Bicentennial Man Review

In "the not too distant future" (which turns out to be 2005), there's a special delivery at the Martin household. It's a NDR-114 type android, soon christened Andrew. For years, Andrew (Robin Williams) is the loyal servant of Sir (Sam Neill) and his family, and forms an especial bond with the youngest, Little Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg as a child, Embeth Davidtz as an adult). But it soon becomes apparent that there's something special about Andrew. Sir's last act before he dies is to give Andrew his freedom, which sends the robot on a long quest to become a man.

Isaac Asimov wrote "The Bicentennial Man" for a 1976 (US Bicentennial Year, naturally) anthology called Final Stage, in which leading SF writers were invited to take their favourite themes to their logical conclusion. The story won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette. Robert Silverberg expanded the story to a full-length novel, published as a collaboration, The Positronic Man. Bicentennial Man (no definite article in the title), credits both story and novel as its source. However, what works in a tightly economical 16000-word story does not necessarily work in a two-hour-plus feature film (I haven't read the novel): the result is bland, dramatically underpowered, and overlong.

This is director Columbus's first excursion into science fiction, and it's fair to say that he doesn't show much feel for the genre. Although 200 years pass, the level of technology remains much the same – and this 2005 is implausibly high-tech for a year only six in the future from when the film was made. Much of the first half of the film is taken up with emotional content, with which he seems much more comfortable. However, it also shows up his faults: a reliance on button-pushing rather than earned emotion, sluggish pacing taking the film up to an unnecessary two hours, and indulgent direction of child actors who aren't anywhere near as appealing as he seems to think they are. Hallie Kate Eisenberg isn't around long enough to become a major irritant, but she's not as good an actor as Jena Malone in Stepmom, nor as much an incitement to infanticide as Liam Aiken in the same film.

The combination of the director of Stepmom and Robin Williams (a man seemingly on a mission to prove that Big Boys Do Cry) sounds like a call for an industrial-strength sick bucket. In fairness, it's not as cloying as that might imply; Williams is relatively restrained, possibly by acting inside a robot costume for half the running time. However, there are a couple of moments where he can't resist – and isn't prevented from – doing typical Williams shtick, quickfire patter that takes him out of character (unconvincingly, considering that in the previous scene he has to have "knock knock" jokes explained to him). The slack pacing, episodic narrative and lack of dramatic tension and conflict are greater problems. Sam Neill does a professional job as Sir, and Embeth Davidtz likewise in a dual role as Little Miss and her granddaughter Portia. Oliver Platt has a few moments as the technician who helps Andrew reach his final goal. The behind-the-camera contributions are as professional as you would expect from a major-studio production.

The transfer, anamorphic and correctly framed in 1.85:1, is generally sharp and colourful, with occasional artefacting that only becomes obtrusive in one shot, the first one of North Am Robotics' headquarters. The 5.1 sound mix isn't elaborate by any means, using left and right for ambient sounds and occasional dialogue placement, the surrounds mostly for James Horner's score (which can be listened to in isolation), with little noticeable use of the subwoofer. There are twenty-eight chapter stops, which is about adequate for a film of this length.

The extras include three full-frame trailers (the others being for other Williams titles, Jumanji and Hook). The talent profiles are two pages of text (one page of bullet-pointed biographical details and one page of filmography) each for Columbus, Neill and Williams, though not, regrettably but unsurprisingly, for the less well-known Davidtz. The behind-the-scenes featurette is all of five minutes long. The extras have two subtitle options, English and Dutch.

Bicentennial Man is distinctly average as a film, and as a package hardly justifies its full price. It might be worth a look if discounted to under £10 at least, or if you rented it as I did.

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