Movies of my Yesterdays: Bicentennial Man

Bicentennial Man. 1492 Pictures 1999.

This movie may have been my most anticipated movie of my childhood, or at least the most anticipated non-Star Trek movie. Robin Williams, playing a robot, in a movie based on a story by one of my father’s favorite sci-fi authors? Sign me up! I don’t remember being disappointed not to see it in the theater, but I’m sure I was anxiously awaiting the chance to order it from the library when it came out on video.

In the very near future, Richard Martin introduces his family to his newest labor-saving purchase, NorthAm Robotics’ NDR-114: a humanoid robot with a positronic brain whose purpose is to serve the family around the house, named “Andrew”. After snotty older daughter Grace orders Andrew to throw himself out a window, Richard makes the decree that although Andrew is not a person, he is to be treated with the same respect one would give a person. After breaking younger daughter Amanda’s favorite glass horse sculpture, Andrew takes it upon himself to carve a replacement from wood, and quickly begins to display unique characteristics that Richard decides to encourage, mentoring him, giving him access to all the books he could want, and, at Amanda’s suggestion, providing Andrew with his own bank account for the money he earns from making clocks. As years pass, Andrew eventually asks for his own freedom, which Richard bitterly grants, stung at the assertion he hasn’t given Andrew enough. Soon, Andrew begins to feel lonely, and goes on a 20-year journey looking up every other NDR unit hoping to find others like him. The search leads him to cyberneticist Rupert Burns, a tinkerer obsessed with making more lifelike androids, sending Andrew on a new course to remake himself as a member of human society.

It occurs to me that I have a fondness for the dated charm of late 90s/early 00s sci-fi, especially the optimistic stories. Real world technology was already reshaping the world, but there was a radical readjustment to the kinds of futures we were imagining after the mainstreaming of mobile computing, the social internet, and all-knowing algorithms. Even the dystopias can seem a bit naive now, especially considering the social mindset that our culture was in between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the global war on terror. I especially appreciate how this movie isn’t really afraid to make the near future implausibly near. Most other stories would set the technology required to make robots like the NDR at least 20 years out, but this movie makes it explicit that Andrew was first activated in 2005, which was only six years in the future from the release date.

While I appreciated the civil rights concept in the abstract, Andrew is sapient and should be respected as any other sapient being, I didn’t really appreciate the story of the slow path to acceptance and justice before. It takes Andrew generations to be fully granted the rights he deserves. He needs four generations of allies to wield their privilege on his behalf to even have a chance of going from the othered, lesser role he was intended to be becoming a fully recognized member of society, and he couldn’t even imagine himself taking such a place and standing up for himself without multiple people telling him he deserved it. I also saw allegorical resonance in how even those allies varied in their acceptance of Andrew’s true nature. Richard, who saw Andrew’s nascent personhood and encouraged and defended it with everything he had, couldn’t imagine the necessity of such a person to have true autonomy. Amanda’s son Lloyd, who rejects Martin’s personhood but helps him for his own selfish interests. And Amanda’s granddaughter Portia, who can accept Andrew’s personhood but for a long time hesitates at recognizing the humanity of his full self. The “a tree will always be a tree” conversation never stood out to me before I had an understanding of the real world struggle of people who are having similar arguments with their loved ones every day, some of whom are even making radical body modifications of their own to make the outside match the inside while fighting for the government to recognize their truth and grant them their dignity.

The tone is always a surprise. I carry with me the light-hearted romp that the trailer promised, emphasizing the jokes and the feel-good and omitting the somber, inexorable march through the lived experience of learning what it is to be human, the highs and the lows, the love, but mostly the parade of heartbreak and disappointment along the way. It’s not overall a sad movie, but it’s almost constantly introspective, contemplative, and pensive, mostly ruminating on loneliness and loss along the road of self-discovery. It’s a bit exhausting, but yet I love it. There’s almost enough levity sprinkled in to keep it from getting too overbearing, it’s never too depressing, and it’s irrepressibly hopeful, tracing a path of only positive progress, the setbacks mostly in losing relationships and never permanent. There are few movies of the recent decades that better capture the wonder and potential portrayed in early 20th-century science fiction. If it feels off, it’s because it’s a spoiled era’s reflection of an inspiringly, if naively, hopeful one.

The Survivors

The Survivors. Rastar Films 1983.

Before watching the movie:

It’s almost certainly just the snow and the 80s design aesthetic, but the poster makes me think of Spies Like Us a lot more than I should be.

Basically, these two New Yorkers lose their jobs the same week and their personality clash as they keep running into each other escalates to absurdity. Matthau and Williams may not seem compatible, but the central conceit is that they’re not compatible, so this could be a peanut butter and chocolate kind of combination.

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Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society. Touchstone Pictures 1989.

Before watching the movie:

Robin Williams has done a lot of feel-good movies, but none seem to have the reputation for soaring inspiration that this one does. Sure, it’s all about a teacher trying to inspire his students, but I can think of other movies about Williams’s character inspiring others. Maybe it’s that this is the most quotable, but the main quote I know is a cliche.

One thing that’s becoming apparent to me is how little of his work I was actually familiar with when I was in the height of my appreciation for Robin Williams as an actor.

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Fathers’ Day

Fathers' Day. Silver Pictures 1997.
Fathers’ Day. Silver Pictures 1997.

Before watching the movie:

I grew up on AladdinFlubber , Jumanji, and Bicentennial Man all came out when I was the right age for them. I rediscovered Hook at a well-developed age between childhood and adulthood. Mork and Mindy may have been the first grown-up TV show I discovered on my own, but even if it wasn’t, it struck a chord with me the other possibilities didn’t. Robin Williams was the first person I did a search for in the library system and I pulled several movies from that search, a strategy I only applied so earnestly to two other actors. Having a blog focused on catching up with movies I haven’t seen led me to check off more of his filmography. So when news of his death came, I had some trouble finding a movie to review in his honor. It’s not so much that there are no movies left that I haven’t seen, but most of them are bleak dramas or too recent.

In the outpouring of love for the man I saw online in the last few weeks, Dead Poets’ Society seems to be very highly regarded, perhaps his most inspirational film. I indeed have not seen it and will certainly be getting to it soon, but I wanted to remember him with a proper comedy of the sort that there’s hardly anything left.

So here’s Father’s Day, a nearly forgotten movie about two men who have both been led to believe they’re the father of an ex-girlfriend’s runaway son, for the purpose of getting both of them to track him down. Sounds like a road movie with two giants of comedy at odds with each other. Let’s have some fun.

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Toys.  Baltimore Pictures 1992.
Toys. Baltimore Pictures 1992.

Before watching the movie:

Yet another that’s been sitting on my list forever, continuing what will hopefully be a trend for the next few weeks.

I first saw this on a library shelf what seems like millennia ago. It probably was last millennium, actually. I recall it was during my period shortly after connecting the Robin Williams from Flubber to the voice of the Genie in Aladdin and deciding I wanted to see everything he’d ever done. That came to a halt long before I came close to doing that, though, which is why I can review this now.

Why didn’t I take it from the shelf then? I think the idea of building toys to go to war gave me a sense it was darker than I wanted, and also I was probably under the age of 13. We took “Parental Guidance, possibly inappropriate for children under 13” very seriously in our house. I did sneak Jakob the Liar once sometime when I was twelve. I probably would have been better off with Toys.

I’m kind of glad I didn’t see it then, though. Not only is it going to provide me with review fodder now, but I’ve also lately been revisiting some things I saw at a very young age and musing on how I wasted my First Watch of them when I wasn’t capable of appreciating the subtleties of storytelling and acting. And I wouldn’t have known who Michael Gambon was then.

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Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting. Miramax Films 1997.
Good Will Hunting. Miramax Films 1997.

Before watching the movie:

This movie is one I’ve been only vaguely aware of. I don’t know much more about the plot than “brilliant janitor”, and until I saw it categorized, I wasn’t fully sure it was a drama (I was just going by the rule I think was proposed by Family Guy: if Robin Williams is wearing a beard, he thinks it’s a serious role.

This has been sitting around my digital shelf for a while, but its pending expiration has pushed me to go ahead with it. Also it’s been on sale where I work for weeks, whispering to me.

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The Best of Times

The Best of Times. Kings Road Entertainment 1986.

Before watching the movie:

This is an interesting approach to a nostalgic high school sports movie. Normally, such a movie would either actually have high school characters through whom the writers and audience can wax nostalgic, and the main stories I’ve seen where adult characters want to recapture their youth, either they just reconnect with old friends or time travel is involved. Here, a bunch of adults stage a rematch of The Big Game as adults, around fifteen years later.

They’d be in their late 20s/early 30s by my reckoning, so they should still be young enough to do it decently, but not as well as they used to. Before I did the numbers, I was expecting late 40s, old enough to be firmly in middle age and midlife crises. Not that I was a star athlete in high school, but I’m now realizing the ages I can expect to see are basically what’s coming up next for me. That’s a chilling thought to go into a comedy with.

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Moscow on the Hudson

Moscow on the Hudson. Columbia Pictures 1984.

Before watching the movie:

Here’s another movie about which I know absolutely nothing, found through automated recommendations. On the one hand, it’s Robin Williams in the 80s, so it could be a wacky fish out of water comedy. On the other, they say that when Robin Williams wears a beard, he thinks it’s a serious film. I’m getting vibes of The Terminal and Being There, a pair of movies very unlike each other.

What I’m ultimately expecting is a comedy with a lot of warmth, patriotism, and jokes stolen from Yakov Smirnoff.

Oh look, yet another Cold War movie. I seem to have grown up from World War II into the next big one.

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Death to Smoochy

Death to Smoochy. Warner Bros 2002.

Before watching the movie:

I remember a time in this blog when I sought out movies generally considered bad to give them a chance at some small redemption. Looking back at recent selections, I guess I haven’t shied away from the duds, but I haven’t looked for them either.

It’s my understanding that either this, Patch Adams, or Bicentennial Man was Robin Williams’s worst comedy film. I liked Bicentennial Man, and a look at the description for this movie sounds interesting. It could almost be a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire, with Williams again playing an out-of-work children’s performer.

All of the above isn’t to say that I went out of my way to find this movie, I just noticed that.

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Popeye. Paramount/Disney 1980.

Before watching the movie:

Popeye, cartoon legend. Robin Williams, cartoonish legend. Still, while nobody does “animated” like Williams, he’d hardly be my first choice for the salty, mumbling strong man of the sea, especially at the peak of his cocaine-addled supersonic phase.

On the one hand, this was around the time he was doing Mork and Mindy, so arguably the funniest part of his career. On the other, Mork is very different from the Popeye I know. I don’t doubt he can do the character, I’m interested in seeing how he keeps it up in a film I think I’ve heard described as “surprisingly bleak.”

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