[Screen It]

(1999) (Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz) (PG)

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Drama/Comedy: Over a span of two hundred years, a robot continues on his quest to become progressively more human while still interacting with the descendants of his original owners.
Itís the year 2005 and the Martin family has just received the latest household appliance, a NorthAm Robotics NDR-114 (ROBIN WILLIAMS), an anthropoidal robot designed for domestic chores. While Richard Martin (SAM NEILL) is excited about the familyís latest gadget, his wife (WENDY CREWSON) and two daughters, Grace (LINDZE LETHERMAN) and Amanda (HALLIE KATE EISENBERG) arenít sure what to think of the "being" that Amanda nicknames "Andrew."

After Andrew details the three laws of robotics -- that a robot canít purposefully or accidentally injure a human, that he must obey all human orders except when they mean certain harm to a human and that the robot must protect itself as long as that doesnít come into conflict with the other laws - Richard decides not to activate the personality function, but instead allow Andrew to proceed as programmed.

Yet the family soon realizes that Andrew is more "human" than they initially imagined and they marvel at his woodworking skills and inquisitive nature. After Robert learns that NorthAm Robotics would like to dissect Andrew to find his "defect," he decides to become the robotís tutor of all things human, ranging from humor to sex.

As time passes, Amanda (EMBETH DAVIDTZ), or "Little Miss" as Andrew still calls her, has grown up and Andrew has started a profitable business building old-fashioned clocks. Despite a fondness for each other, Little Miss marries someone else and Andrew, sensing a need to become completely free, leaves the Martin household, building a home for himself by the sea.

After many more years, Andrew sets out on a journey across the world in hopes of finding another robot like him. His decade long search eventually leads him back to San Francisco where he meets Galatea (KIERSTIEN WARREN), a somewhat flighty robot whoís been reprogrammed by Rupert Burns (OLIVER PLANT) to have something resembling a personality. While Andrew is disappointed to learn that heís basically alone in this world, heís encouraged by Rupertís research that may allow him to physically become more human.

As Andrew reestablishes contact with the Martin family, this time with Little Missí granddaughter, Portia (EMBETH DAVIDTZ), he continues on his quest not only to look more human, but also eventually and officially be declared and accepted as just that by others.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
"Itís alive!" Thatís the desired battle cry of any scientist or inventor whoís sought to create life where none existed before. While the reasons are varied but probably stem either from a God complex or perhaps even a jealousy of women being able to create and then deliver new life, certain men have had a preoccupation with creating life of their own.

Whether it be in the labs trying to create A.I. - artificial intelligence - or in the movies with Dr. Frankenstein bringing new meaning to the practice of recycling, everyday people seem to be fascinated with this concept, those involved with it, and their results.

Notwithstanding the chess-playing prowess of Big Blue, such efforts have obviously been far more successful on the big screen than in real life. There, and dating back to the 1926 film, "Metropolis," the cinema has featured any variety of robots, androids and computers - anthropoidal or not - that exhibited varying degrees of sentience.

While some were malevolent - the home computer system of "Demon Seed," the time-traveling android of "The Terminator" and the most nefarious, silicone-based villain of them all, HAL 9000 of "2001: A Space Odyssey" - others have been decidedly more user friendly such as Robot from the "Lost in Space" TV series and R2D2 and C-3PO from, well, you know. Yet for the multitude of such "beings," I donít recall any who wished to become human - and by that I mean of the true flesh and blood variety with all of the advantages and shortcomings associated with it.

Thatís the interesting premise of "Bicentennial Man," an epic look at the life and times of a robot trying to become human over a span of two hundred years. Based on the short story of the same name by Isaac Asimov as well as the novel, "The Positronic Man" by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, the story, adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Kazan ("Fallen," "Reversal of Fortune") and directed by Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Home Alone"), poses the interesting question of what it means to be human in terms of biology, romance and the law.

While that might sound quite profound - and at times it is - the film never explores those issues to any deep extent. Instead, and for the most part, the whole thrust gets the glossy sheen treatment. Thatís not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that those expecting any sort of great revelations had better leave such expectations out in the parking lot.

Speaking of expectations, upon hearing that the gifted comedian Robin Williams ("Patch Adams," "Good Will Hunting") appears as the robot, one of two thoughts is likely to cross the mind of the average moviegoer.

Some will obviously think that Williamsí presence will insure that the film will be a laugh a minute riot, a sort of post-"Mork and Mindy" showcase where the often zany comic rattles off witty and hilarious observations about humans and being human. Alas, and for better or worse, thatís not the case here. Beyond a few brief moments of Williams letting lose with such material, this is far more of a solemn than hilarious affair.

The other thought, now appearing in the first groupís minds after just hearing that news, is that this is the "touchy-feely" Williams. You know, the type where his characters get that moist, sad-eyed look and something of a quiver in their voice - the type that caused the gag reflex in some after seeing films such as "Patch Adams" and "Jakob the Liar."

Although Iím happy to report that such syrup isnít too thick here and that the filmmakersí emotionally manipulative efforts are mostly held in check, viewers may be surprised and/or disappointed in the filmís more sober approach at telling its story.

None of thatís meant to imply that the film is bad or boring. In fact, itís easy enough to watch despite the slow pace and two hour plus running time, and it unfolds in an intriguing, sci-fi fashion (which shouldnít come as a surprise considering its pedigree).

Interestingly enough, and despite my fondness for Williams as a performer when he has the right material, the film progressively loses some of its steam the more human his character becomes. While the filmmakers - and especially the studio - were reportedly worried that audiences might not like the notion of the expressive comedian being encased in a relatively stoic robotic casing, the moments where Andrew appears more mechanical are far more satisfying and interesting than when he finally looks just like the "regular old" Robin Williams.

That said, Williams gives a solid, if not spectacular performance. Supporting takes by the likes of Sam Neill (Jurassic "Park") and Oliver Platt ("Simon Birch") as the robotís two father figures are decent, while Embeth Davidtz ("Schindlerís List") more than competently pulls double duty as the two women - grandmother and granddaughter - who fall for the robot.

While some may complain that the film is too long for whatís essentially a straightforward story of a robot wanting to become human, in its defense it does take place over two hundred years and jamming that into a span of two hours or so is no easy chore. Of course, as in many movies like this, the moments of jumping ahead in time become more frequent later in the film as if the filmmakers realized they wasted time at the beginning and had to cram in material at the end.

They also seemingly realized that telling and portraying films in the future is no easy task. Beyond a few instances of future cityscapes and flying cars, this isnít "Star Trek" with teleporters and phasers. Instead, Columbus smartly decided to focus more on the human element rather than the technological side of such issues.

The result is a film thatís interesting, fairly entertaining and fortunately avoids much of the schmaltz that could have easily ruined it. While it might not meet the expectations of those whoíve been fooled by the TV ads and trailers suggesting that itís a nonstop laughfest, the film should please those looking for a somewhat sentimental and clearly different sort of story. We give "Bicentennial Man" a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 9, 1999 / Posted December 17, 1999

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