Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Bicentennial Man" (1999)

Starring Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz and Sam Neill
Written by Nicholas Kazan
Directed by Chris Columbus

To this day, you're pretty much fighting an uphill battle by casting Robin Williams in any role that's not an outright comedy.  The man's a clown, through and through, and he can rarely resist the urges that come with that persona.  It's what keeps him a comedian instead of an actor for much of his filmography.

In 1999, he starred as the robot Andrew Martin in this film adaptation of Isaac Asimov's short story"Bicentennial Man" (and the novel "The Positronic Man").  Andrew begins his life as a robot in 2005, bought and purchased by Richard Martin, whom he calls "Sir" as a servant for the family.  He soon endears himself to both "Sir" and "Little Miss," the Martins' youngest daughter, Amanda.  The elder daughter thinks nothing of Andrew, and even attempts to rid the family of this bizarre creation.  Richard's wife, "Ma'am" is disgusted by Andrew, and easily becomes frustrated by his presence.

Over time, however, Andrew develops deeper relationships with both Sir and Lil' Miss, and even begins to show human traits such as curiosity and creativity.  Richard first notices this when Andrew carves a wooden horse for Lil Miss without copying it from a picture or other source.  He determines that Andrew is unique, and takes him to visit the head of NorthAm Robotics, a Mr. Mansky (Stephen Root).  Mansky realizes the value and the danger of a unique, sentient android, and attempts to purchase Andrew back from Richard, who balks at the idea.  Instead, he encourages Andrew to explore his potential.

Eventually, the family grows older, and Andrew is further integrated into the lives of Sir and Lil Miss.  Soon, he begins his own business making and selling intricate clocks and time pieces.  He amasses a fortune of his own, and is eventually given the freedom to start his own bank account.  He becomes further and further intrigued by the notion of "freedom" and with not only seeming more human but being more human.

More time passes, and eventually Richard dies and Lil Miss has had children and grandchildren.  Andrew begins searching out other androids such as himself, but finds none.  Realizing that he's alone in the world, he begins to fund the research of Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt) in an effort to improve himself and become more human.  He eventually gains a human body, and even the ability to taste and feel.  He soon finds himself in love with Lil Miss' granddaughter, Portia.  When she finally agrees that she loves him back, the two begin a romantic relationship and Andrew pursues his ultimate goal of being declared human.

"Bicentennial Man" is a mediocre sci-fi drama, one whose major themes have been covered better elsewhere.  It's major failing is the fact that even though the film is actually just over two hours, it feels like 200 years.  Too many scenes retread the same material that we've been over earlier in the film.  Andrew's advancement as a person seems to happen in fits and starts and most of it seems rather perfunctory.  His only real emotional development happens when he realizes that he's in love with Portia, which he is only able to recognize after being told that it's the likely scenario by Oliver Platt's character, Rupert.  There rest of it mostly deals with Andrew pursuing recognition of his unique status, like being able to open a bank account or the ability to 'create' something.

It might seem strange, but I have to argue that the same story was told much better and more concisely by the 'Sonny' character played by Alan Tudyk in "I, Robot" with Will Smith.  While that film suffered a bit too much from Smith's personality overpowering his character (something that happens often with Williams in "Bicentennial Man," too) Sonny's development seems far more interesting and emotionally satisfying to watch, and he wasn't even the main character of that film.   A huge part of the difference is that Sonny is intelligent enough to investigate emotions on his own, and the exploration of his dreams are key, as well.

Tudyk's performance as Sonny easily trumps Williams', as well.  At no point did I forget during this film that I'm watching Robin Williams as a robot.  Williams never disappears into his character, and there are too many clownish bits in the performance for me to ever really take his journey all that seriously, either.  Though Andrew sometimes seems to experience emotions, and does so more and more as he becomes more human, he never seems to understand that he is feeling them.  They don't come through in his performance at all, and not just because in his robot form he lacks much of the ability of human expression.  Tone of voice is extremely important, just as much as expression, in a performance, but Andrew's rarely varies.

Beyond just Williams' performance, there's a lack of emotional connection with pretty much everyone in the film, which is a problem I've had with other Chris Columbus films (notably, the first "Harry Potter," which felt like watching an adaptation of a check list of scenes from the book rather than a story). That's the thing that breaks this movie's back, ultimately, even more so than any other issue I might have with it.  The other characters in the Martin family appear and disappear for long stretches of time, and ultimately have no bearing at all on Andrew or even the other family members.  The elder sister, Grace, the one that hates Andrew, is never developed beyond her dislike of Andrew and ultimately is just dropped altogether from the film.

The repetitious nature of the script doesn't help at all, and it feels like we watch Williams going through the same motions again and again.  There are some genuinely charming scenes, and the arc of the story overall is fascinating stuff (otherwise, it wouldn't have been explored so often and so well in sci-fi) but "Bicentennial Man" fails to capitalize on that potential.

In terms of production design, Andrew seems very retro in a world around him designed to look very modern.  He looks very much like someone took an image from the cover of an old printing of Asimov's stories and built it around Robin Williams, while the semi-translucent CG robots of "I, Robot" looked far more in keeping with the world around them.

James Horner's score is an overwrought and overpowering piece of work, using huge cues of swelling strings to overcome the fact that you're not likely to give a damn about any of the drama of the film's characters.  It's like he saw how boring this movie was and decided that it was his duty to try and make up for it.  It doesn't particularly work.

In the end, I can't really recommend "Bicentennial Man" too strongly, if at all.  Its major problem is just that it's fairly boring, but not outright bad in any fashion.  The script is too repetitious, the performances aren't nuanced enough and the score is to overbearing.