The Bicentennial Man

“One has mixed feelings about the movie” would be my comment if I’m going to speak in Andrew’s style.

As usual, I recommend seeing the movie before reading the book. In this case the first version was a long short story by Isaac Asimov, after which he collaborated with Robert Silverberg to turn the story into a novel (see below). The best of the three versions (short story, novel, movie) is the short story, which is why you should read it last. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed, as I was.

OK, let me correct that: I was only somewhat disappointed with the movie. The late lamented Robin Williams did a superb job portraying the android Andrew, and the theme managed to emerge from the production despite all the fluff that was added. But before we discuss the movie, we need to talk briefly about the timeline:

  1. Asimov of course wrote the short story in 1976, as it had been intended to be one of a dozen stories by a dozen different authors, all with the title The Bicentennial Man. (Get it? 1976?) Unfortunately the projected anthology was never published, so Asimov returned the advance and published it as part of Judy-Lynn Del Rey’s anthology, Stellar Science Fiction #2. Even though this was 45 years ago, I remember the story clearly, as it had a big impact on me. I have just now re-read it. FYI: as a double-length short story, it was labeled a novelette, which appears to be an SF-specific term for a piece longer than a short story but shorter than a novella.
  2. We next move to 1992, when Asimov collaborated with fellow science fiction great Robert Silverberg to expand the novelette to a full-length novel, The Positronic Man. That one I don’t remember clearly, so I’m going to read it again next week. But it couldn’t have been very memorable if I don’t remember it much.
  3. In 1999 the movie version dropped, with the title taken from the short story but much of the content from the novel. For some reason I hadn’t seen the movie until this week; I don’t know why it took me 22 years. When I re-read the novel version I will be able to figure out how much of the movie came from it.

So I promised to discuss the movie. In the extras at the end of the DVD, Robin Williams observes that it is a fable, and “like all fables, it talks about something other than just the story itself.” On the surface it’s about a humanoid robot who wants to be treated like a human—in fact who wants to be human. But what does it mean to be human? That may be the central question of all novels, but in this context it can be taken quite literally. The story—in novelette form, in novel form, and in movie form—echoes a lot of earlier history and literature. Most directly it reminds us of Frankenstein and Pygmalion (a robot in the movie, though not in the novelette and I think not in the novel either is even named Galatea). At a deeper level all three forms of the story are really about slavery, which is fairly explicit in the original short story; note that Andrew calls his “family” Sir and Miss and Little Miss, and he is programmed to be happy to serve them. There are also unintentional echoes of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter, of Hal in 2001, of Data in Star Trek, and of the robots in RUR, where the word “robot” was coined.

Although Asimov was a noted liberal, his weltanschauung in the ’70s would never have let him see the parallels with what became the most successful human rights campaign in recent times: the fight for gay marriage. And the movie-makers in the ’90s somehow missed the irony of having a cast that is almost entirely white (and rich and straight): there is one black actor, who is given the token role of President of the World, which is supposed to impress us.

Finally, what’s good and what’s bad about the movie? I already mentioned Robin Williams, who is both literally and figuratively the star of the show. Andrew’s host family is also well portrayed at quite a few different ages for each person. There are surprisingly many funny lines, though too many of them seem to be at the unintentional expense of people on the spectrum. The worst thing is the intrusion of too much romance. Yes, I know, it’s a movie, so there has to be romance, but it’s intrusive and unconvincing in this context. Stick to the contributions of Isaac Asimov, the greatest science fiction writer of all time, in my (not so) humble opinion!

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV