: The Bicentennial Man
As a fan of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories since I was a child, I really, really wanted to like this film, despite the negative press. Sadly, the critics were correct: this is a terrible movie. The story is simple and wonderful (I had to read it in my college literature class): a unique robot spends his life attempting to become more and more human, with his ultimate quest being that he can officially be considered a man. He does this, in the end, on his 200th birthday, by allowing himself to become mortal, the ultimate human characteristic.
The early robot portions of the film, while terrific examples of Hollywood special effects, are corny, badly written and acted, and filled with inappropriate humor (such as the robot learning about the “birds and the bees,” how to swear, and how to tell dirty jokes). It’s awkward and lame. Once Robin Williams (the robot) becomes more human-like, the film is better, with the occasional touching moment. But during the whole film you feel manipulated; it’s very obvious where you’re supposed to be sad, sympathetic, or happy. Gone is all the surprise and gentle touches of the original Asimov story. Let me give you one example. In the original short story, the family likes the robot from the start (though they initially don’t see it as human). In one scene, the little girl give the robot a piece of wood and orders him to carve her an ornament. He’s never done such a thing, but he’s governed by the Three Laws of Robotics and thus must obey any human order. The object is beautiful, and shows imagination. His owner is amazed — it seems their robot is creative, an artist! In the movie, however, the family distrusts the robot. This creates an awkward, uncomfortable tone for the first part of the movie. The little girl (terribly acted by the “Pepsi girl” from all those dumb TV commericals) has a crystal horse which the robot accidentally breaks, and so she tells him she hates him (very unconvincingly, I might add). The robot then carves her a replacement horse, and then she loves him. (There’s a “poignant” scene later in the film, when the little girl is a dying old woman, and we see she’s clutching the ancient wooden horse in death. Oh dear. Start up the heart-stirring music, please.) The differences between the two versions are subtle, but significant. One shows us the Robotic Laws in action, cleverly implying that the girl is, in a sense, responsible for kickstarting the robot’s creativity. (She essentially ordered him to be creative, so he was.) In the other, we have bratty kids and a clumsy robot, and shameless, obvious manipulation of emotion. It’s stupid and melodramatic, and as a result we actually feel less emotion with the second version than the first (unless we count revulsion to all the saccharine).
The film got better in the final third. The romance angle, not in the original story, was not bad, though it could have used another scene or two for more depth. The courtroom scenes where the robot fights for freedom and humanity, were okay, but could have been more powerful, like they were in the short story. For instance, in one scene in the short story, the robot explains his desire for freedom like this: “I should think any creature capable of understanding the concept of freedom and desiring freedom, is capable of being free.” In the movie, his quest for freedom is incomprehensible. In another sequence, the legal manipulations to get the court to declare him a human being take decades. One clever part of the process is his law firm takes a lawsuit all the way to the World Court, declaring that a human with an artificial heart should not have to pay debts because he’s not human any more. Of course they lose, which is exactly what they want: they want a precedent that shows that non-human organs do not make a human non-human (thus the robot, which has some non-human organs, is not necessarily not human on those grounds). This stuff is a little complicated, but intelligent and realistic: the film dumbs this all down to single “climactic” courtroom scenes and the story suffers.
But the final straw that totally ruined the film was the ending. My jaw dropped in disbelief at this one. The fundamental part of all Asimov’s robot stories is the Three Laws of Robotics. The First Law is that a robot may not harm a human being (or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm). The Second Law is that a robot must always obey a human, unless it conflicts with the first law. The Third Law is one of self-preservation (as long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two laws). These laws are critically important, for they govern all robotic behavior. There’s even a science called robopsychology which deals with psychological aspects of these laws upon robots. (For instance, would a robot allow you to smoke a cigarette? What about letting you eat a potato chip?) So what do they do in this film? They explain the Three Laws at the start of the film, then never use them. Dumb. But the dumbest? At the very end of the film, when the Bicentennial Man dies, his ancient wife asks the nurse to “unplug” her, which the nurse does. Then it is revealed that the “nurse” is a robot! Yeah, right! No way a robot would be able to take a human off of life support! Impossible. A colossal mistake, even for Hollywood. Disgusting, revolting, and the ruin of a classic science fiction story. I wish this film had never been made, so it could have been done right at some point, by someone who loves and understands Asimov’s robots, not some Disneyesque 1950’s-style vision of what robots might be in the 21st century.