Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bicentennial Man (1999) [PG] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli.

Few things irritate me more than unrealized potential in a motion picture, and Chris ColumbusBicentennial Man is replete with it. The basic idea, about a robot's journey from household appliance to human being, is inherently fascinating, but, by relegating the story to a disappointing level of superficiality and never attempting to venture more than skin-deep into some intriguing themes, Bicentennial Man comes across like recycled, diluted Star Trek. Even Pinocchio had more substance. Bicentennial Man is more interested in being a parable about the nature of humanity than in being a science fiction movie, which is fine. The problem is that the final product is too trite to work as anything more than light, pointless entertainment. Laugh a few times at Robin Williams, cry a little at the manipulative, melodramatic finale, then get in the car and forget about it. Only someone deluded or hopelessly naïve would see this movie as profound.

Bicentennial Man, based on a 1976 Isaac Asimov story, owes as much to Star Trek: The Next Generation as it does to its stated source. (Although, to be fair, Star Trek frequently borrowed from Asimov.) The long-running syndicated television series featured a character named Data, who was an android seeking to achieve a semblance of humanity. This is precisely the situation we are presented with in Bicentennial Man, except that the synthetic entity is played by Robin Williams, not Brent Spiner. Over the course of its lengthy run, The Next Generation featured a number of stories focusing on Data's quest, some of which contained intriguing moral and ethical observations; Bicentennial Man doesn't come close. Perhaps those who have never watched Star Trek will be less irritated than those who have seen all of this done before, and much better.

The film opens in 2005. A father (Sam Neill) has just bought his family an NDR-114 robot to help with household chores. After being introduced to his owners, the robot spouts off the three directives that bind him: he must never injure a human being, he must obey all human orders, and he must protect himself. The robot, christened Andrew, soon forms a deep friendship with the youngest daughter, whom he refers to as Lil' Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg as a child, Embeth Davidtz as an adult). The years pass and members of Andrew's family grow old and die. He changes as well, receiving upgrades that make him look and act more like a person. But, the more human he becomes, the harder life is to cope with, since he must confront emotions like grief and love.

It's hardly worth discussing Bicentennial Man's thematic content, since the light, feel-good script has effectively emasculated nearly every possible area of interest. The movie sets up humanity as a noble goal worth striving for, without bothering to mention man's barbaric nature. Legal, medical, and technical issues are brushed aside as minor inconveniences. Andrew wants a bank account - no problem. Andrew wants a beating heart - no problem. Andrew wants to have sex - no problem. Admittedly, since the story spans 200 years, there's a need to condense, but the way this movie approaches things, little is left over aside from a half-baked romance and a big courtroom climax.

The best thing about Bicentennial Man is the production design. The film offers some eye-catching glimpses into the future, including visions of New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco during the late 21st century. We are also afforded an opportunity to see how wardrobe and home environments might change. Unfortunately, with so little of interest going on in the foreground, the viewer is given a significant opportunity to study such background details.

While Bicentennial Man's corps of actors won't be garnering any Oscar nominations, there are some capable performances. Sam Neill is his usual reliable self. Embeth Davidtz gets to play two roles (although, despite some superficial differences, they end up seeming like the same person). Wendy Crewson is capable as Neill's wife, and Oliver Platt, playing the affable scientist who works on Andrew's upgrades, has some of the film's best moments. On the down side, Hallie Kate Eisenberg is only on hand to ratchet up the cuteness factor, and Kiersten Warren, who portrays a female robot, is annoying. As for Robin Williams, Bicentennial Man's star - he is upstaged by the costume he has to wear during the movie's first half. Later in the proceedings, he's okay - nothing more or less. This is one of those features where Williams tries to mix humor and drama, and, as has been proven in the past, the approach really doesn't work.

However, while Williams has to bear some of the blame for Bicentennial Man's creative failure, the real culprit is Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Stepmom), who forces every movie he directs into a model that oozes sentimentality, manipulation, and false emotion. While some of Columbus' early efforts were cute (like Home Alone and the aforementioned Mrs. Doubtfire), it didn't take long for him to turn into a filmmaker whose next project is inevitably more cloying than his last. Coupled with a hackneyed script, this quality assures that Bicentennial Man is unworthy of sharing the end-of-the-year screens with so many top-notch motion pictures. © 1999 James Berardinelli

Labels: drama, family, fantasy, romance, sci-fi

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