Robin Williams puts heart in a metal man
Reviewed by Carlos deVillalvilla
(Click on the images to see larger version and credits.)
One of the most wonderful things about Isaac Asimov's robotics stories is that while cloaked in science-fiction terms, what he was really writing about was the nature of humanity. Then again, all the great science-fiction writers always did.
"Bicentennial Man" opens in 2005 when the Martin family, led by proud daddy Richard (the always-solid Sam Neill) uncrate their first domestic robot. Their youngest daughter (Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the Pepsi moppet) inadvertently names the automaton when she mispronounces "android." Andrew's (Robin Williams) arrival is greeted with suspicion and even outright hostility, in the form of the eldest daughter (Lindze Letherman), but he gradually works his way into the family's heart.
After the eldest's attempt to do away with Andrew, Richard informs his family that henceforth they will treat Andrew as a person, and his compassion leads to a miracle of sorts: Andrew begins to develop his own personality, one of gentle curiosity, quiet humor and yes, even love.
Andrew chooses to explore the man in the machine, and his journey takes him 200 years (hence the movie's title) into the future, and through several generations of the Martin family.
Not unlike a latter-day Pinocchio, the search is not without pain and joy, but in the end it is a very human tale. Williams is more restrained than usual, but magnificent as always - what inspired casting! Of all the actors in Hollywood, Williams wears his humanity most expressively on his face. Although he spends much of the movie wearing what must have been an uncomfortable suit and make-up, his performance is greatly nuanced. It would surprise me if Williams gets an Oscar nod given the Academy's feelings about science-fiction in general, but one is richly deserved here.
There is much to laugh at here as Andrew looks at the world not unlike a newborn baby with his acquired feelings and sensations. He makes mistakes and sometimes misunderstands cliches (a cliche about mechanical men in the movies in itself) but there is also much to cry about as well. Da Queen rated this a four-hankie sniffer, high praise from my wife indeed, who loves nothing more than a good sob in her popcorn.
Neill and Embeth Davidtz give solid performances, and Oliver Platt shines as an eccentric roboticist, but Williams is absolutely spectacular here. Director Chris Columbus also has a fine visual flair as he displays the future in breathtaking cityscapes that are not so farfetched, combining the familiar with the fantastic, and placing the characters in homes that look authentic.
"Bicentennial Man" is, at heart, a humanist fable, one which appeals to the heart and to the eyes. It asks a tough question - What does it mean to be human? - and the answers are not simple. Because the robots in the story do not exist yet, some might complain that this is a moot point for now, but it is only when we explore ourselves and ask questions like those asked by "Bicentennial Man" that the real beginning of wisdom manifests itself.
Recommended very, very highly.