Bicentennial Man – A Few Comments


Earlier today, my wife and I saw the movie “Bicentennial Man”.  I admit that I have not read Isaac Asimov’s original story in some time, or the collaboration with Robert Silverberg.  The mixed reviews had little impact; I just knew that I wanted to see this film, and after having seen it, can only conclude that some of the reviewers (a) were watching a different film, (b) sent some apprentice lackey to see the film and provide alleged reviewers with notes, but the attention-deficit lackey only lasted fifteen minutes into the film and spent the next two hours in the theatre lobby playing video games, or (c) have less heart than Andrew did prior to Rupert’s upgrades and modifications.


The original story was written over twenty years ago by one of the founding father’s of modern science fiction and fantasy.  Many of the reviewers seem to find fault with the film’s lack of extensive special effects and technical information regarding Andrew’s original design and subsequent changes.  My response would be – what difference does it make how it’s done?  It’s fantasy!  We’re talking about a story than spans two centuries, so it would be reasonable to assume, since we’re starting with a manufactured life-form, that there are technological advances that could only be explained in current scientific terms as theoretical at best.  Let me put it this way – does the lack of information provided by H.G. Wells’ on the Martian war vehicles, or the time machine, make those stories invalid?  Or do they instead spark the imagination, the “what if?” train of thought that is so terribly lacking in many people?  Life is like that, folks, not everything can be explained.


While many complained about the nostalgic style of the film (including references that Galatea resembled the robot in “Metropolis”), the audience in attendance commented on what a unique experience it was to see a science fiction movie (not a “sci-fi flick”) that looks to the future while honoring the past; also how unusual to see any film that is driven by dialog and ideas, rather than slow motion gunfights and hyper-drive intergalactic vessels exploding noisily in the near-vacuum of space.  If the SF stories of the 50’s and 60’s are so hokey, as these reviewers seem to feel, why do so many keep reading them?  Why do people seek them out on eBay or the American Book Exchange?  Perhaps because they are looking for narratives that are based on concepts and values that have been with civilization since before the written word was invented.  (To all the techies, if you want hardware, get a Sears catalog.  And stop bitching about how the ‘droid obtained his bank account, just go back to watching “Classic Trek” reruns endlessly so you can figure out the combination to Captain Kirk’s safe). 


Two major themes were apparent to, and effective on, the audience.  The first being the discovery of potential, the desire to become better, and more than just the sum of our parts and experiences.  No motivation to be creative, a lack of curiosity of what the world has to offer, a void where the desire to learn should be, no need to partake of the discovery of imagination (what Harlan Ellison referred to as the drinking of strange wine) is akin to giving up, saying that things will never get better, so why bother, just accept the ways things are and go along.  Too many people already lead that kind of existence; don’t drag the rest of us down with you.  Anyone who has struggled for recognition, anyone who has had to overcome opposition based on their gender, their lack of formal education, their unwillingness to “play politics,” their age, their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), the color of their skin, or a physical or mental challenge understands Andrew’s struggle.  “To seek, to strive and not to yield.”


The latter theme, of equal importance if not more so, is about the needs felt by any intelligent being for communication, mutual respect, belonging and love.  The conversations between Sir and Andrew; the wooden horse Andrew created for Little Miss (no one missed its meaning when Andrew went to see Little Miss after her stroke and he saw in her hand the horse he had made for her so many years before; she could no longer speak, but it communicated so much about their relationship), how Rupert’s desire to assist Andrew in his quest was motivated by many things other than greed.  And was Andrew’s description of what it is like to love someone, physically and emotionally, ever stated more eloquently?


Oh, and one more thing – the need, when called upon, for sacrifice.  Of what use is near-immortality when there is no one to share it with?  Andrew asks Rupert, after the last change takes place, the one that makes him essentially mortal, how long he has and, for the first time, Andrew realizes how ambiguous a time frame it is; if more people realized that, perhaps they would make better use of their time in order to improve the world around them, instead of obsessing on possessions and status, indeterminate rewards in the hereafter because their way of believing is better than someone else’s, or hatreds based on long-forgotten origins.  He gives up everlasting lifetimes, learns what it is like to spend a lifetime growing old (and more in love) with someone, and in doing so, achieves his long-sought after goal.  He knows this, even before the official announcement is made (it’s not often that something flashes across the movie screen that causes men and women, young and old, to weep unashamedly in public, and hold tightly to the hand of the person sitting next to them).  Debates about biology versus technology (I have intra-ocular implants in both eyes, does that make me less than human?), or theological discussions on whether or not he has an immortal soul would not have mattered; what Andrew achieved, what he gained from the Martins and they from him, and what he ultimately found with Petra – we all should be so fortunate.


Every time I think of my wife, and what I’ve found with her, I know I am.