Sun, 23 Apr 2000

'Bicentennial Man': This tin man not happy with just a heart

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): Robin Williams is just like the Energizer bunny: in many of his movies he keeps going and going and going, with all his hyperactive shenanigans and jazzed-up vitality, even in movies where we cannot even see his face, such as Aladdin.

That is why Williams is at his most admirable when he can keep it quiet. In Good Will Hunting, for instance, he plays a mild- mannered, soft-spoken psychologist, a rare turn for him, which eventually won him an Academy Award.

In Bicentennial Man, once again he demonstrates his power of restraint, playing a robot for whom the tiniest facial expression is a major mark of liveliness.

The film begins in 2005, where Williams' NDR-114 robot is delivered to the home of the Martin family. Nicknamed Andrew, the robot quickly becomes an inseparable part of the Martin household, relieving Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Sam Neill and Wendy Crewson) from their household chores and providing companionship to the couple's two daughters, whom he addresses as Miss (Lindze Letherman) and Little Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg).

But the Martins soon find out that their latest "piece of property" is not just an ordinarily mindless, constantly serving robot. Following an incident where the mischievous Miss makes the obedient Andrew injure himself, Mr. Martin, whom Andrew calls "Sir," declares that from that moment on they will all treat Andrew as a person.

This only leads to revelations that there is more to Andrew than just wires and pieces of metal. After he accidentally destroys one of Little Miss' most treasured collection, a glass- carved animal, he shows remorse by creating a wood-based substitute, which he is able to make just by learning from books. His newly found talent surprises everyone, and Andrew continues to amaze them by making more handiwork: carving out countless clocks that soon fill up the Martins' living room.

Andrew is actually just beginning his lessons about the human race, lessons that span two hundred years -- hence the film's title -- in which he lives with three generations of the Martin family and in which he gets the opportunity to experience happiness, anger, grief, loss and love. And these experiences inevitably lead him to go on a quest to become a human being himself.

Bicentennial Man was adapted from the work of the legendary science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote the story as part of a science-fiction anthology intended for a 1975 release to commemorate the American bicentennial. Asimov had written the book I, Robot in 1950, so it is apparent that the author was fascinated by the use of robots to reveal his observations on humanity.

Screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, who received an Oscar nomination for his 1990 screenplay of Reversal of Fortune, adapted Asimov's story for the film, keeping the late writer's analogy of slavery (punctuated by the scene where Andrew finally buys his freedom from Sir) and the bittersweet romances Andrew enjoys with the adult Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz), and later, with Little Miss' grown-up granddaughter, Portia (also played by Davidtz). With all the story's potential, this film should have been a deep, profound one.

So why is it that the only remarkable aspect of this movie is the Academy Award-nominated robotic makeup and old-age effects makeup crafted by Greg Cannom (already an Oscar winner for his work in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mrs. Doubtfire) and his colleagues?

Bicentennial Man's weakness is due to director Chris Columbus' failure to grasp the film's dramatic capacity. Here is a director famous for his hyperactive family comedies such as Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Five Months and Mrs. Doubtfire, a reputation that makes him a perfect match to Williams, whom he has actually worked with three times now.

With the 1998 film Stepmom, however, Columbus shows his desire to be taken more seriously, to be regarded as a grown-up filmmaker capable of making more meaningful dramas. But Stepmom turned out to be a joyless, insignificant film, and now Bicentennial Man turns out to be not so much different.

Andrew's odyssey to become a human being becomes a dull, uninteresting tale in Columbus' overlong series of flat, unimaginative scenes. Not once does he evoke a sense of importance in Andrew's mission, and so we can never relate to his yearning. All we know is that once he meets a genius robotics engineer (Oliver Platt) who is capable of reconstructing and upgrading him to have more human physique, this tin man just does not know how to stop. First he wants a human face, next he wants a heart, then he wants the whole blood circulation, and he just keeps going and going and going. And the movie creeps through a running time that does feel like two hundred years.