Based on a novella (and a novel) by sci-fi maestro Isaac Asimov, Bicentennial Man had one wacky premise to work with and it sure rolled with it: a robot butler living for 200 years and, in that time, becoming a living, breathing human being.
Robin Williams stars as Andrew, the candid android bought by Sam Neill's family and, for a good portion of the film, he is in full robot attire looking like an old-fashioned automaton you'd see in a comic strip from the 50's. And, as odd as that sounds, seeing as the film is set in the not-so-distant future of 2005, that adds some retro charm to the film. Since Bicentennial Man, of course, spans a heck of a lot of years, the movie approaches Andrew's story a little like Forrest Gump as we skip through the years, occasionally checking in on what the android is up to. The character is pretty naive throughout, even if he does grow gradually and, by the end of the movie you do feel like he's been through a lot. That said, the film still feels like a missed opportunity: here we are following this android's life for 200 years and he doesn't seem to do anything particularly significant besides being constantly upgraded. We know he travels all over the world for a while but once he meets Oliver Platt's entertaining scientist, he just kinda hangs around for a century. At least Mr Gump made the most of every decade meeting everyone from Elvis Presley to JFK!
Andrew's mostly just concerned about himself and/or getting laid, a plot which would have made a fun goofball comedy but, tonally, this movie's all over the place.
It's just so darned earnest.
The first half hour of the film is more obviously kid-friendly with Andrew learning how to make tiny horses out of wood, falling out of windows, teaching Sam Neill's family the 3 laws of robotics really loudly and many such shenanigans. Then the idea that Andrew is essentially a slave is brought up and the film switches to something a little more serious as Andrew leaves his home to travel the world and find others like him. The tone switches again completely when we meet Platt and his annoying lady bot who plays music out of her groin and talks non-stop. Suddenly we're in a cartoon not unlike The Jetsons and it's like watching a completely different movie. Andrew works with Platt in order to enhance his capabilities and gradually help make him be more human. It's all quite light-hearted except every so often a character dies of old age (that's all anyone dies of in this movie) and the tone gets sentimental/cheesy again.
The romance at the heart of it all feels forced, unlikely and tacked-on, which is a problem since it's basically what this entire film focuses on. That Andrew's only goal/obsession is to have an orgasm with Embeth Davidtz's character (I shit you not) is not only a bit creepy since he knew her mum (who looks exactly the same) since she was a little kid but corny as hell. Why couldn't we have focused on how Andrew's research and scientific breakthroughs have changed the world, or maybe the changing role of robots in society? Or something like that? This all, somehow, barely gets a mention in the entire film, which is over two hours long, by the way. Also, the film suggests a villain early on but forgets about him 20 minutes in which is a real shame since a bad guy could have added some much needed conflict to the movie. Perhaps a robot who looks the same but has a completely different outlook on life?
Just a thought.
On paper, I could see this movie seeming genuinely heartfelt, even moving. Bicentennial Man certainly means well, which is why it's hard to hate it, especially with Robin Williams being so likeable in it. Visually, the film looks great and you just wish that it would have shown us more of and done more with this gorgeous futuristic world. Another big issue with the movie is the fact that, with characters ageing so fast, you spend a lot of time looking at young-ish people in old age make-up, which is rarely, if ever, convincing. Add to that the fact that 20 year-olds are played by 40 year-olds and that the timeline is all over the place (it's never clear when we are) and you've got yourself a tonally and structurally confusing flick. The ending is especially a bit of a let down as we get another Jack-style speech followed by a frankly depressing last minute which should make every kid watching cry, and not in a good way.
Overall, while Williams brings enough charm to the proceedings to keep us watching, the film itself is a mostly over-sentimental mishit with the odd surprisingly dark or adult moment which doesn't quite fit in with the rest. The yo-yo-ing tone suggesting a conflict of ideas from the filmmakers who maybe didn't know how best to approach Asimov's robo-fable.
An uneven if well-meaning and visually pleasant effort.
Try A.I.: Artificial Intelligence instead.