Bicentennial Man (1999)

by Tobias Peterson


Irrational Splendor

Robots: we either love ‘em or hate ‘em. Movies have given us friendly Star Wars droids like R2-D2 and C-3PO and sadistic mechanical henchmen like Maximilian in The Black Hole. Science fiction television has shown both Buck Rogers’ loyal sidekick Twiggy and the destructive Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. Cartoons have represented the Jetsons’ friendly maid-on-wheels Rosie and the dastardly Transformer Megatron. The list goes on and on. Whether good or evil, robots evoke strong sentiments in our increasingly computerized society. Even though robots exist for most of us only in fiction, the artificial intelligence they display and the technological advances they represent pose a real philosophical problem for their enthusiasts and detractors alike.

Bicentennial Man is clearly aware of this controversy and does a good job avoiding it altogether. Instead of a film probing or the vague boundaries separating artificial intelligence from the real thing, what we get is a film rehashing the tired and very agreed upon standards of what makes a human a human (insert James T. Kirk speech here) and what makes a human superior to all other imaginable life forms. The film demonstrates once again that it’s preferable to have flawed flesh instead of faultless circuits.

cover art

Bicentennial Man

Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt


Robin Williams teams upon once again with director Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Nine Months) in Bicentennial Man, another color-by-numbers comedy that strays little from the previous films’ focus on family values and good feelings. Set in the “not too distant future,” the movie begins with the arrival of a NorthAm Robotics model NDR-114 (Williams) at the Martin household. Purchased by Richard Martin (Sam Neill) to serve as a live-in maid, the robot is supposed to be nothing more than a mobile household device. However, after he is nicknamed “Andrew” by the Martins’ youngest daughter (the relentlessly adorable Hallie Kate Eisenberg — you might recognize her from those annoying Pepsi commercials), the robot soon takes his personalized status to heart.

In addition to performing household chores, Andrew carves original wood pieces and listens to music, very unrobotic activities. Intrigued by these signs of his purchase’s emerging individuality, Richard takes Andrew back to the manufacturer to figure out if his acts are standard behavior. The slimy owner of the plant (News Radio‘s Stephen Root) blames Andrew’s actions on an “electronic glitch,” and offers to correct the malfunction and return him free of charge. Richard refuses, claiming, “There’s no price for individuality,” and begins to teach Andrew all about what it means to be human. In a series of fireside chats, Richard teaches Andrew about some of the intangible aspects of humanity, ranging from the birds and the bees to telling jokes. It’s not long before the former appliance is wearing clothes, doing stand-up comedy routines, and falling in love.

Bicentennial Man follows Andrew’s progression as he becomes increasingly more human and less robotic. In showing this process, the film seems more like a laundry list of what make us people than anything else. Humor? Check. Love? Check. Jealousy? Check. Nothing about Andrew’s journey to humanity is particularly profound but, judging from the many 10-year-olds in the audience treating the theater seats like a jungle gym, the movie’s not really trying for depth. Instead, Bicentennial Man re-teaches its viewers (those who are paying attention, anyway) those old Hollywood standbys: life is precious, love conquers all, and we are all joined by the common human experience, regardless of race, creed, or manufacturing date.

The most insightful parts of the film come when it takes on humans’ universal desire for freedom and their universally finite life spans. Despite the love and support he gets at home, Andrew requests his freedom from the Martins in order to truly feel human. Reluctantly, Richard assents and Andrew is free to go on a Forrest Gumpian quest across America to find other robots like him. Instead, he finds Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), a robotics engineer who gives Andrew a synthetic human exterior and sends him on his way. Twenty years after he leaves, Andrew returns in human form to the Martins, as spry as he was the day he left.

To his shock, time has not been good to the Martins. His favorite Martin, “Little Miss” Eisenberg as the seven-year-old version, Embeth Davidtz when she turns twenty) is newly married when he leaves, but has a teenage daughter of her own upon Andrew’s return. Soon after he gets back, Andrew’s old master Richard dies. Another twenty short years after Richard’s death, “Little Miss” is dead too. At this point it dawns on Andrew that his superior construction will result in nothing but pain and sorrow as his family members continue to die around him. What’s worse, the World Congress refuses to recognize his citizenship as a human as long as he’s immortal, preventing him from legally marrying his newfound love, Portia (“Little Miss”‘s daughter, also played by Davidtz).

In search of a solution, Andrew returns himself to Rupert Burns and convinces him to replace his internal workings with human equivalents (he’s looking for a heart, like the Tin Man, or maybe an emotion chip, like Data), continually upgrading in a process that eventually renders him subject to the same aging process as the rest of us. Andrew is declared a human citizen of the world and can die a happy man at the ripe old age of 200 (hence the title). Any self-respecting Steve Guttenburg fan will recognize the plot overtones from the movie Short Circuit, the story of a robot named Johnny 5 who comes to life after being struck by lightning. Much like Short Circuit, Bicentennial Man draws a clear line between robots and humans. Robots are computerized and unfeeling, while humans (and robots that become human), embrace the irrational splendor of life in all its forms.

Based more concretely on a story of the same name by Isaac Asimov, Bicentennial Man does what good science fiction should: it gives us a parable for life. Like most parables, though, the message is didactic, unrevealing, and cliched. While the film is filled with attractive special effects (especially in the futuristic panoramas of American cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.), it lacks any worthwhile, original, or particularly insightful substance.

Bicentennial Man gives us a mass-produced protagonist in a mass-produced story line. It’s ironic that a plot about a robot who is unique for his humanized, relatively creative behavior is presented in a format so uninspired and formulaic that it could only come from the assembly-line conformity of the Hollywood movie-making machine.

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