Out Of The Box.
1999 was only 21 years ago, yet it feels like a different universe now. We were so hopeful and optimistic about the 21st century that was looming on the horizon. Homes of privilege would soon have robot servants, all vehicles would be electric, the clean-air skylines of major US cities would be bustling with growth. Then something terrible happened…the real 21st century. 9/11 hit, followed by multiple (ongoing) wars, the 2008 stock market crash/recession, the current novel coronavirus pandemic, and an even worse recession less than 12 years later. In short, the first 20 years of the 21st century have, so far, sucked.
Slipping my old copy of “Bicentennial Man” into the DVD player once again took me back to that more innocent bygone time of the late 1990s…an age where the late comedic genius Robin Williams (another casualty of this new millennium) played a family’s beloved robot who yearned to be human…
*****MEGA-MECHA SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
The movie begins in that far-off future of April, 2005 (yes, 15 years ago) with the wealthy, upscale Northern California-based Martin family anticipating the arrival of their latest household appliance…a “North-Am Robotics” NDR-series robot (changed from the book’s “US Robots & Mechanical Men”). Right out of its metallic crate, the robot (Robin Williams) powers up, introduces itself to its new human family, and gives a broadly comedic recitation of Asimov’s three laws of robotics: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.”
Most of the Martin family is a bit wary of their new device, which looks like something out of a 1997 Sharper Image catalog (remember those?), but they gradually accept this human-shaped ’thing’ into their home. The Martin family consists of wealthy clock-manufacturer patriarch “Sir” (Sam Neill, of “Jurassic Park”), matriarch “Ma’am” (Wendy Crewson), and their daughters; bratty “Miss Grace” (Lindse Letherman) and her sweeter kid sister, Amanda “Little Miss” (Hallie Eisenberg, sister of actor Jesse Eisenberg). Through her mishearing of the word ‘android’, Little Miss inadvertently coins the robot’s new name…Andrew. That the affluent Martin family are referred to primarily by titles instead of first names reinforces the novel’s analog of American slavery.
Andrew cooks, cleans and lives in the family’s basement during its hours of non-operation, requiring only a power outlet as its sole need (at first). Fresh out of the box, Andrew exhibits a passionate curiosity about all things alive, even going so far as to gently relocate a basement-dwelling spider into the outdoor garden. The android also restores an old broken phonograph, and exhibits genuine curiosity for better understand social interplay and humor (an allegory of the daily challenges for some within the autism spectrum). Sir offers to serve as Andrew’s mentor, not too unlike the relationship between Captain Picard and Commander Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” In their talks together, Sir patiently teaches Andrew about social customs, metaphors, jokes, and yes, even human sexual reproduction. The late Robin Williams manages to fully express Andrew’s fascination through an all-encompassing robot suit as well as an animatronic faceplate. The performance that emerges through those prosthetics is a triumph of the late Williams’ physical and verbal gifts for mime and standup comedy . Williams gives Anthony Daniels’ C3PO a serious run for his Republic credits…
Older sister Grace Martin takes an instant disliking to Andrew, and uses its own three laws against it, coaxing Andrew into jumping out of a second story window of the Martin’s home. The damage caused in the fall is repairable, though it leaves the impressionable android with a distinct fear of heights and windows. Sir sets down the rules to his kids; the android is valuable ‘property’ (unintentional but painful slavery language) and will be treated with the same courtesy as any Martin family member, though he stops short of recognizing Andrew as a sentient being. The fact that the movie is cast almost entirely with white actors makes for an either intentional or extremely tone-deaf allegory for the white slave owners of pre-Civil War America, who welcomed slaves into their households but stopped short of embracing them as family members.
During a family day at the beach, Andrew unintentionally drops and shatters Little Miss’ favorite glass horse… a rare antique that was her favorite. Little Miss is heartbroken, and Andrew feels a robotic analog of guilt at the despair he unwittingly caused. Gathering a piece of driftwood from the shoreline, Andrew carves a beautiful replica of the horse as a replacement. Little Miss loves her new toy, and all is forgiven with Andrew.
Sir, however, is intrigued by both Andrew’s toy making skills and his initiative for creating such a thing in the first place. Sir suggests he could mentor Andrew in the family business of clock-making (how Sir got so wealthy making clocks in 21st century America is never explained; I’ve always assumed the Martins were old money). Taking Andrew back to NorthAm Robotics for an explanation of the android’s anomalous behaviors, Sir is immediately offered a replacement or refund by nervous NorthAm Robotics CEO Dennis Mansky (Stephen Root). Mansky seems more preoccupied with the dangers of other ‘anomalies’ that might crop up within these ‘devices’, which are in American homes nationwide. Sir, however, isn’t interested in a refund or replacement, recognizing Andrew’s innate artistry and curiosity as unique, sentient traits. Sir then has his lawyer draft protections for Andrew’s unique positronic brain, should the robot ever come to NorthAm for routine maintenance; setting up an antagonistic relationship between himself and Mansky. Using profits from his own clockmaking, Andrew soon purchases an upgrade to his facial mechanisms, which will enable better express the emotions he feels. Andrew is no longer an ‘it’, but a ‘him.’
In the words of Lewis Carroll, things get even “curiouser and curiouser” in the Martin home over the following years. “Little Miss” (now played by “Army of Darkness” veteran Embeth Davidtz) returns home from college, seemingly infatuated with her childhood servant, despite her pending marriage. Realizing that a relationship with the android simply cannot be (a heart-to-heart with her father Sir reinforces that societal norm), Little Miss asks her ‘friend’ Andrew to usher at her wedding.
Andrew agrees to Little Miss’ request (his preprogrammed deference to family member orders), and also wears clothing for the first time in his existence (another idea taken directly from the short story and novel; the notion of a robot wearing clothing as a sign of emerging individuality). It’s implied that Andrew feels something for Little Miss as well (beyond obligatory protectiveness), though he dismisses his own feelings as inconsequential. Andrew successfully ushers at the wedding, and both he and Sir quietly lament the loss of Little Miss to that new man in her life. Also planted in Andrew’s mind is the idea that he, not the Martin family, should see a profit from the unique clocks he manufactures pro bono for Sir’s business. Sir reluctantly agrees, and eventually Andrew uses his considerable profits to ‘purchase’ his own freedom (another page taken from American slavery). Taken aback by the painfully honest recognition of himself as a ‘slave owner’, Sir angrily lashes out at the android, refusing to accept Andrew’s money and banishing the seemingly ungrateful android from his home. A dejected Andrew builds a nearby shoreline home from scratch…just in case the Martins ever need his services again. In the years to come, Sir and Andrew reconcile over Sir’s deathbed and closure is given to that chapter of Andrew’s life.
Using his wealth and freedom, Andrew sets out on a years-long, nationwide trek to find other NorthAm NDR robots who may have emerged into sentience as well. The determined android journeys across the country; deserts, snowy woods, and even a futuristic New York City (with the unintentionally melancholy sight of a futuristic Twin Towers). Andrew does find other NDR robots, but most have fallen into disrepair. The ones that are still functioning are consigned to menial labor, and lack Andrew’s spark of self-awareness. A discouraged Andrew eventually makes his way home to San Francisco.
Back by the Golden Gate bridge, Andrew comes across an Aretha Franklin-dancing android named “Galatea” (Kiersten Warren), who, at first, is the movie’s Jar-Jar (a creature so completely obnoxious that even the film itself can’t excuse its behavior). Andrew is so amazed at the individuality expressed by the dancing robot that he follows her back to her nearby residence… the home of Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), a former NorthAm engineer whose father pioneered much of the work that went into Andrew’s design. Rupert works on his own now, since demand for robots has declined sharply in recent years. The middle-aged tinkerer’s workshop has the ambience of a motorcycle hobbyist’s garage…full of custom parts and pieces. Andrew is disheartened to learn that Galatea isn’t sentient at all; she simply has a factory-installed ‘personality’ chip, with a skeletal augmentation that allows her to dance. She ‘feels’ nothing. Rupert however, immediately recognizes Andrew’s own uniqueness, and the two hit it off. Andrew soon offers to fund Rupert’s research for the indefinite future. An abundance of money glosses over many of what could’ve been nagging obstacles in the film’s narrative, allowing characters to focus on the issues of robotic sentience instead of putting food on the table.
Using himself as the guinea pig for Rupert’s experiments, Andrew allows Rupert to alter his own appearance into something more human. Applying silicon-like ‘skin’ to Andrew’s exposed inner workings, Rupert tells the android that it’s those unique imperfections that make a truly realistic-looking human being. Despite Andrew’s 62-year chronological age, he and Rupert settle on an outward appearance of a 42-year old human male. From this point on, Andrew appears completely human, much to the presumed relief of actor Robin Williams…
Thus begins the arguably less interesting middle act of the film, when Andrew returns to the Martin residence where he has an oddly scripted, wrong-footed meet with Little Miss’ granddaughter Portia Charney (also played by Davidtz). For some unexplained reason, Andrew is ‘offended’ that Portia ‘chose’ to look like her grandmother (with all of his travels across the country, he’d never heard of family resemblances…?). Eventually, an aged Little Miss explains to a confused Andrew that genetics allows for this, but Andrew still doesn’t “like it.” It’s a ‘misunderstanding’ that seems too contrived and artificial, even for a movie starring Robin Williams as a lovable mandroid.
Soon after, things return to poignancy as “Little Miss” passes away, following a stroke, with Andrew at her hospital bedside…. her lifeless hand still tightly clutching the little wooden horse he carved for her when she was a little girl. Andrew is resentful when he realizes that everyone he cares about will eventually die, and that he won’t be able to shed any tears for them when their times come. “This will not do,” he concludes.
Then the date-movie shenanigans start up again, as Andrew gets a pet dog (a stray mutt which arrives on his beachfront doorstep) and he makes yet another attempt to befriend Portia. Is Andrew beginning a relationship with this stranger based solely on the fact that she looks like someone he cared for? The gifted Robin Williams’ personal charm saves the day, as Andrew breaks the ice with some unintentional jokes. Portia and Andrew eventually develop a close friendship, bonding over his humor, his dog and their frequent games of chess. Andrew, in movie-cliche terms, is becoming the ‘best friend’ who harbors a none-too-secret crush on the girl. This part of the movie feels the most pedestrian, with date-movie cliches flying off of the screen like the asteroids of “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Eventually, Portia admits to Andrew that she engaged to be married (just like grandma, many years ago), and she too, is conflicted by her feelings for Andrew. She tells Andrew that she cannot “invest her emotions in a machine” (the exact words Sir said years ago to Little Miss). Rejected by Portia, and saddened by the loss of Little Miss, Andrew goes to see Rupert for another upgrade. This upgrade will be the most significant to date… the installation of a de facto central nervous system and ‘heart’ which will allow him to experience tactile sensations, including sexual pleasure (!). I swear, the movie isn’t rated-R.
With his new sensations activated, Andrew returns to kiss Portia hard on the lips (in a too forceful way). He also sabotages Portia’s wedding, exhibiting the full range of human emotions, even negative ones, such as jealousy and pettiness. Of the many bad choices that characterize this act of the film, this is one saving grace. Andrew (unlike Star Trek’s “Data”) isn’t portrayed as some kind of synthetic saint. In fact, with his new nervous system and heartbeat, he is free to be as much of a jealous suitor as the next prick. Somehow this behavior of Andrew’s wins Portia’s heart (only in the movies…) and her wedding is called off. Portia finally makes the bold leap of love that her grandma couldn’t. But did she have to make that bold move with her late grandma’s would-be lover as well? Creepy…
Portia and Andrew live many years together, as Andrew becomes a successful bio-engineer, creating life-saving synthetic organs and DNA elixirs which artificially escalate human lifespans by decades. Portia, a recipient of Andrew’s work, is now 75 years old, while looking no older than 50. This begins to create a disparity between the two as the ageless Andrew’s outward features remain locked at 42. She tells her android lover that she doesn’t want to live forever with artificial extensions, and that all things in mortal existence must end. Making matters worse, the United World Council (looking like a scaled down version of the massive Senate chambers in the Star Wars prequels) refuses to recognize Andrew’s ‘marriage’ to Portia, on the basis that Andrew’s immortal ‘unnatural’ existence makes him something outside of humankind (a prescient analogy for the real-life struggles to legalize gay marriage only a few years later in 2015).
Returning to his old friend Rupert, Andrew makes a final desperate attempt to qualify as a mortal human by contaminating his systems with human blood, which will eventually corrode his biomechanics within 30-40 years. Rupert resists the idea, but obliges his friend’s request, noting that making stupid choices is very much the fate of all human beings. The decades go by, and a visibly aged Andrew (now appearing as a man in his 80s) makes a final appeal to the United World Council President (the movie’s only nonwhite character, played by the late Lynn Thigpen) to consider his bid to be recognized as a human being in a lawful marriage. The president tells him she’ll consider his final petition, but that it might take awhile to reach a decision on so delicate a matter.
Andrew and Portia, both near the end of their life together, are being attended by a now outwardly human-looking Galatea. Galatea is now serving as Andrew and Portia’s nurse, redeeming her earlier Jar-Jar hijinks. The two dying, elderly lovers await the announcement of the UWC President’s decision regarding Andrew’s case, as Galatea turns on a holographic monitor. The President decides in favor of Andrew’s petition to be legally recognized as a legally married human being, 200 years after his activation. But Andrew quietly dies just before the announcement. A tearful Galatea is sorry he didn’t live to hear it. Portia says “he knows,” and then asks Galatea to kindly ‘unplug’ her from life-support. Galatea resists (her robotic programming not to harm humans kicking in), until Portia makes it “an order.” After disconnection, Portia slowly slips away, as she grips her dead husband’s hand and says, “See you soon.”
Fully Functional, Though Not Without A Few Glitches.
Yes, the ending of “Bicentennial Man” is a total tissue-fest. My wife and I were bawling like a pair of infants when we first rented it on DVD 20 years ago, and immediately bought our own copy. Looking back on it through the lens of time, it’s by no means a perfect film, despite solid performances by the still-missed Robin Williams (one of my favorite entertainers of all-time), the reliable Sam Neill and of Embeth Davidtz, all of whom worked under extensive age makeups by “Mrs. Doubtfire” Oscar winner Greg Cannom.
Rather than just use a stunt performer, Williams himself performed in the full-body, robotic prosthesis designed by the late makeup/animatronics genius Stan Winston (“Terminator 2” “Jurassic Park” & countless others). Williams’ work within the fully-encompassing suit gives a consistent body language to Andrew’s movements that a mere stunt performer might not have. It’s a brilliant vocal and mimetic performance. It’s no surprise that Williams worked as a mime in New York’s Central Park in the early 1970s.
The film also enjoys a sweeping, heart-tugging musical score by the late Oscar-winning composer James Horner (“ALIENS” “The Abyss” “Titanic”), borrowing a bit from his own work in 1995’s “Braveheart,” yet imbuing just enough freshness to make it work. Despite very disappointing box office returns ($87 million worldwide, on a $100 million budget), “Bicentennial Man” procured top-drawer talent in just about every capacity.
The area where the film suffers most is in Nicholas Kazan’s screenplay. After a strong first act, the middle act is saddled with pedestrian, date-night movie shenanigans between Portia and Andrew. Much of the characters’ earlier ‘hate-meet’ dialogue is deeply unfunny and clunky. There are also a few ‘to kiss is to be human’ cliches that would be more at home in a lesser episode of 1960s Star Trek. Rewatching the film for this retrospective, I was tempted to chapter-skip much of this middle act nonsense.
Another consistently annoying issue with “Bicentennial Man” is a near-total lack of diverse casting; all of the main characters are extremely affluent, heterosexual and white. Even the androids (Andrew and Galatea) are both coated with synthetic white skin later on. This is extremely jarring since much of the movie takes place in San Francisco, a city renowned for its pride in ethnic and sexual diversity. I realize there is a possibility that this casting choice may have been deliberate, since the androids were meant to be stand-ins for many disenfranchised peoples, but the movie came out in 1999, not 1959. There’s no reason why even prominent supporting characters like Rupert or Galatea had to be white as well.
Luckily, the pure emotion drawn from those final few scenes sticks the landing. The movie earns the sentiment, despite its flaws.
The Positronic Man, by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg.
The movie of “Bicentennial Man” is quite different from Isaac Asimov’s (and Robert Silverberg’s) darker, harder-hitting Civil Rights allegory, yet it’s perfectly valid as commercialized pop entertainment, if not highbrow science fiction. The 21st, 22nd and early 23rd centuries depicted in the film are as gloriously improbable as the futures seen in various incarnations of Star Trek, but that’s also part of “Bicentennial Man”’s appeal; the movie wears its optimism and lack of cynicism on its metal sleeve. The novel is more intellectual, though it occasionally dives into the sentiment pool as well (the novel’s ending depicts a dying Andrew seeing Little Miss welcoming him into the void).
Gone are the book’s scenes of Andrew being forced to strip off his clothing by street punks, or his retreat to do research at a lunar colony, as well as the more introspective tone of the novel. While the bare essentials of the story are still present in the film, they are augmented with a syrupy (and occasionally creepy) date movie-style romance.
Making crowd-pleasing, commercial adaptations from darker novels is hardly anything new. Hollywood took one of L. Frank Baum’s dark, quirky children’s fables and turned it into the beloved 1939 MGM musical “The Wizard of Oz.” Like Andrew Martin himself, it can be argued that a pop-accessible movie has just as much right to exist as a book.
“The Positronic Man” might still offer up a very different adaptation someday, perhaps something more in the direction of TV’s “HUMANS” (2015-2018). But with “Harry Potter”/”Mrs. Doubtfire” director Chris Columbus at the helm, 1999’s “Bicentennial Man” was never going to be that movie, and that’s perfectly okay.
“Bicentennial Man” is a flawed, but sweet-natured piece of commercial science fiction entertainment whose optimism and sentimentality is worlds apart from darker, artificial intelligence-themed dystopias like “Terminator” “Battlestar Galactica” or the current “Westworld.” In “Bicentennial Man,” the sentient android Andrew Martin isn’t seen as a harbinger of an AI apocalypse. Like many of the disenfranchised of our world, he only wants what most of us take for granted…the right to be recognized as human. A seemingly presumptive right that is too often denied for those who don’t automatically conform to narrow visions of normalcy.
“Bicentennial Man” is available to stream on the HBO Go, HBO Now apps, as well as Prime Video ($2.99 US) and YouTube rentals ($2.99/$3.99 SD/HD).
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. For the time being, please practice safe-distancing, wear masks in public, and avoid unnecessary outings as much as possible. Take care!