Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.
Robots and Sentience . . . What Could Go Wrong?
Bicentennial Man is a 1999 science fiction comedy-drama based on the novel The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov. It stars Robin Williams as Andrew, a sentient robot who goes to great lengths to be acknowledged as human.
Robots attaining humanity or trying to be human in some way has become hideously cliché in science fiction. One thing I always loved about the video game Mass Effect was that the geth were not trying to be human. They liked being robots but at the same time, wanted to be acknowledged as thinking, feeling people with souls (that is, until Mass Effect 3 when their writer left, and they were turned into the standard Pinocchio-slash-Data cliché).
Asimov seems to have made this cliché what it is today. And because of that, Bicentennial Man actually sends a very poor message of self-loathing.
The story is basically about a robot who doesn't feel worthy of love until he has completely changed himself into a human being, inside-out.
Being a Person vs. Being a Human
To be perfectly clear, Andrew is very much a person, though he is not human. If he was human, he wouldn't have needed to transition into one (this logic can be applied to a lot of arguments these days, though people seem to have flung all logic out the window).
First of all, thinking and feeling, being self-aware and having intimate relationships—these are not strictly human traits. They are the traits of sentient people.
Aliens and other lifeforms in science fiction are commonly shown to have these traits, resulting in alien races across the universe often being referred to as "sentients."
The fact that these traits in real life are attributed solely to humanity speaks to the arrogance of humanity. Once you realize how many solar systems and planets and galaxies there in the universe, you know it's impossible that we are at all unique, it's impossible that there aren't other lifeforms out there with the same traits of compassion and humor and wisdom that we call "humane."
Possessing the ability to care about people or to think for himself didn't make Andrew human. It made him a person. That should have been enough for Andrew, but apparently, it wasn't.
When Andrew asks for his freedom, his (slave)master, Richard "Sir" Martin (Sam Niell) becomes angry with him and stops speaking to him for twenty years.
"Sir" must be convinced by his youngest daughter, Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz), to let Andrew have his freedom -- after years of making money off his clock building business -- and it isn't until he is on his deathbed that he tries to make amends with Andrew.
After all, the way Sir kicked Andrew out was pretty cold. He basically threw him out on the street, telling him that he asked for his freedom and now must "live with the consequences."
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To be clear (again), I am not frowning on this story for being a slave allegory. Robots have always been used as slave allegories in science fiction. This isn't anything new or innovative or "progressive" -- it's only new to people who aren't familiar with science fiction.
Robots have always been used to explore the psychology behind real-life slavery and the continuous pursuit of liberty. So to say that Bicentennial Man is a slave allegory would be pretty apt here. Especially when Asimov is well known for having written about the inevitability of a robot uprising should we decide to make artificial and yet sentient slaves in our future.
What's more, Andrew never wanted to be human until he started having feelings for Little Miss. In the beginning, he seems perfectly content to be a robot and also completely unaware that Little Miss is in love with him. She approaches him as he is clock building and tries to tell him how she feels, but he hasn't yet reached a place of self-awareness where he is open to understanding and receiving love. So Little Miss, after her father warns her not to love a robot, goes ahead and marries her fiance.
It is when Little Miss gets married that Andrew seems to finally understand his own feelings, and as a result, felt he wasn't good enough for her. After the wedding, he departs on a twenty-year journey in search of other robots, trying to find people like him so that he won't feel so alone.
In the beginning, it would seem as if Andrew actually liked being a robot, but once he meets Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt) and realizes the possibility to be human is real, it is revealed that he does indeed want to be human, if not to win the affections of Little Miss.
This story is very much a Little Mermaid-esque fairy tale, in which a robot goes on an adventure to change his outward appearance so that his inward appearance is ultimately more worthy of love.
If anything, this story sends a poor message: that we must change how we appear in order to be loved and accepted.
Andrew spends years studying his own brain, drawing up graphs, and paying Rupert to make him more and more human -- all the while writing home to Little Miss. All the changes he goes through are for her, not really himself. I doubt he would have cared about becoming human had he, say, fallen in love with Rupert's NDR android, Galatea (Kiersten Warren), instead.
But Andrew does care, very deeply. He hates being a robot so much and wants to be human so badly that he spends years and an entire fortune giving himself internal organs and even skin.
After doing everything possible to change what he is and how he looks, Andrew winds up marrying the granddaughter of Little Miss and spends his entire life fighting to be recognized legally as a human being. He is recognized, but only after his death.
This story is basically about a robot slave who hates himself so much, he changes to look like one of his oppressors and goes to great lengths to assimilate into his slavemaster's society.
In that light, Bicenntenial Man is probably the most offensive slave allegory ever.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Lee