Monday, May 16, 2011

Neglected Perfection: How Bicentennial Man Was Overlooked By Audiences (Who, Hopefully, Are Smart Enough To Pick It Up Now!)

The Good: Character development, Plot development, Thematic richness, Pacing
The Bad: I could stand to have some bonus features for the DVD presentation, especially a commentary track!
The Basics: Bicentennial Man is an engaging film which illustrates well the complicated nature of freedom and humanity as a robot makes the journey from machine to man.

A few months ago, I struck upon a pretty brilliant plan. While I was comparatively debtless, I joined a movie club to stock up on gifts for my wife and that worked out great on one front. I now have a stash of gifts to filter out to her on special occasions and I am very much prepared for them. Unfortunately, I have also discovered that this makes me less attentive to the actual dates of those significant events and the first one I missed was our 25 month anniversary (it's silly, I know, but I celebrate my love for my wife every day, so once a month is not a bad thing!). To make up for it, two nights ago, I went into the box and got out the appropriate gift and presented it to her. That gift was Bicentennial Man and it was a real hit with her. She was thrilled that I had actually listened to her and had picked a gift that was truly one she wanted for her permanent collection. It was such a hit that my plans for the night were instantly disrupted and I was compelled to sit and watch it.

And I am exceptionally glad I did! Those who follow my many reviews might know that I have a profound loathing for the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. I have serious issues with it and Bicentennial Man has a similar premise. Fortunately, Chris Columbus's Bicentennial Man is light years better than A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and I was left baffled at how American audiences had failed to make Bicentennial Man one of the most respected and highest grossing films of all time. So, for those going back and considering such things, I proudly add Bicentennial Man to my list of perfect films.

Bicentennial Man is an epic film and a surprisingly intimate character study, both at the same time. It is cerebral, clever and charming enough to be entertaining without being schmaltzy. It is a powerful work and while there is some simplicity in the plot development, at least for fans of science fiction, it is not unwelcome for its directness. And I appreciated that the movie never insulted my intelligence, which made me respect it more and suspect that most audiences a decade ago simply didn't "get" it. After enduring the flash and sparkle of The Matrix and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (reviewed here!) earlier that year, perhaps audiences were not prepared for anything so cerebral as Bicentennial Man. This makes the film one of the best, most neglected endeavors in cinematic history.

In 2005, the Martin family receives a robot from NorthAm Robotics, which Richard Martin thinks is a cool gift for his family. Richard treats the robot, which "Little Miss" calls Andrew, like a household appliance. The spiteful older daughter in the Martin family, Grace, encourages Andrew to throw himself out the window, an act which damages Andrew and sets him on a journey of self-actualization. While repaired physically, Andrew begins to express desires of his own. Given the task of building clocks by Richard, Amanda ("Little Miss") argues that Andrew should receive compensation for his work and over the decades Andrew achieves great wealth. Throughout her young adulthood, Amanda grows to appreciate Andrew more and more, despite the fact that he is a robot.

Decades later, Andrew purchases his freedom, gets an upgrade that allows him to be more expressive with his facial expressions and goes on a search for other NorthAm robots. Through his search, he discovers that he is unique; that most of the other NorthAm robots were used as simple tools and never evolved beyond their initial programming. Returning to the Martin family, he finds Amanda an old lady and her granddaughter Portia to be antagonistic and bearing a troubling resemblance to Amanda. Having met the descendant of one of the NorthAm designers, Rupert Burns, Andrew begins to design the means to make himself more and more human in his quest to be recognized as a true life form.

Honestly, I'm at a loss as to why this film did not do better in the theater. It is not a big special effects film, but it is deep, complex and thoroughly enjoyable. As I pointed out to my wife, I had seen the much shorter film Priest (reviewed here!) the night before, but the much longer Bicentennial Man felt much shorter! This moves along at a decent clip and there is constantly the feeling that the movie is going somewhere. In fact, the only reason I can think that fans of science fiction didn't leap upon Bicentennial Man was that they had a similar character arc in Data through the seven years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (reviewed here!).

And that is what Bicentennial Man truly is, a character study. Andrew is a viable, interesting life form and the complicated relationship he has with Amanda and then Portia is compelling to watch. His journey of self-discovery is funny and heartwrenching and it is executed on a scale that is appropriate. What makes Bicentennial Man work as well as it does is that the changes in Andrew do not happen instantly; they develop over the course of decades as the little changes - getting paid, getting actual freedom, upgrading his body - compound to have more serious consequences and reactions. This is well-illustrated in Bicentennial Man as Andrew grows through the three primary relationships: his relationships with Richard, Amanda and then Portia/Rupert. Bicentennial Man does not rush the character development and it entertains while it moves at a realistic pace.

One of the clever aspects of Bicentennial Man on the character front is how it also gets rid of the characters when they are no longer necessary. Little Miss's sister, Grace, is bratty and unpleasant and after the early scenes where she resents Andrew and then grows into a pretty skanky annoyance, she and her whole line of the Martin family disappear from the narrative.

Then there is the acting. Bicentennial Man is the Robin Williams film for anyone who does not like Robin Williams. His acting is impeccable and truly great. This is the performance of his career. His sense of comic timing is wonderful in the scenes where he must be funny and Williams actually acts because he is not performing anywhere close to his usual manic stage presence. Instead, Williams succeeds by showing amazing restraint and he embodies a truly different character from any he played before or has played since. There is not a single moment in the film where the viewer feels they are watching Robin Williams instead of Andrew.

Williams has a lot of support from an amazing cast, which includes Sam Neill in the role of Richard, which allows him to subtly develop and loosen his stiff character into one who can foster Andrew's growing ambitions. Oliver Platt enters the narrative late as Rupert and he gives his usual solid supporting performance. Even Hallie Kate Eisenberg, whose only other work I was aware of were the Pepsi commercials (she was the cute little girl in the late-'90's who would sip Pepsi and smirk in a way that was supposed to be adorable, but most of us found overplayed and annoying), is great at the young Little Miss. She nails the humanity and excitement of being a young girl and gives Embeth Davidtz - who plays both the older Amanda and Portia - a solid foundation to work from. Davidtz's performance was so good that after seeing Bicentennial Man, I wanted to see what else she has done.

The only real drawback of Bicentennial Man is that the DVD is exceptionally light on bonus features. The barebones version has a single short featurette and two previews. A film this wonderful deserves more, like a deluxe Criterion Collection treatment.

Some films are commercials flops because they are terrible movies and they deserve to be forgotten. Some movies fail because they are released at the wrong time and simply do not find their audience. Those movies often come back when they are discovered or recovered years later and amply plugged by people who point out that the movie deserves time and attention which it lacked in the initial release. Right now, I am raising my voice to say that Bicentennial Man deserves the audience is did not get before. Pick it up and watch it; you'll want to share the movie with others once you do!

For other films that ask great, existential questions, check out my reviews of:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
The Truman Show


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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