Friday December 17, 1999
"Bicentennial Man" is a mainstream holiday movie, complete with stupendous special effects, amazing make-up artistry and sumptuous production design that takes us from the years 2005 to 2205. It stars Robin Williams, persuasive as both a robot and a man.
There's no denying that the film is affecting or that it delivers the goods for those hungering for the glossiest possible escapist fantasy. But you wish that the film unfolded on a more modest scale and in the real world rather than in an unblemished earthly paradise, one that seems almost laughably gaudy, whether by design or not. And parents of younger children should know that in its concerns with mortality--and to a lesser degree, sexuality--"Bicentennial Man" becomes increasingly adult.
It figures that a man (Sam Neill) wealthy enough to afford a vintage English cottage-style mansion--in reality a William Randolph Hearst estate in Northern California, no less--could afford to buy a robot to do household chores. He in fact isn't even the first in his suburban Bay Area community to acquire an NDR-114 robot; his is named Andrew by Amanda (Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the dimpled young girl from those popular Pepsi ads), the younger daughter of Neill's Richard Martin.
His older daughter, Grace (Lindze Letherman), finds Andrew's (Williams) presence so intrusive she tries to get him to self-destruct; for this she is soon banished from the story line. Meanwhile, Richard and his wife (Wendy Crewson) take pains to program Andrew properly, with Richard becoming fascinated with the entire phenomenon of artificial intelligence and its remarkable capacity for development.
One day when Amanda hands Andrew her treasured crystal unicorn, he drops it, and it shatters into a zillion pieces. Comprehending that Amanda is devastated, Andrew starts researching ways in which to replace it and soon presents her with a replica, which he carved from wood. The Martin family is at once stunned and delighted, and at this moment both Richard and Amanda instinctively begin treating Andrew more like a man than a machine.
Working from Nicholas Kazan's screenplay from a short story by Isaac Asimov and its subsequent expansion into a novel written with Robert Silverberg, director Chris Columbus--who directed Williams in "Mrs. Doubtfire"--and Williams do a masterful job of imagining Andrew's transformation. They convincingly depict Andrew's gradual comprehension of the world and of self, of the concept of humanity, encouraged always by Richard and Amanda.
In the first half of the film, Andrew is the perfect servant in his shiny robot armor, and Richard and Amanda become known to us by how Andrew addresses them: Sir and Little Miss--even after Amanda grows up and is played by the lovely Embeth Davidz. In his crisp formality and and tact, and especially his speech, Andrew sounds and acts so much like Roddy McDowall you could believe Williams intended an homage to the late actor.
As time goes by, we're told that robots start losing favor with the public because they represent a threat to the human work force. This means that research in their development grinds to a halt--but not before Andrew's metallic face is given rudimentary expression. Once Andrew dons a tux for the wedding of Little Miss, he wants to wear clothes from then on.
He later encounters Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), the grandson of the scientist who invented him. In a quaint workshop, Rupert continues his grandfather's work. He gives Andrew a human appearance--at this point Williams is able to shuck the robot suit. He also gives him a central nervous system, a digestive tract and even functional sexuality. For all intents and purposes, Andrew has become a human being--except that he never ages.
As Andrew's evolution takes place, he inevitably comes to see himself as a slave and demands his freedom. Ultimately he falls in love with Little Miss' granddaughter Portia (also played by Davidz). Thus "Bicentennial Man" emerges as above all a romantic sci-fi fable that ponders the nature of humanity, the right of individuals to transform themselves into whatever it is possible for them to be, and mortality as the ultimate defining trait of humanity. Throughout, James Horner's score sustains a mood of wonderment and stirred emotions.
While it's true that Little Miss makes a bad marriage (because she's really in love with Andrew) and that the Martins are subject to the natural cycle of life and death, the family and its descendants lead an otherwise problem-free 200 years during which time San Francisco acquires an ever-more futuristic skyline.
"Bicentennial Man" takes place entirely in luxurious or spectacular interiors or natural locales as perfect as calendar art. Indeed, on a design level "Bicentennial Man" is a nouveau riche dream world come true, in which luxury and grandeur banish all notions of taste or restraint. This gorgeous Las Vegas vision of the future is amusing--and possibly unintentional.
The film's vulgar aura of conspicuous consumption does not take away from the remarkable artistry of Keith Vanderlaan's make-up creations or Greg Cannon's design and application of them. Neither does it take away from the notable performances by Neill as a man of refined sensibility; Platt as a warm, whimsical scien tific genius; or above all by the tenderness of Williams and Davidz as lovers caught up in a most unusual romance. The damn-the-expense look and feel of "Bicentennial Man" does inject a valuable note of irony, intended or otherwise, leaving us to ponder a materialistic future, with Andrew as the ultimate inflatable boy toy in a gleaming, shiny world in which money can literally buy everything but the desire to live forever.
Bicentennial Man, 1999. PG-13, for language and some sexual content. A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures/Columbia Pictures presentation. Director Chris Columbus. Producers Wolfgang Petersen, Gail Katz, Neal Miller, Laurence Mark, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Michael Barnathan. Executive producer Dan Kolsrud. Cinematographer Phil Meheux. Editor Neil Travis. Music James Horner. Costumes Joseph G. Aulisi. Production designer Norman Reynolds. Robotic effects Steve Johnson, XFX Inc. Old age make-up effects designed and applied by Greg Cannom. Old age make-up effects created by Keith Vanderlaan. Visual effects supervisor James E. Price. Art directors Mark Mansbridge, William Hiney, Bruton E. Jone Jr. Set decorator Anne Kuljian. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. Robin Williams as Andrew. Embeth Davidz as Little Miss/Portia. Sam Neill as Sir. Oliver Platt as Rupert Burns.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times