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Robin Williams Stars In The Manipulatively Heartwarming 'Bicentennial Man.'

By James DiGiovanna

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  BICENTENNIAL MAN IS the story of a robot who acquires creativity and human emotion, and fights to find his place in a world that cannot see him as human.

It is also the latest Robin Williams movie. Like most people who give up whores and cocaine at the same time, Robin Williams lost a lot of his humor all at once. He also became extremely "family oriented," turning out mass-consumption pabulum like Patch Adams and Flubber.

So sitting in the theater waiting for Bicentennial Man to start was one of those rare movie-going experiences where you actually dread the end of the trailers. Strapping myself in for what promised to be a treacly adventure into the 21st century (which doesn't really sound all that futuristic anymore), I watched as the credits started.

The font they used in the credits sucked. I assumed this was a bad sign.

Then Sam Neill appeared. Now, how can you not love Sam Neill? I mean, the man got his start playing the son of Satan in Damien: Omen III, which is one of the funniest Armageddon movies ever made. Sure, he's done some Oscar-worthy crap like The Piano, but one good turn as The Second Coming Of Evil makes up for a lot of half-assed Jane Campion B.S. So I started thinking maybe there's hope for this film. I mean, it could be worse...they could have cast Whoopi Goldberg in the lead.

Then the plot enters the picture: Sam Neill is the dad, and he has a Good Daughter (played by veteran Pepsi-commercial cuteness warrior Hallie Kate Eisenberg) and a Bad Daughter. Dad has purchased a new household robot, which apparently will be quite the fad in the year 2010, so you better start saving up. This robot, though, is different from all the others: he speaks with the voice of Robin Williams.

Also, he's got feelings and blah blah blah. You can pretty much figure out the schtick: he just wants to be human. Whenever a robot or a wooden boy wants to be human, I have to ask, "Why?" I mean, robots are generally portrayed as smarter, stronger and much longer-lasting than humans. Personally, given the choice between superhuman immortality, and plain old human mortality, I'm guessing most of the populace would opt for eternal life and metal parts.

But in the movies, tin men want hearts, wooden boys want to be real, and robots want, for God knows what reason, to be accepted as human. Thus begins a 200-year journey as the robot becomes less metallic and more squishy. So squishy that by the middle of the movie he actually looks like Robin Williams.

The movie can basically be summed up in one throw-away scene where the freshly emancipated robot answers a bark at his door only to find a wet little puppy shivering in the rain. See, just like the robot, the puppy is a cast-away from the world of uncaring humans. At this point, my heart became dangerously warmed.

Lots more heartwarming stuff then happens in rapid succession as we zip through the years. The robot goes in quest of other robots, and after many years is lucky enough to find one with robot breasts. Why a robot would have breasts is unclear, but this breasted robot also dances to Motown. That much, at least, seemed right: a metallic imitation of humanity would no doubt dance to the most whited-up soul music available.

Which brings up an interesting point in the film: up until nearly the very end, the only black people you see in the future are entertainers. Then all of the sudden the head of the world is a black woman. So there are like two black people in the future: a lounge singer and the head of the world.

But at least you get to see a lot of the future in this movie. Since every few scenes skip a couple of decades, it runs through almost every future design. There's my favorite future, where everything is white and all the doors slide open automatically. Then there's that great retro-'50s future like they had in some of the fancy interiors in Blade Runner. And then there's the black-and-chrome future, which many will recognize from 1960s Sci-Fi TV, or from Braun appliances.

OK, so we're zipping through the years, and there's basically very little time to develop motivation for the characters, so they just suddenly act mad or sad or in love, and we're expected to go with it because there are incessant musical cues telling us what to feel. Actually, incessant musical cues and manipulatively "touching" vignettes generally make me feel used, but then I like to see a movie earn its emotional highs and lows.

Finally, though, this is not an atrocious film, and, if it weren't for the injudicious and pointless repetition of swear words, it would be a decent family film, in that kids would be engaged and parents would only check their watches two or three times (it runs over two hours, so be prepared). However, with its cute-but-frank talk of sex, and its disturbing scene of a post-coital robot experiencing his first fart (seriously), Bicentennial Man seems to have swung a bit wide of its target.

Still, Bicentennial Man will no doubt find an audience. There are all those inveterate Mork and Mindy fans who've been waiting decades for Robin Williams to return to science fiction, and then there are the people who go to the movies for an artificial infusion of emotion. I imagine they'll find something to relate to in the image of a mechanical man who needs high-tech wizardry in order to finally acquire feelings.


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