After many requests—from Audre Myers, not lots of different people—I am finally reviewing Bicentennial Man (1999), the film in which Robert Williams plays a robot, Andrew Martin, who wishes to become a human. I picked up this flick on-demand on RedBox for about $4—a small price to pay to make Audre happy (and/or to appease her, depending upon one’s perspective).
When I announced I’d be reviewing this film last Monday, it engendered some controversy in the comments. Regular reader and contributor Pontiac Dreamer 39 (now going by “Always a Kid for Today”) wrote:
Bicentennial man?! Crikey, Tyler, you’re going to need a lot of booze. I like Robin Williams but that film is dross. If you can get through to the end sober, I’ll be impressed. Personally, I’d have made Audre rewatch that film!
Audre predictably came to the film’s defense, citing its relevance in an age in which robots and artificial intelligence are growing increasingly sophisticated. Ponty/AaKfT argued better films on the topic exist, such as Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece RoboCop.
You can read the comment thread for yourself, but after viewing the film (stone cold sober), I am ready to render my judgment on Bicentennial Man.
While Ponty is doubtlessly correct that RoboCop is a better film, it’s like comparing probe droids and protocol droids. RoboCop certainly raises all sorts of ethical questions about the thin line between man and machine (and the thin blue line of law enforcement against crime), but for really tackling that issue head-on—and poignantly—Bicentennial Man wins the day.
I know, I know—that’s probably blasphemous. The film was critically panned in its day, and it is not without its flaws. It is long—two hours and eleven minutes—but not unendurably so.
I first saw Bicentennial Man around the time it came out, as a rental at home with my parents. That means it’s been at least twenty-two or twenty-three years since I’ve last seen it (I was fourteen in 1999 when the film released). Even so, a lot of the scenes stuck out to me.
The story involves multiple generations of the Martin family, a well-off, upper-middle class family that purchases an NDR series robot, Andrew, in 2005 (the screenwriters were awfully optimistic about how quickly robotics would advance). The Martins have two daughters, whom Andrew dubs “Miss” and “Little Miss.” Little Miss asks, “What’s an Andrew,” mispronouncing the word “android,” and thus the robot is named.
(I’ll note here that the other male-looking NDR robots all look like Robin Williams. That’s something I found unintentionally funny.)
Andrew quickly begins displaying signs of human ingenuity and creativity. After accidently breaking Little Miss’s prized glass horse (the kid was handing it to a robot on a rocky beach—what did she think was going to happen?), Andrew crafts a new miniature horse from some driftwood. However, rather than copying the design, he saw the figure of the horse in his head, and, after studying woodworking from books, crafted the horse himself.
This ingenuity astonishes the Martins, who take Andrew for inspection at NorthAm Robotics. When it becomes clear that NorthAm intends to reset Andrew’s positronic brain, the Martins refuse, and instead encourage Andrew in his woodworking.
Andrew makes a sizeable fortune from building clocks, even though robots lack any legal rights (as they are, after all, not human, but property). The Martins generously allow Andrew to keep the money he earns, which he uses to expand his business and, ultimately, to gain facial expressions.
The facial expressions bit is interesting. The CEO at NorthAm says that they tested facial expressions, but decided to scrap the project as they were too uncanny, and might disgruntle those who had lost their jobs due to competition from robot labor. This uncanniness is actually a thing, the so-called “uncanny valley.” When Andrew smiles at Little Miss’s wedding, it really is unsettling, even though it’s meant to be a heartwarming point in the film.
The first real bit of drama in the film comes when Andrew requests his freedom from Richard Martin, the family patriarch. Richard, or “Sir,” responds angrily, telling Andrew he may have his freedom, but he must live with the consequences of it, and leave the Martin house. As Andrew begins to understand feelings in more detail, this kind of irrational anger will be something he will learn go deal with—and to emulate.
Andrew engages on a ten-year quest to find other NDR androids, but realizes they’re all deactivated or reprogrammed—but nothing like him. He stumbles upon Galatea, a female NDR who sashays around obnoxiously to Aretha Franklin songs, but it turns out she just has her personality chip activated (why is beyond me).
It’s never explained why or how Andrew developed humanity—creativity, feelings, independent thoughts, etc. It is implied (and even stated) that he is completely unique, and unlike any other android. We can only assume that somehow he was granted that divine spark and allowed to live—and, ultimately, to die—as a robot, then as a human, after a nearly-complete replacement of his inner workings.
But the process of transitioning Andrew to a human is the result of his chance encounter with Galatea, who is the property of Rupert Burns, the son of the man who developed the NDR line. Burns maintains and resells old NDR androids, and is immediately fascinated by Andrew. The two develop a friendship, and in working to make Andrew more human, invent a number of life-saving biomechanical organs that make Andrew even wealthier, while extending humanity’s lifespan.
Upon returning to the Martin household, Andrew is shocked to discover that Little Miss is very old, and her lookalike granddaughter, Portia, playing the family piano. Earlier in the film, it is very clear that Little Miss—who, remember, had known Andrew since she was a little girl—is in love with him, even though he is a robot (and fully so, at least aesthetically, at the point she marries). Now, despite initial quarreling—and the fact that Andrew is still a robot, just with a fleshy Robin Williams skin—Andrew and Portia fall in love.
This romance is probably the most ethically troublesome element of the film, but it’s also what really makes Andrew “human.” Portia basically teaches him that people (and especially women in love—hoo boy!) are irrational, and often do the wrong thing, which is—somehow?—what is truly right. I wouldn’t read too much into that dubiously unethical advice, but here it makes sense for Andrew, who realizes that to get the girl, he’s gotta play fast and loose with the rules.
He encounters Portia—two weeks shy of her wedding—in the church where Little Miss was wed many years earlier. Portia is leading a restoration crew to restore the church in time for her wedding, and Andrew confronts her with gushy word salad. He asks for one quick kiss, but makes it a long one. Portia—clearly loving making out with a fleshy robot in the sanctuary of a Catholic cathedral surrounded by her co-workers—chides him, saying it was meant to be a short one, and Andrew says, “I lied” before kissing again.
Cut to the next morning, where the forbidden lovers are canoodling in bed, and Andrew farts, much to his surprise. One of Rupert’s upgrades allowed Andrew to make the beast with two backs and actually feel it, though there is no reproductive possibility.
So, now we enter the really murky stuff—Andrew is still legally a droid, but he’s had expensive, extensive surgery to “transition” into something he wasn’t made to be. If this flick were made today, it would clearly be a morality tale for the pro-genital mutilation/transgender crowd: Andrew repeatedly says stuff like, “I want to become what I am on the inside” and such.
Seeing as it was made in 1999, when nobody knew what transgenderism was and it was still illegal to be openly gay in the military, I don’t think that was the intent. It does seem like Hollywood inserting some super-subtle messaging that fits in nicely with the current LGBTQIA2+etc. racket, kind of massaging moviegoers into implicitly accepting this line of reasoning. “Sure, I was born a man, but I want to be a walrus!”
Even if that’s not what was going on, it raises the question: even after robo-banging a woman who is kind of his family member and owner and—ultimately—having a full blood transfusion, guaranteeing his body would wear down, is Andrew really a human? Biologically, by the end of the film, he is—he is aging, and eventually dies. Emotionally, he certainly seems to be—he cares about animals (he saves a spider early in the film, and adopts a dog later), falls in love, and mourns the loss of family members.
But what about spiritually? Here I have no idea. My gut instinct is that he is does not have a soul, as he was built as a machine in a lab, and while he has traded his robotic immortality and parts for frail human organs, he is still spiritually the thing he was at the beginning. That is not the takeaway the filmmakers wanted, I’m sure, but it’s the only conclusion I can draw if I have to draw one.
God is mysterious, though. Perhaps He slipped a soul into Andrew back in the factory. That smacks too much of animism, though, and there’s nothing Biblical to back that up. As such, my conclusion is that Andrew is a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence anomaly that learned to be everything human—early in the film we see him learning how to behave like a human, for example—and who draws inspiration from our art, literature, and the like.
There is one telling scene, though, early in the film, that suggests something of Andrew’s essential humanity, and might work in favor of the pro-soul-for-Andrew crowd: he listens to an aria from an opera, and the music clearly seems to move him.
Regardless, I actually really enjoyed this film, far more than I thought I would. I remembered enjoying it when I was fourteen, but I figured now it would be a boring slog. It is a bit long, but it covers 200 years of Andrew’s life (thus the title). It raises tons of interesting, ethical questions about artificial intelligence and robotics, and explores the complexities of human relationships and societies in a poignant manner.
It also poses some interesting questions about freedom and human dignity, and what it means to be “free.” Andrew is obsessed with the idea of freedom—as we all should be—and yearns for it. It being Black History Month, I can’t escape the obvious parallel between Andrew’s (light) servitude under the first generation of Martins and his request for emancipation and the situation of the freedmen.
The movie seems to lay on the abolitionist overtones thick in the first section of the film. The movie also takes a very optimistic view of the near-future. Some of that tone, I think, comes from the source material: Isaac Asimov’s various robot stories almost always feature a World Congress, or some kind of one-world government, in which the planet is united and facing outwards to the rest of the galaxy. That’s a fairly common trope in mid-twentieth century science fiction writing, and it turns up in the late-twentieth century films that used those stories as source material (the sci-fi of the 1970s, by comparison, is quite bleak and pessimistic).
There are some other scenes that might be subtle Hollywood propaganda. When Andrew first goes to the World Congress to be granted humanity (which will allow him to formalize and legalize his marriage to Portia), it is an old white guy who denies him. Years later, after undergoing the blood transfusion that will ultimately kill him, a black female is President of the World Congress, and she grants Andrew his humanity as he dies.
One other interesting point: at the end of the film, Portia asks Galatea—now a lifelike android like Andrew—to pull the plug on her life support machine. This seems to violate the First Law of Robotics, in which robots cannot do anything that will bring harm to a human. Galatea does it anyway.
Galatea does seem saddened by the deaths of Andrew and Portia, which begs the question: has she started down the same path as Andrew?
Oh, one other violation of the Three Laws of Robotics: early in the film, Miss commands Andrew to jump out of a window, which badly damages him. The Third Law of Robotics says that robots cannot take any action that will result in their damage or destruction. So why did Andrew jump from the window?
Anyway, I need to wrap this review up. It’s a long movie with a lot of interesting ethical questions, most of which the movie kind of glosses over because we all love Robin Williams and want the robot to get the girl.
Bicentennial Man is one of those films released during Robin Williams’s “heartwarming-serious-drama” phase, which it seems every big comedian goes through at some point. There is certainly an element of cloying, feel-good pap to the proceedings, and this movie felt like a feel-good family dramedy from the late 1990s, complete with saccharine string underscoring for added emotional impact (or to manipulate us into loving a robot).
Still, I liked it. Sorry, Ponty. I’ll review RoboCop for you someday to make it up to you.