RIORI Vol 3, Installment 43: Chris Columbus’ “Bicentennial Man” (2000)

Bicentennial Man

The Players…

Robin Williams, Sam Neill, Embeth Davitz and Oliver Platt, with Wendy Crewson and Stephen Root.

The Story…

It takes a lifetime to grow up. The world is cluttered with social mores, cultural differences and how to manage your emotions. There’s a lot to learn, well beyond the lifespan of your average human.

But what about being not an average human? Heck, what about not being human at all? If your timeline was infinite, could you eventually become self-actualized?

Andrew’s curious enough to give it a try.

The Rant…

That whole “self-actulization” thing above is a popular psych term about trying to reach one’s full potential. The term was coined by one Kurt Goldstein, an organismic theorist (I have no clue what that is either) describing self-actualization as either/or expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society. Mother Teresa territory, that. In this day and age of rampant narcissism, damaging senses of entitilement and folks unable to put down the goddam smartphones, such an ideal is lost—or at least ignored—by most sentient creatures.

But wait! Help is on the way (if you read)!

In many bilious rants here I’ve screamed about how tech has been dehumanizing us as a culture. I’m not a Luddite though. Far from. I can’t leave my home without my iPhone, even if it’s out to check on the lawn (it’s still there. Google Maps located it). First thing in morning I scan the NOAA website for the next few day’s angry, unforgiving climate. I have every console Nintendo ever made, even the NX which drops next year (I have connections, meaning a running truck on the corner. Ask for “Slinky”). When technology is used wisely and in the proper hands, we’ve walked away with precision surgical robots, soldier-saving scout drones and Pandora. When misused…well, ask the residents of Hiroshima what’s up.

Seems to me the only folks who were truly sharp about the use and misuse of tech kept the actual gear at an arm’s length. I’m not talking rocket scientists. I’m talking science fiction writers. Old school guys like Clarke, Niven, Ellison, Dick and Asimov to name a few. They had their proverbial fingers all over cautionary tales of science run amok and how it could impact an unwitting humanity (“I’m sorry, Dave…”).

Asimov looms large over this select group of leftist, humanitarian scribes. His classic Robot trilogy is still the first and last word about the use and abuse of artificial people. Androids serving the whims of an often lazy human society and what might happen if yadda yadda yadda change the channel.

Asimov’s works have been translated to cinema once or twice. I skewered I, Robot here, ostensibly based on the books of the vaunted S/F writer. Big surprise the film didn’t really do the man’s ideas justice. His meditations on what it is to be human and what may happen when we give it away is still the gold standard on this philosophy, like I said. Instead we got a miscast Will Smith and low-light distillation under the microscope, all mashed up in the Hollywood Cuisinart.

Not that I wasn’t totally let down by Robot. It had some sharp action sequences up against a few sops to Asimov fans. Which in turn muddled movie proper. But enough about that. Instead, let’s just focus for a few microns on Asimov’s muse. Namely, his substituting robots as metaphor for the human condition. It’s often a lot easier—if not sacrosanct—to analyze humanity displaced with aliens, AI and/or androids. It’s like pointing out the naked emperor the other way around. Deconstructing the pettiness and frailties of humanity in mechanical avatars goes down a bit easier than a witch trial. Or an all-you-can-eat night at Old Country Buffet, right? Who’s with me?

*earbuds being jammed into skulls*

So you don’t care for the cornbread stuffing. Whatevs. Still, it’s a lot more fun and chewy to ask what it is to be human without actually being human. Think about that. If you were an android, you’d never have to concern yourself with eating, sleeping, your sh*tty job, taxes, the crabs, getting sick, growing old and shuffling off this mortal coil. Imagine the possibilities! With that titanium frame and all the time in the galaxy, you could explore the moons of Pluto, dismantle the AIDS virus, out-Proust Proust with the ultimate novel or even unravel the machinations of how time travel may work. Hell, even figure out what the f*ck the inside of a Hot Pocket is really made of (my guess is potting soil and week old semen. Don’t ask).

But really, under Asimov’s philosophies as an android, what could you do with all that freedom and all that time? Your human condition in an undying avatar wandering the world. The years. The decades. What would you do?

Remember that thing about self-actualization? What if not having a self at the outset would be the greatest advantage? Pure tabula rasa. What if time was not an object?

The centuries await…

Richard Mark (Neill) figures his well-to-do family needs to keep up with the Jones’. He solicits NA Robotics for his very own android valet. You know, to perform the domestic tedium to free up his wife and kids’ time to pursue other interests via tasking Andrew (Williams) to do android things.

That’s its name. Andrew. Andrew the android. Cute, right?

At first Andrew is simply positronic hired help. But Mark notices over time that Andrew starts to affect human tendencies, like developing an affinity for music, taking up woodcarving and stranger still an almost paternal affection for Mark’s children. Rather than being disturbed by Andrew’s very un-android behavior, Mark encourages it. Soon Andrew becomes less of an automaton and more of a family member. In such a liberal environment, the possibilities intrigue Mark. He explains to Andrew that given enough time—which indeed Andrew has, thanks to design—he could quite possibly achieve the ultimate dream of all people on the planet: true self-actualization.

This understandably intrigues Andrew in return. So he sets about on his quest towards humanity.

It first involves some clock making…

Let me get this out the way first. Despite my cynical, snarky demeanor, I’m quite the sentimental softie at heart. And yes I have one, you pricks. I hate seeing people hurt and in pain. I’m truly upset about the proliferation of plastic trash clogging our oceans to go so far as to try and recycle everything, including Saran Wrap (it’s a losing battle, what with all of those bodies to dispose of. So I’ve heard. Hey). The current Syrian refugee crisis pisses me off, and the local story about some inner city kid finding salvation in his cello playing simultaneously warms and amps me.

I’ve even cried over a few movies, too. Quit snuffling your nose; you’ve done it, too. Admit it. I am. Here’s a short list and why (and I’m going to forgo my usual REDACTED gimmick. In other words, spoilers ahead): the final act of my favorite film, The Fisher King, when two-plus hours of comic tragedy ends with bittersweet romantic triumph (one of the few Terry Gilliam movies to actually have a happy ending). The scene in Jerry Maguire (shut it) when Cuba’s character recovers from his near debilitating injury to finally figure out what’s what. All of Grave Of The Fireflies made me willingly lose hope.

I can now say that Bicentennial Man tops the list. It’s a good thing and I have no shame. So f*ck you.

But before we reach for the Kleenex, we better take apart how I got to such a lowly, squishy state.

Chris Columbus always struck me as a very methodical director. Journeyman, to be sure, but just because you get the megaphone slapped into your paw doesn’t mean you’re a capable director with a certain sense of, well, direction. Hell, the dude who helmed the biggest comedy ever (Home Alone. Really) as well as the most winning movie series to date (the Harry Potter films. Remember them?) knows a few tricks. Tell the folks in Tinsel Town. Here, this is your folding chair, sit. This is a slate. Clack. Now make us some money. People love those Henry Porter flicks. Get to work, bitch.

Not fair. Not every director is designed to shoot Oscar fodder. With Columbus it’s a good thing. Lacking industry mooring (at least as far as moneychanging name rec goes), the man’s work can slip under the radar, make solid films and have folks walk away satisified wondering not who made the film, but when the next one will drop.

Colombus’ whimsical style suited Bicentennial Man to a T with a capital T. I’ll admit it. I was skeptical at first. The whole I, Robot thing still had a bad taste in my ass, and the prospect of watching Williams as a cute robot mince through the decades with his signature manic delivery didn’t smell too good either. But this was a Columbus movie, and even with all the histrionics that fantasy and a screaming pre-pube Macaulay Culkin can prove, the guy has a steady hand. Granted its a hand clutching a Snickers bar, but sweetness can be potent with the right pancreas.

At its core, Man is a meditation on the nature of humanity. Kinda heady stuff for a family film, which is what Man ostensibly is. Mostly it’s a story of self-discovery, one of the oldest plot devices in Christendom. It’s the tale that’s launched innumerable directorial careers. Hey, when you think about it, it’s launched all directorial careers. So even though Columbus is an established workaday director, legacy secured, résumé solid, why tackle such an old warhorse?

Because has that soild, semi-Disney flair. Some may call his deal sappy. Others slick. But in the endgame, a good delivery is a good delivery, especially when the director has a unique toolbox to draw ideas from. With Man Columbus demonstrates his skill. Here, take my hand. I’ll show you a world of pure imagination.

Too much? Shut up. I told you about the Jerry Maguire thing. Go with it.

Of course Man is a character study. It’s nothing but. It’s essential. Hey, we’re following the lifespan of a near immortal android here. Chances are we got a lot of time on our hands here following the exploits of our vanadium friend. It’s a good thing that our avatar is the late, great Robin Williams. Whether it was Williams’ ongoing efforts to stretch out and distance himself from Mrs Doubtfire territory (also directed by Columbus, oddly enough), or Columbus’ hand both reigning him in and harnessing his skills, it was tough imagining anyone else besides WIlliams playing Andrew.

When he wasn’t employing his trademark zany, unhinged, I-need-Limictal act Williams could be a thoughtful funnyman as well as actor. The man could be very good at channelling the child within as with his roles in HookJack and The World According To Garp (one out of three ain’t bad here). Who better to play an adult child, albeit made of circuits? And Andrew is a child, believe me. Over the course of Man we watch him grow, mature and evolve from automated whatsit to fully-formed individual. If it wasn’t for Williams’ honest and endearing delivery, Man would’ve gone sh*te over shovel before the opening credits finished.

Back to Williams’ comic style as it pertained to Man. Knowing the man’s usual act, Columbus spinning it reverse made a whole new funny. Andrew’s reactive nature is in stark contrast to Williams’ usual histrionics. For once he’s not mugging the camera, bouncing around the set and bursting into impressions. No. We’re watching Andrew, not Williams here. Andrew is passive, sometimes a student, sometimes an object of ridicule. He’s a robot. He takes orders, not give them. He’s restrained, as was Williams’ winning performance. Being the brunt of humor isn’t something I’ve ever recalled in one of Williams’ roles. He’s proactive, but his Andrew certainly ain’t. It was refreshing, and nary a scream was belted.

Columbus was shrewd with his pile of parts as far as coaxing the required earnestness and innocence as any Pygmalion should be. Bits and pieces are carefully dropped along Andrew’s journey in regards to his developing “humanity.” It’s the softest sell of the philosophy of identity I’ve ever seen. It’s a good thing. Man‘s quietly engaging in no small part to Williams. Can’t stress this enough. Hell, even Williams’ voice suits Andrew well.

I’ll quit gushing. In all honesty, Man followed the same template as Forrest Gump. One could even get the impression that Columbus had a case of Zemekis envy going on here. Yes, Columbus’ work can be sweet-natured, but sometimes there’s an overspill of schmaltz. A lot of on the nose imagery. I mean, the clock thing wasn’t real subtle there. Neither was the cross generational joys of implied incest (I call ’em like I see ’em, folks. Not sorry). Sure, this is a voyage of discovery, right? As engaging as Man wasit had a tendency to wander. Probably hard to avoid covering a timeline of two centuries. Still, as absorbing as Man was, in excess of two hours I did drift. There was a lot of proverbial ground to cover, and some fat should’ve been trimmed. We didn’t need to know in depth the technical aspects—literally—of Andrew’s evolution. And the whole familial generations intertwining sometimes got confusing.  That and we delved—nay, plummeted—into forced social commentary in act three. These carps are minor, but glaring.

I’m compelled to give a few small shout-outs to the supporting cast. Hey, it was Williams’ show all the way, but a lead is only as good as whom they have to bounce off of. For instance, Sam Neill is not a great actor, but he’s always solid and enjoyable. He exudes just enough confidence here as a kind patriarch and a man of principle, as well as being left-thinking enough to know an opportunity when he sees one. Based against his Mark’s reticence, it’s really quite remarkable that he’s Andrew’s biggest advocate in letting the android discover his own humanity. This from a guy who learned his lesson about advocating evolution through science after nearly getting chewed to death by velociraptors. You learn, you grow.

I really liked the angular chemistry between Oliver Platt and Williams. This might’ve been the first time in my viewing practices that an ancillary character arrives so late on the scene and yet felt so necessary as well as there all along. Platt’s Rupert had a nifty combo of anxiety, wonder and drive that mirrored Andrew’s mission, but with a healthy dose of deadpan humor. Deadpan is not something Williams did well. Off and on, but not consistently over his wildly eclectic film career. Deadpan Platt works wonders with this stuff, as he did here. Self-deprication paired with the manic fervor of Q (Desmond, not DeLancie) made his Rupert fun. Brittle fun, mind you, but fun nonetheless.

I think that’s all. Covered what was necessary for this journey. Watching Man was emotionally exhausting, but overall worth it. I’ll take any emotional investment created by a movie over your best star power, F/X or gratuitous baring of firm breasts (one out of three ain’t bad). I’m a pretty cynical bitch, but show me a film like this and I will tear up as Johnny Rotten would after hearing Terry Callier’s latest album. Namely, let any pre-conceived expectations go.

Man‘s a sweet film, but hey, it’s a Columbus movie. So shake a hand.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Hope you like cotton candy. You’ll be swimming in it. My d*ck has the cavities to prove it. Enjoy the visual and get that sh*t checked.

Stray Observations…

  • I loved the fact that Andrew affected the same gait throughout his transformation. Once a ‘bot always a ‘bot.
  • “Chickens do not have lips.” Old gag. Still funny.
  • Root’s best acting I’ve ever seen, and I tend to get out much.
  • “You too?”
  • In a CGI world, there’s something to be said for good animatronics, prosthetics and make-up.
  • “You can’t invest your emotions in a machine.” Hear that? Now drop your iPhones.
  • “One is still all thumbs.” Confucius left out that one.
  • “I don’t have a mucus gland.” Useful during allergy season if you think about it.
  • I know that beach. I’ve been there.
  • “Did he not breast feed?”
  • Has Bradley Whitford ever aged? Or not play a schmuck?
  • “Shut her off or I will.”
  • I appreciated the practical touches here to the future cityscapes.
  • “It’s huge…but lovely.”
  • I couldn’t help but feel a taste of incest in Andrew’s quest for humanity.
  • “I’m done.”

Next Installment…

Say it with me, folks: “I’ve had it with these mother f*cking Snakes On [A] mother f*cking Plane!”

Forgive the brackets.

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