Bicentennial Man Movie Review

Warning: This is not going to be an unbiased movie review. I think you should know right now that I've had it up to my eyeballs with Robin Williams' superficial brand of sentimentality.

For the last several years he's been making mostly movies like "Jack," "Patch Adams" and "Jakob the Liar," in which he does a little contractually obligated schtick then bat his eyes madly, trying his darndest to make us cry.

"Bicentennial Man" is more of the same, the only significant difference being in this picture his eyelids make a motorized hum every time he bats, because in "Bicentennial Man" Williams plays a robot. A robot who wants to be human.

Director Chris Columbus ("Stepmom," "Jingle All the Way," "Mrs. Doubtfire") Hallmark-cards his way through territory readily familiar to anyone who has heard of Pinocchio, the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz" or Commander Data from "Star Trek," in this mawkish, cliche-riddled story -- a sugar-coated adaptation of Isaac Asimov's "The Positronic Man."

Williams begins the film as a domestic droid in a retro-futuristic body of ABS plastic, brought home to a suburban San Francisco family in a generically utopian 2005 by Sam Neill, playing what amounts to Ward Cleaver with an electric car.

Christened Andrew by his owners, he spends the first several reels doing all the expected cutesy robotic things: Spouting cybernetic rules about never harming humans, malfunctioning and walking into walls for laughs, referring to himself in the third person, bonding with the youngest daughter (Hallie Kate Eisenberg from the Pepsi commercials) who he calls Little Miss, and demonstrating an incredible lack of basic programming. Apparently there wasn't enough room on Andrew's hard drive for simple colloquialisms ("Run amuck? One is not qualified to run mucks.") or the elementary basics of human biology (Neill has to talk Andrew through the birds and the bees). Andrew is Mork from Ork on Ritalin.

Because "Bicentennial Man" covers 200 years, Columbus is forced to be even more simplistic than usual (a 2-year-old in a coma could follow this plot) and can't stick around long enough to give any moment of the film genuine life. So after establishing Andrew's unprogrammed creative streak (he likes opera and he can whittle driftwood into coo-coo clocks), the director kicks into fast-forward, pausing for a few scenes every couple decades of Andrew's existence.

In the first stop, we see Little Miss has become a refined woman in her mid-20s (Embeth Davidtz, "Mansfield Park," "Fallen"), while her older sister has inexplicably remained a rebellious teenager who dates guys on motorcycles in order to irk her parents.

With the kids grown, a lonely Andrew sets out "to find others like myself," spending a few dozen years meandering the Earth (now abuzz with flying cars and brushed aluminum decor) hoping to find a girl-bot who has broken her programming too. In the process he hooks up with the picture's resident mad scientist/computer geek (the wonderfully droll Oliver Platt, who is wasted here), an android hobbyist who molds Andrew a faux epidermis in the form of Robin Williams.

Happier in his new, expression-ready skin, he returns to the family home, wishes he could cry during Neill's death scene, and becomes smitten with Little Miss' now adult daughter (also played by Davidtz), leading to a weirdly uncomfortable romance.

The rest of the movie is a bunch of shallow hooey about individuality, spirituality, freedom and discrimination, as Andrew becomes more human and wants to be recognized as such by a world government full of officials dressed like "Battlestar Galactica" extras. (Why they'd care exactly is not something Columbus is prepared to address.)

To be fair, "Bicentennial Man" isn't completely insufferable. If it weren't a seat-squirming 131 minutes, it could even be seen as a passable holiday family flick by folks who aren't fed up with Williams' tears-of-a-clown routine.

But really what we have here is a '90s, big-budget version of the kind of under-cooked kiddie flicks Disney cranked out on an assembly line 35 years ago, no more intelligent, engaging or sophisticated than, say, "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes," that 1969 cheapy with a teenage Kurt Russell as a dim-witted high schooler who fitted with a Silicon Valley mind.

Comments

Bicentennial Man Rating

" Terrible "

Rating: PG, Opened: Friday, December 17, 1999

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