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Sunday, May 7, 2000

Soul man for the new millennium

Robin Williams joins the League of Memorable Screen Robots as a robot called Andrew in "Bicentennial Man" (released in Japan as "Andrew NDR 114"). This is the league that includes Astroboy, the Terminator, the entire cast from "Star Wars: Episode I" and Cher. Make room for the newcomer everyone, and find him a chair.

What's interesting about Andrew is that even though he's the latest (and therefore assumed to be the most technically advanced) member of the League, he comes off as the most retro robot of them all, with the exception of Frankenstein. In fact, he's the type of robot that 6th graders in the '70s used to draw as part of their science projects (I was one of them): "Robots and How They Can Help Us."

This is partly because the movie was based on an Isaac Asimov novel written in 1976 and largely because Robin Williams plays the role in a robot suit weighing 16 kg. One can almost hear the collective groan of Hollywood CG experts missing out on a multimillion-dollar project.

This is not to say that "Bicentennial Man" is in any way unsophisticated. It's immensely sophisticated and so well-groomed visually that you can almost reach into the screen and lose your hand in the texture. Also refreshing: Its portrayal of the near-future has a viewer-friendliness factor on par with "The Jetsons." It sweeps away the android nightmares of "Bladerunner" and "Alien," it's never sarcastic or bleak and no one's submerging their identities in computer games.

You will be looking at idyllic futuristic cities where Hovercraft fly gently among treetops and one can still do all the delightfully organic things like shop at produce stands and relax at the beach. All this while exchanging witticisms with the nearest robot that comes with insulated camcorder and stereo system. Wonderful.

But the family who first buys Andrew from industrial conglomerate N&A Robotics don't seem to appreciate how good they have it. Apart from "Sir" (Sam Neill) and his youngest daughter "Little Miss" (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), the rest of the family regard Andrew and everything he represents as a minor irritation/modern convenience, like refrigerators that spout their own ice cubes but have a loud hum. One of the children (Lindze Letherman) orders Andrew to plunge head first from a second-story window, knowing that a robot is programmed to follow human orders no matter what.

Which brings us to the discussion of the Three Laws of Robotics, first outlined by Asimov and destined to show up on an electronics manufacturers manual one day soon: 1) A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. This is all very convenient for humans and having every microchip in his body programmed to follow these laws, it's no wonder that Andrew's most frequent response is "One is glad to be of service."

The question then arises: Are robots just an elevated form of household electronics, or are they "individuals" worthy of humane treatment? This is the debate that charges the entire story and while everyone struggles to make up their mind for a period of 200 years, Andrew gradually "upgrades" himself by first wearing clothing, then buying his freedom and building his own house, to acquiring human skin and simulated human organs. By the time the verdict is finally given, Andrew has attained the most human trait of all: mortality.

"Bicentennial Man" touches upon so many things and provokes thoughts on still more. Asimov believed that a discussion of robots ultimately led to the discussion of men. One precluded the other and to see a robot as just a commercial product turned on or off at will was a denial of humanity itself. For 200 years, Andrew wanders the globe, carrying on an internal debate on what he is and what it means to be human. Whether he found an answer or not, I couldn't tell.

Too busy with a hankie.

"Bicentennial Man (Andrew NDR 114)" opens May 13 at the Nichigeki Plaza Theater in Yurakucho and other theaters.

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