Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
Isaac Asimov was always skeptical of Hollywood's ability to properly adapt his work. In his lifetime, a few of his stories did get adapted into episodes of anthology television series like Out of the Unknown; his novel The End of Eternity was turned into films in both Hungary and Russia; and his novella Nightfall was made into a poorly-received independent film that bombed at the box office. None of those adaptations are much thought of today. It wasn't until after his death that Asimov's work would get the big-budget Hollywood treatment, and the first such film to be made was Bicentennial Man, the 1999 Chris Columbus film starring Robin Williams and Embeth Davidtz that is based on both the short story "The Bicentennial Man" and the novel The Positronic Man.
Before I get into why the movie failed or why it's not a particularly good adaptation of Asimov's ideas, let me just disclaim that I actually like this movie. I'm a sucker for the ridiculously sentimental, saccharine-sweet Robin Williams movies of the nineties--movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, What Dreams May Come, and Patch Adams--and Bicentennial Man is best viewed, for me, as belonging to that variety. I own the movie, enjoy watching it, and don't feel it is any kind of slight on my manhood to admit I need a tissue or two before it's over. I just want to make that clear now, before I rip it apart.
Apparently, most of the people involved in the early stages of Bicentennial Man's production were worried that Asimov's story would be too antiseptic to be a good Hollywood movie. Despite "The Bicentennial Man" being one of the best examples of Asimov employing pathos, producers felt that it was too caught up in technical details, courtroom antics, and philosophical meandering, and that it didn't lend itself to the typical three-act structure. They further worried that it wouldn't resonate enough with audiences to justify the budget they felt it would need. To a certain degree, all of that is true, insomuch as a strict adaptation would indeed be a huge gamble for any major studio. Asimov's writings were never designed to be adapted into big, Hollywood movies.
The robot effects aren't bad
Unfortunately, the producers massively overcorrected for the story's perceived problems. Chris Columbus--best known for light family fare like Home Alone and, later, the first two Harry Potter movies--was signed as director, and Robin Williams was cast as the titular robot. While that combination worked well in Mrs. Doubtfire, it's a little clunky for the source material, and the role of Andrew (the robot) doesn't lend itself to the kind of improvisational antics that Williams is famous for. Granted, Williams was a hell of an actor capable of a surprising amount of range, but Columbus and the studios were clearly trying to lean more into his comedic style, hoping that it would make the robot endearing and that it would entertain audiences easily bored by talk of the Three Laws of Robotics.
Speaking of which, the Three Laws are introduced right at the beginning in a deliberately awkward moment that ends with Sam Neill's character, "Sir" Martin, telling Andrew to "never do that again." The movie seems to take this to heart, as the Three Laws are barely mentioned again throughout the rest of the movie. Whereas the Asimov story is built around the Three Laws and uses them to great effect, in the movie, they are an afterthought that don't really relate to the plot at all, as though the scriptwriter, Nicholas Kazan, was embarrassed that he had to include them in the first place. Sure, Andrew's family members mention that they stop giving him "commands" and instead resort to "requests," but this is a lazy way of ignoring a core plot detail that should still be relevant outside the home.
Just so we're clear: Robin Williams and Oliver Platt are awesome
Also, there are a couple of examples of Andrew--and other robots--arguably defying the Three Laws. The one that frustrates me the most happens right at the end, when the elderly Portia makes it a point to say she "commands" the robot Galatea to unplug her life support. The reason I find that so frustrating is that it opens up an interesting thought experiment about how robots with the Three Laws would react to the idea of euthanasia--an idea I don't remember coming up in the entirety of The Complete Robot--but instead of letting us ponder that for a second, the movie just has the robot dutifully obey as though the First Law weren't a thing.
This is why Bicentennial Man is ultimately a poor adaptation of Asimov. It blows past the science-fiction philosophy in favor of cliché sentiment. In one of the original story's most memorable scenes, Andrew wants to walk to the library by himself, while wearing clothes, and along the way, he encounters some kids who mock him and order him to harm himself, which he must do by virtue of the Three Laws. This incident is what leads to his seeking legal protections, but it is completely absent in the movie, where the closest analogue--one of the children ordering Andrew to jump out the window--is played for little more than a cheap laugh.
The romantic subplot isn't terrible, but the execution doesn't fit Asimov's story
The movie also shoe-horns in a love story and some talk about sex, though not enough to risk its PG rating. Neither of these additions bothers me per se, though I've seen some Asimov purists pop blood vessels in their foreheads when discussing them. On their own, the additions do not ruin or detract from the underlying story, but when combined with the pandering script and glurgy tone, they are indicative of the film's greater conceptual flaw: it is trying too hard to fit into a tried-and-true Hollywood formula at the expense of faithfully telling Asimov's story.
The movie proved to be a critical and box office failure, not even able to recoup its budget. If the producers were trying to ensure a bigger audience by sentimentalizing Asimov, they clearly failed. Bicentennial Man is not fondly remembered by many today, and unfortunately, Hollywood took all the wrong lessons from its lack of success, deciding that Asimov's work is too intellectual to be adaptable on a big budget. While there is no guarantee that a more intelligent, less emotionally manipulative adaptation would have fared any better, it's certainly worth a try.
-e. magill 6/4/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: