Isaac Asimov’s robot stories have always been a major influence to my writing. So, when I found one I had not read, I thought I’d pick it up. In the 1970s, Isaac Asimov wrote a novella called The Bicentennial Man. The basis of that story was about a robot who wants to become human. In the 1990s, Asimov and Robert Silverberg wrote an expanded The Bicentennial Man into a novel called The Positronic Man. The basis of these two works serve as the source material for the 1999 Robin Williams movie Bicentennial Man. This review will look at The Positronic Man and the Bicentennial Man movie.
Law One: A robot cannot harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Law Two: A robot must obey all orders from a human unless such orders conflict with the first law.
Law Three: A robot must preserve its existence, unless such preservation conflicts with the first or second laws.
Robots are common in this world but also mistrusted and looked down upon because it is feared that they will eventually take over the work force. This makes it hard for the U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men to manufacture and sell their products. As a gesture of good faith, a well known government official, Gerald Martin, takes in a NDR robot. The robot, affectionately named Andrew (N-D-R. aNDRew. Get it?) by Martin’s youngest daughter.
Andrew displays traits that are not common for a typical robot. First, he shows creativity by becoming a master woodcarver. But it doesn’t stop there. As his master starts to become very old, Andrew asks him to grant his freedom. Through a series of legislative acts, Andrew is eventually granted his freedom, becoming the first and only free robot. But Andrew desires more. He is never content with being a robot. His endgame is to actually become a human, complete with all of the imperfections and disadvantages associated with it.
The novel is well written, complete with all of the complexity and charm of an Isaac Asimov book. But as you experience the life of Andrew Martin, you are constantly asked the question, what makes a human being? By the end of the book, that question is answered in a profound and impactful way.
The Bicentennial Man movie roughly follows the plot of the novel. However, it makes several changes that honestly do not make sense. The biggest change was adding a love story element. I suppose that this adds motivation to Andrew wanting to become more human. However, he wanted to become a human long before he met the girl. The romance felt out of place, especially since it did not occur until relatively late in the film.
The movie is also too small scale. For example, Gerald Martin flat out grants Andrew his freedom without even bothering to go through the legal process. It makes very little sense. What happens to Andrew after Martin dies? A simple piece of paper would not suffice. Rather, the law would need to officially recognize Andrew’s freedom. This was very well-thought out in the book but horribly overlooked in the movie.
But then there are all of the technical problems with this movie. For example, why does Andrew seem very clumsy and has a tendency to break things when he is supposed to be good at carving wood? But one of the biggest technical problems of all is when a robot is told to turn off a human’s life support system. A robot could not do that because that would VIOLATE THE FIRST LAW!
The last major problem was the problem of the movie itself. It was made in the time where movies tried to get PG ratings so they could convince families to go see them. However, Bicentennial Man is far from a family film. And the changes to the story, especially the addition of the romantic elements, definitely make it a bad movie for a family outing. Along with trying to be a family movie, it also attempts to be a comedy. Although comedic elements are welcome, they feel wedged in and out of place. All of these factors make for a very lackluster movie with very little feeling.
There is honestly no comparison. The novel is far better than the movie. The characters and people Andrew befriend in the book are interesting and rounded. It’s very disheartening as Andrew watches them grow old and eventually die. The movie touched on this point, but left out some of the cool characters in favor of the love story. If you are looking for a good movie to watch in Isaac Asimov’s universe, look no further than I, Robot.
Have you read the book or seen the movie? Comment with your thoughts.