first name from confusion over the word “android,” and his last name from his first owner, or master, played by San Neill.
Early in his life with his‘family’ Andrew displays unusual creativity, curiosity and friendship - flaws, even dangers in a household appliance, but seminal milestones in the generation and growth of human personality. Andrew’s owner begins to suspect that he is not a usual robot but something unique. In the end, Andrew’s quest for humanity becomes a major element in the definition of humanity itself. This is a film to make us think about ourselves and our modern life, where wee are going, who we are as we go there, and how we define ourselves.
With a ‘positronic’ brain, Andrew is basically immortal. He will never die. But he develops the capacity of love and feels the loss of his human acquaintances as they grow old and die while he remains always the same. Eventually, he gets a dog.
In time Andrew seeks upgrades to his programming as well as his physical body in order to better accommodate his yearnings. He begins with refined facial flexibility to expand his ability to show emotions. He struggles to understand humor and to develop a sense of it. He takes to wearing clothes. He receives more realistic, faux skin on his fact, then his limbs and body. He designs and builds a functioning central nervous system for himself, followed by a manner of sexual capacity, a digestive system and taste buds. Eventually his upgrades include designed, or planned obsolescence and death in order to overcome the fear by humans of his immortality and his quest for legal recognition of humanity.
For some odd reason, Andrew was a unique creation to start with. He is fascinated by humanity and, having fallen in love with a human, he must be human as well to be with he physically as well as legally. But, to be human means dealing with death, the deterioration of the body and the cessation of function that awaits us all. “Human beings are here for a certain time and then pass on.” Andrew deals with it by accepting it and embracing it in a future that sees humans taking DNA elixirs and replacing their organs with prosthetics in order to prolong health and youth, and extend life expectancy.
This fascination with humanity and the quest to imitate and achieve it by an android robot is a story told elsewhere. It reminds me of the android, Data, played by Brent Spiner on the American television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data is on a similar mission to become human and in the meantime redefines the meaning of humanity. I can’t help but think that this redefinition is the real intention behind stories and films like Bicentennial Man.
As a robot Andrew refers to himself as “one,” the third person singular. This allows for some interesting double entendre third-person dialogue, such as when the newly-named Andrew asks Sam Neill to instruct him about humor by asking, “Can you teach one to tell a joke?” As Andrew grows, receives upgrades and more closely resembles a human in his appearance and behavior he stops referring t himself as “one.”
Why does Andrew want to be human? Why does he go to court to seek legal recognition? His answer comes out of today’s civil and human rights movement handbook. He wants to be recognized for who and what he is. He wants his personality legitimized by the people he cares about. Nothing more, nothing less. Isn’t that sweet?
Robin Williams has come a long way. I first saw him as Mork from Ork on the 1970s Garry Marshall TV sitcom Happy Days (starring Ron Howard, Tom Bosley and Henry Winkler). He appeared on the Happy Days spin-off Laverne and Shirley (starring Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall) before finally getting his own sitcom, Mork and Mindy(co-starring Pam Dawber). He has appeared in a wide variety of comic and dramatic roles in the last 25-years. That makes him one of the top actors in Hollywood today, in the same league with the likes of Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and others. Oliver Plat is o tint hat league, although he has become a fine character actor himself. I like Oliver Plat, maybe in part because he comes from Tokyo. He lived here for a time and graduated form the American School in Japan (ASJ).