64 million people a year suffer from insomnia and every so often I am one of them. But rather than use the extra time I’ve been given during a given insomniac episode to be productive, balance my checkbook, study for the LSAT or exercise, I instead fool myself into thinking the time isn’t my own and can therefore guiltlessly waste it.
Netflix instant queue is the perfect response to this mentality as it gives me access to countless B and C movies all of which I willingly watch while everyone else is fast asleep. Enter Insomniac Movie Theater, where I subject myself to some of the worst, campiest and outright terrible movies the world has to offer … and the occasional cult classic.
I open this week’s installment with a question: Is there a bigger hack director than Chris Columbus? After breaking onto the scene with 1987’s “Adventures in Babysitting,” Columbus captured lightning in a bottle with a streak of comedies beginning with 1990’s “Home Alone” that culminated with “9 Months,” an adult (by Columbus standards) romantic comedy about a constantly befuddled Hugh Grant being drug toward maturity. The comedy works in varying degrees before collapsing in on itself in the third act, but seemed to signify a newfound adulthood in Columbus’s directing.
But immediately after “9 Months,” Columbus essentially said, “Fuck it.” After all, he had coasted on menial crap comedies that essentially paraphrased John Hughes this far, why stop now? As a director he’s always shoehorned emotional moments into movies that were a little too poignant or on-the-nose, but from 1998’s melodramatic tearjerker “Stepmom” on, he’s put on a clinic in lazy, unaffecting direction and blatant emotional manipulation.
Which brings us to today’s movie: “Bicentennial Man.”
Based on the Isaac Asimov novella of the same name, “Bicentennial Man” begins in the distant year of 2005, where the extremely wealthy can purchase servant robots to do household chores, presumably to circumvent hiring illegal immigrants for less than minimum wage. Robin Williams plays the titular android, first known as NDR-114 and eventually known as Andrew Martin.
Unlike the rest of robot drones, NDR-114 exhibits signs of creativity, compassion and — wait for it — humanity. It isn’t long before 114 becomes Andrew and is alleviated of his household duties. Instead, he begins building precision clocks and working with wood. He eventually amasses enough money to ask for his freedom from his owner Richard Martin. Martin reluctantly gives him his freedom, but banishes him from the Martin estate.
While the Asimov story deals with ownership, autonomy, and the definition of humanity, the movie is a haphazard family comedy one minute, a boring travelogue the next, and finally settles for being a watered down, intelligence-insulting love story. Columbus handles all three plots with the expected level of poise and earnestness.
It’s also important to point out just how bad the special effects are in “Bicentennial Man.” Williams’s robot is clearly a man in a suit, so much so that you can see the chest plate move when he breathes in one scene. Later on, when some of the original family members begin to get older, the makeup aging techniques are downright laughable. Not as bad as Kevin Smith in “Southland Tales,” but still pretty bad. Check it:
Is that a Jack Lemmon look-alike?
That clip also highlights some quality Columbus directing. Williams just slows his voice down and Columbus cuts to people looking at him while James Horner’s score tells everyone exactly how to feel. And while other, better directors use almost the same setup (Spielberg immediately comes to mind), they coach telling, reactionary performances out of their actors. The above clip is like a page from a Paint-By-Numbers book.
While the performances are remarkably one-note, the plot’s even worse, particularly the love story between Williams and Embeth Davidtz, who plays the great granddaughter of his original owner. Witness their chemistry:
For starters, since the subplot isn’t introduced until the final act of the movie, it’s rushed, inorganic, and impossible to relate. Williams goes from meeting her to being jealous and angry in the span of 15 minutes. But once he’s able to get his prosthetic penis installed, game on. After the two have resolved their love, Williams approaches an undisclosed human council where he requests to be reclassified from android to human so that he and Davidtz can get married and their relationship be formally recognized.
Here’s the thing: Their relationship isn’t a secret and it’s not like they’re forbidden from being together, so the issue seems like a moot point. But the final straw in the love plot comes when, after we get a “Many Years Later” black screen, we see Williams and a significantly aged Davidtz together. Davidtz admits she’s ready to die. Williams’ response? Introduce blood into his system so that he can die too.
This allows him to become human and die with dignity, but only after several more years. If being human was so important to him, why didn’t he do that after his first attempt at reclassification was denied? Then he would have aged in time with Davidtz and they could have died together, rather than extend her own life unnecessarily. That doesn’t make any sense regardless of time of day or amount of sleep. It’s a plot hole so glaring, even I caught it in my beleaguered state.
“Bicentennial Man” employs about every emotionally manipulative trick in the book, but it does so unapologetically, it’s almost inspiring. It casts the cutesy Pepsi girl from the late ’90s, it features a orchestral score designed to tell audiences what to feel and when to feel it, it features actors and actresses who’s only emotional cue is whether or not they’re crying. Possibly worst of all, it features an original song by Celine Dion:
Asimov would be rolling in his grave, if he weren’t on a spaceship circling the outer rim with his robo-concubines right now.