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.

Children of the Revolution

Ah dangit, some other posters flip the R, but this one flips the N. I was hoping to avoid a bastardization of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Children of the Revolution. Miramar Films 1996.

Before watching the movie:

This just came up in my digital recommendations a few weeks ago. I thought at first it was a documentary because the promotional images really don’t do much to convey that this is a scripted comedy, instead really getting into the cold war aesthetic.

So basically an Australian woman raises Josef Stalin’s love child in the true Party way, and somehow this leads to political disaster in the modern day. My first thought is that it’s another Australian comedy inserting Australians into places in history where they were not (an interesting apparent trend that may not exist outside these two movies, and I could do with more stories of real Australian history), but I’m really looking forward to the journey getting there, especially with a cast of familiar names, some of which I can actually place.

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Event Horizon

Event Horizon. Paramount Pictures 1997.
Event Horizon. Paramount Pictures 1997.

Before watching the movie:

I guess before just now I didn’t know anything but the title. So apparently a ship that was lost in a black hole has mysteriously come back, and the people who go investigate discover that it brought Something back with it. It seems to basically be a horror story with sci-fi trappings, so I wonder how much it’s indebted to Alien, when I was picturing something more like The Fifth Element or The Black Hole (three films I have yet to see as well). I suspect the main reason I have it connected to The Fifth Element in my head is because of similar looming heads posters and proximity of release dates, but also possibly they were stored close to each other in a friend’s collection. As a tense horror film, I don’t know how much to expect as far as visual and practical effects, and the only name I recognize among the top billing is Laurence Fishburne. So I don’t have much of any foundation for expectations here. Continue reading