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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 UK Critic
3 stars out of 4

"Bicentennial Man" made my thoughts and responses clash -- I knew that its plot was stupid, but even as the fact nagged at me, the movie held my attention. Its premise is one that has appeared in several movies already, and is one that I always react against; but somehow I got enough out of the picture to leave with a smile on my face.

Robin Williams stars as Andrew, a big metal robot in the shape of a human being. Remember the maid in the TV cartoon show "The Jetsons"? Just like that. Andrew is bought by a well-to-do family man (Sam Neill), who notices that his new machine is displaying signs of emotion and creativity; it carves cute little models for the man's children, for example, and points out which one is its favourite.

The businessman is kind-hearted and patient, not to mention open-minded, and so decides to treat Andrew as a 'he', not an 'it'. He converses with the robot, trying to figure out just how much humanity there is inside its head, eventually coming to treat it as one of the family. The man allows Andrew to wear clothes, keep the income from the things he builds, and ask questions about any topic he feels curious about.

Time moves on, the man and his wife pass away, their children grow up, and so on and so forth. Andrew, immortal of course, since he wasn't made in Taiwan, stays alive throughout; observing a great deal of humanity, absorbing it, and becoming more human. He searches the globe for other robots displaying signs of emotional life, and while he doesn't find any, Andrew does run into a scientist (Oliver Platt) who agrees to help him become actually physically human.

This is a grand journey, that, as the movie's title suggests, takes two hundred years to complete. So "Bicentennial Man" has a lot of ground to cover, and that leads to one of its stylistic downfalls -- events are skimmed over, relationships are suggested rather than portrayed, and the piece is tied together with constant soppy music.

With no strong structure to sweep us away, what gets our attention is the IDEA of what is happening, and the idea is stupid. Like "D.A.R.Y.L.", "Bicentennial Man" doesn't seem to understand that no matter how much its characters accept it, and how insistently it forces the notion upon us, the concept of a robot developing human features is just not plausible. A computer is a device that follows programmed instructions; a living brain is an organic member that can grow, learn, and process metaphysical ideas. Of all the movies about computers with minds of their own, only "Demon Seed", a 1977 thriller starring Julie Christie, has made any attempt to remember these simple facts.

So what did I get out of "Bicentennial Man"? Well, it features plenty of amusing scenes in which Williams uses a robot's cold logic to try to figure out the disorganised way humans behave. The joke doesn't wear out its welcome because human life has so many different facets, and there's comic potential in every one. I also loved the visual style of this movie, which is set between the years 2005 and 2205, but doesn't shove overblown space-age fantasy designs down our throats. It takes a stunningly sensible approach to how the technology and fashions of the next two centuries are likely to develop, and the production design never calls attention to itself as 'futuristic' -- it's present as realistic background.

While the wretchedness of its premise bothered my in every scene, the wonderful look and feel of this picture delighted me just as often. I dreaded a mawkish performance from Williams (it has been less than a year since "Patch Adams"), but the limitations of his character keep him in check, and he serves as a charming lead in this creative and pretty original piece of work. The brief, impersonal structure makes the events in "Bicentennial Man" seem cold; the aesthetics make them amazing. Funny. Andrew probably experiences the world in rather a similar way.

Copyright 2000 UK Critic

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