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Bicentennial Man

Entry updated 3 January 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (1999). 1492 Pictures, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Laurence Mark Productions, Touchstone Pictures (see The Walt Disney Company). Directed by Chris Columbus. Starring Embeth Davidtz, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Stephen Root, Kiersten Warren, Robin Williams. Written by Nicholas Kazan from The Positronic Man (1992) by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, itself based on Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man" in Stellar #2 (anth 1976) edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey. 132 minutes. Colour.

It would be difficult to conceive of an sf film where great wealth is more conspicuous and less noticed than Bicentennial Man, most of which is set in and around an exceedingly large home near San Francisco with acres of grounds and sea frontage, a domain upon which only invited guests intrude (it is a vision of California that may be unique in modern sf cinema). In the then Near Future of 2005, "Sir" Richard Martin (Neill) introduces into this secluded estate (see Keep) a metal-sheathed domestic-servant Robot, fully equipped with a positronic brain (see AI; Positronic Robots). Its first meaningful action is to unveil a son et lumière show demonstrating the Three Laws of Robotics (see Laws of Robotics); the third of these – "A robot must protect its own existence as a long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law" – will be increasingly subverted as the story develops. The robot – here prematurely described as an Android – soon takes the name Andrew (for android) Martin (for its master). Andrew (Williams) ingratiates itself with its owner and his young daughter "Little Miss" Amanda Martin (Eisenberg), who soon become positively involved in his/its unique personality: the most extreme version of a model soon withdrawn by his maker NorthAm Robotics, it/he has been fitted in error with a brain unit capable of acquiring human emotion and superhuman skills. Martin soon demonstrates the latter by carving a small horse for Little Miss, versions of which are soon selling for large sums (in keeping with the plush seclusion of Bicentennial Man from anything like the contemporary world, Martin en passant displays scathing contempt for anything that might be described as Modern Art).

After a long initial narrative, the film jumps ahead several years, a pattern continued to the end: members of Martin's adopted human family age and die in jerks, and meanwhile Martin establishes his financial independence, and is manumitted (though no hint of wider social realities, including the presence of people of colour, is allowed to penetrate the estate; in the final sequence, thankfully, a Black woman is seen as a senior judge). Sadly, as Martin is now free, Sir requires him to leave the home. But the android is also a master architect (on traditional lines), and builds for himself a tasteful Mission Style bungalow on the family beach, within feet of the Pacific Ocean. Martin and Sir are reconciled on the latter's death bed. The occasional Villain-ish figures appear, but their schemes are thankfully thwarted by the protagonists' superior financial resources.

As the time gaps increase in frequency and extent, Martin's evolving desire to become human increasingly dominates the action. He meets brilliant technician Rupert Burns (Platt), son of the original NorthAm robot designer, who by stages transforms him from a robot into an Android in the shape of Robin Williams himself; and though the script is excruciatingly embarrassed about this, it is clear Martin now has functional sexual organs, which come in handy. Having kept tabs on Little Miss up to the point of her death in old age, he falls in love with her granddaughter Portia Charney (Davidtz again), and she with him. They begin to live together.

More decades pass. Martin now longs to be declared human, but is thwarted until, explicitly violating the Third Law, he harms himself by ordering Burns make him mortal. As the film closes, he makes a second petition to the World Court (perhaps the sole external sign given anywhere in the film, except for a 1950s-style flitter, that the world has changed outside Martin's domain). This time he succeeds, being declared human on his two-hundredth birthday: simultaneously justifying both words in the title. He dies at this point. In the adjoining hospital bed, his beloved partner Portia, now ancient as well, asks the nurse in attendance to turn off her life support system, so she can follow her beloved to heaven. "See you soon", she says to the corpse beside her. The nurse obeys, and we learn at the last moment that she is in fact Galatea (Warren), an android created by Burns, who has appeared earlier. But by now the makers of Bicentennial Man have abandoned any attempt at sf argument, and this violation of the First Law (adherence to which had been trumpeted an hour earlier in the film) goes uncommented upon. The First Law is simple: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

It is easy to take this film too seriously. Bicentennial Man was patently designed as a vehicle for Robin Williams at his most saccharine, and should perhaps be conceived primarily in that light. But Martin's relentless if strangely valetudinarian campaign to become fully human – which is to say fully Robin and entirely lovable – ominously though witlessly prefigures the nightmare at the heart of Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001): the revelation that it is monstrous to demand love. Moreover, the suffocatingly self-congratulatory wealthiness of the entire enterprise is evident not only in the never-sullied retro seclusion of its manorial setting, but also in its pervasive denial that the world outside these walls of privilege may have changed over the 200 years of its time span. Bicentennial Man betrays, in the end, a narcissism as profound as Robin Williams's demure smirk of self-adoration when he first glimpses his face in a mirror. [JC]


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