by Brenda W. Clough
This movie came out in 1999, and I am sorry to report that I only saw it last fall. It is fairly faithfully based upon the award-winning novella from 1976 that we probably all have read, by Isaac Asimov.
The concept of robots doing the work of, looking like, or even becoming human is very ancient indeed, and we never get tired of debating it. Bicentennial Man is an interesting contrast to Ex Machina, which came out more recently (I reviewed it here) or Her (review here). Frankly the other two movies are better — both as movies and as stories. There is a sentimentality about Bicentennial Man which Asimov put there that gives it an inevitably old-fashioned feel. And some of the basic premises of Bicentennial Man are, I argue, flawed.
I haven’t read the novella in some time, but I am pretty sure Asimov did not go into the idea of using robots for sex. There are already an amazingly vast number of things being manufactured to have sex with (here is one that should install easily in a humanoid robot), and you would think that a human-shaped thingy would not be a great leap. But is already exciting controversy. The movie added this in (Robin Williams getting the sex upgrade along with a digestive system) and it is, frankly, creepy — like Japanese anime pillows. Why did the movie people put this in? It wasn’t necessary. Asimov was not saying that sex makes us human — it doesn’t. He was saying that love makes us human, the desire for emotional connection.
A larger question which this movie didn’t address (and the others did) is, why do robots want to be human anyway? They are, like the Six-Million Dollar Man, stronger, faster, better. It is a failure of imagination on our part, to assume that everybody wants to be as limited as us, and as a matter of fact our imagination is not at all that limited — there are zillions of heroes who are stronger, faster, better, all over your movie screens. The only way to make this idea fly is to tie it into that desire for emotional connection. Andrew the robot feels that he cannot be really loved unless he is really human, partaking in all of our weaknesses. The idea that he could be loved because he is stronger, faster, better, is alien to him. In his universe there must have been no X-Men, no Six-Million-Dollar Man. How fearfully limiting — what would Superman say, or Iron Man, or our own children? Mine, at least, are stronger and faster than me, and they will assure you that they are smarter too!
And, the final and most annoying movie addition, was the idea that Andrew could not endure the idea of outliving Portia, his lover. I suppose this is the logical extension of Andrew acquiring a suite of human weaknesses, to make himself more lovable to her. But one of the grand things of being a robot is being more long-lived — essentially immortal, assuming repairs and upgrades. Do you remember the original concept of Star Wars? Back when George Lucas first cooked it up, there were going to be 9 movies. And the only characters who would extend through all nine of them, scheduled to take place over the entire rise and fall of the Republic, were the droids. It is a failure of courage on Andrew’s part, to wuss out like this.