Mar 21, 2015

Review: Bicentennial Man (1999)

I don't believe that I've ever seen Bicentennial Man in all of its entirety before now. If I'm not mistaken, I think I saw part of it in elementary school where we only ended up seeing like half the movie. I must've been a movie guy when I was younger too because boy did I hate when I didn't get to see a movie in its entirety. The first half of this Isaac Asimov/Robert Silverberg adaptation definitely seemed very familiar to me anyway, so I've seen it somewhere for sure.

So here we have Chris Columbus directing Robin Williams again after the massive success that was Mrs. Doubtfire from five years earlier. Can't blame anyone for wanting to try and catch lightning like that again. Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan and Bicentennial Man fizzled at the box office. BM almost broke even, but to Hollywood accountants a flop is a flop, no matter how mild it may be. 


Genre: drama, fantasy, romance
Directed by: Chris Columbus
Produced by: Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Gail Katz, etc.
Written by: Nicholas Kazan
Music by: James Horner
Running time: 132 minutes
Production company: 1492 Pictures, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Laurence Mark Productions, etc.
Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures, Columbia TriStar Film, American Broadcasting Company, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $100,000,000
Box office: $87,423,861 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, Angela Landis, John Michael Higgins, Bradley Whitford, Igor Hiller, Stephen Root, Scott Waugh, Quinn Smith, Kristy Connelly, Jay Johnston



In the year 2005, the Martin family receives an android (Robin Williams) from NorthAm Robotics to serve as a housekeeper. Named Andrew, it's discovered that he's not quite like other robots. Somehow able to display creativity, able to socialize and feel emotion, Andrew is a one of a kind sentient android in a world that doesn't view him as anything more than a household appliance.  


Although I've never read The Positronic Man or The Bicentennial Man which is all Isaac Asimov, it's pretty clear that we're talking hard science fiction here. A whole lot of themes are covered and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan makes sure that they're all there. Although it's hard to believe that a robot can just start up for the first time and feel human emotion, I was ready to suspend my disbelief and I did just that. Kazan doesn't delve too deep into the scientific aspects of it all it and that's definitely for the better. 

My main beef with Bicentennial Man is that it plays its cards much too sentimentally. I suppose this isn't surprising since we're dealing with Chris Columbus here. This is his style and unfortunately I think it's detrimental in being able to take Andrew's journey seriously. Themes like freedom, independence and prejudice are completely lost as a result. This is even more of an issue in the last three quarters of the film where the gooeyness reaches unbearable levels. The other big problem here I'm sorry to say is that Bicentennial Man spends much of its running time being nothing other than plain dull. 

I think the film starts off pretty well, but it ever really recovers once Andrew's owner Richard Martin (Sam Neill) starts teaching him about human things like sex, humour, etc. Andrew's slow transformation could've been something interesting and unique to watch, but ends up feeling like warmed up mush. I even think Robin Williams is more of a problem than a solution here. His one-liners are distracting and the more humourous scenes of Bicentennial Man don't even succeed in general anyway.

What I will say however is that the production values of Bicentennial Man are quite good. There's a progression in terms of the surroundings as the story advances further and further into the future and it's pretty well executed, even in 2015. Besides getting Robin Williams on the cast, this is where a lot of the budget went. Fancy-schmancy futuristic hospitals, cool cars of the future and even a tablet computer are some of the things that we see.

I also think the aging makeup for all the actors was well done too. Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill and Oliver Platt go through some pretty extensive transformations and the makeup team definitely deserve some props for that. Bad aging makeup is always an awkward affair and that's certainly not a problem for Bicentennial Man.

The effects and makeup for Robin Williams as an android are also quite good, but not perfect however. What I'm thinking of here is the stage in his transformation where he gets some facial modifications to allow him to better express the emotions that he feels. Made to look even more like Robin Williams, he looks like something out of a nightmare. Maybe that's just me though.

As a fan of science fiction in general, Bicentennial Man is just a big, fat disappointment. Nicholas Kazan and Chris Columbus seem content in simply ramping up the drama and the sentimentality of the story without doing much else. What could've been an incredible story about a robot's journey to becoming human simply becomes an exhausting exercise in fake tears and sugar-coated romance. Asimov and Silverberg's story deserved far better than this.



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