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Bicentennial Man

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Allan Rich, Scott Waugh, Wendy Crewson

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Critics have jumped on director Chris Columbus for turning out a movie that looks like a Hallmark greeting card, one in which, they imply, sap oozes slowly and perpetually like molasses crawling up a tree in January. If I might demur, I find that Disney--we're talking Disney don't forget--pushes the envelope with "Bicentennial Man," just as that studio did in exposing the tobacco industry with the muckraking and explosively acted "The Insider." Disney, known for often appealing to the most commercial interests, is aiming "Bicentennial" at the young 'uns in a PG-rated movie--which contains some frank, discreetly expressed sexual discussion, a judicious scene of a couple in bed engaged in post-coital banter, and a nicely clarified exposition of the nature of robotics suitable for children without talking down to them. If you come expecting lots of laughs because Robin Williams is featured, forget it. This is not "Moscow on the Hudson" but rather intends to be a clone not of any other Williams film but a well-done exploration of another type of cloning. What's more, the picture goes beyond the multi-generational composition of P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia," harking back to the old-style family epics like George Stevens' 1956 "Giant."

The title comes not only from the 200-year longevity of its title character but from the story's birth as an Isaac Asimov yarn that came out in 1976 during America's bicentennial celebration of independence (and also from a novel by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, "The Positronic Man"). During the first half, Robin Williams is encased in the 100-degree heat of a metal suit--leading Variety critic Todd McCarthy to complain about what he considers a throwaway first half: "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" while critic Roger Ebert, on the other hand, reacts, "At the 60-minute mark, I was really enjoying it."

During the initial hour, Sir (Sam Neill) takes delivery of a robot which his family calls Andrew (Robin Williams). Andrew does the cleaning and can cook up a splendid chicken. The robot is treated with indifference and some fear by Sir's plastic wife (Wendy Crewson), badly by the envious older daughter, and with genuine affection by the adorable 7-year- old Little Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg). When Sir notes that the robot shows human traits like friendliness and creativity (though it breaks the favorite toy in Little Miss's glass menagerie), he acts to have its inners upgraded until, finally, Andrew receives a central nervous system and all the equipment he needs to be a real man. Despite the good treatment he receives at Sir's home, Andrewy's humanity compels him to ask for his freedom and his own living quarters, which he buys with money saved up from working with Sir.

Columbus takes the story ahead a full two centuries from its opening in the year 2005 until the point that Little Miss's granddaughter, Portia (Embeth Davidtz) has grown to adulthood. As Portia faces life with Andrew, she is plagued with a conflict. Engaged to another, she ponders giving up her fiance and taking up with a man-machine who can implicitly promise her indefatigable love coupled with an inability to reproduce.

This allegedly sappy story could actually be both scary and thought-provoking for children younger than 10 years of age, and parents might even be intimidated by its subject matter. What does a mother do when her 7-year-old girl asks, "Mommy, what does Sir mean when he says that men and women do something as often as they can (at first) because it feels good?" Or, Mommy, why does that cute Little MIssy look so gray and pale and bad and stays in bed at the end of the picture?"

In addition to its provocative dialogue, "Bicentennial Man" features some cute scenes of the future city as people transport themselves about the skyscrapers in flying cars and the Golden Gate bridge is reborn as a double-decker. The whole project is an absorbing mixture of sci-fi and fairly deep (for a kid audience) dialogue about love and death, extending political correctness to the rights and dignity of a machine.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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