Bad movies always write their own epitaphs: "The Bicentennial Man's" is "I'm not trying be funny," a line uttered with fitting solemnity by Robin Williams in this tale of a nouveau Tin Man. In lieu of humor, the former funnyman brings lots and lots of artificial heart to the insipid saga of a robotic butler's 200-year quest to become a full-fledged human being. Too bad the story holds no interesting complications.
Drama, as Aristotle said all those years ago, is conflict. And it still is, no matter how advanced or primitive the storyteller's technology. Director Chris Columbus and writer Nicholas Kazan smother Williams's frenzied physical comedy by encasing him in a clunky, clanky cyber-suit. Though he gradually builds himself a face and body, he's stuck in there for much of this poky, platitudinous tale.
Based on a 1976 short story by Isaac Asimov, the film takes place in the new millennium, but the science that Asimov wrote about is no longer fiction (see recent stories on RoboDog) and as the movie begins, we have arrived in the 21st century with the savvy to clone sheep, cows and inevitably ourselves (but will we still be human?).
The filmmakers do provide believable futuristic views of San Francisco as it might evolve over the next two centuries. They bring less invention to the subject matter or the look of the protagonist, who has the boxy, alien appearance of Klaatu in 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a better, albeit kitschier, film by far.
Andrew (Williams), a robot domestic right off the assembly line, is primarily concerned with the issues that preoccupied Data, the cerebral 'droid of the far superior "Star Trek: The Next Generation": When does an artificial being become an actual life form? What's it like to kiss, to cry, to taste an orange? Such questions have also been more profoundly addressed by the angels of Wim Wenders's "Wings of Desire," the replicants of "Blade Runner" and even the puppet of "Pinocchio."
The first half of the movie involves Andrew's early evolution from machine to sentient entity. Programmed as a nanny, cook, gardener and butler, Andrew is acquired by the upscale Martin family, headed by an erudite fellow whom Andrew addresses as Sir (Sam Neill). Though one of Sir's two daughters hates Andrew and in one of the film's few funny moments orders him to jump out the window, Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz), her sister, becomes the robot's lifelong friend and confidant.
When Andrew begins to experience emotion and demonstrate artistic talents, Sir realizes that he is no ordinary servo-mechanism and encourages him to express himself. Andrew specializes in sculpting elegant clocks, so many that the Martins, driven mad by the ticktockery, suggest he start selling them. In time, he saves up a small fortune and asks to buy his freedom.
At this point, he sets out on a search for others of his kind and finally forms a platonic friendship with Galatea (Kiersten Warren), a chirpy fembot owned by Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt). Rupert, a genius in the field of robotics, agrees to play Doc Frankenstein, and over a number of years he works at turning Andrew into a man.
By the time Andrew reconnects with Little Miss, she has become the grandmother to Portia (Davidtz again), with whom Andrew, now mostly manlike, becomes smitten. Portia is also taken with Andrew, and their romance propels the film's final stretch, which explores what would be the down side of immortality--essentially the same as those confronted by the longer-lived among us. All your friends die and you're left behind making clocks.
It's a topic worth exploring with depth and compassion. Alas, the filmmakers, while imagining themselves profound, attack the subject as they might an advertisement for Depends. They also take a bold stance in favor of freedom over servitude, as well as the sanctity of life, even if the life form is a tin can. And they're really really up with people.
Two, four, six, eight--Homo sapiens is great.
The Bicentennial Man (131 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for language.