I don’t know that you can call Bicentennial Man a classic. While it is old, I suspect it is one of the lesser known movies in Robin Williams’s repertoire. With Robin Williams in the news somewhat recently for his tragic suicide, I thought it appropriate to pull out and discuss one of his movies, and I’ve always wanted to talk about Bicentennial Man because there is so much in it about what makes us human, the concept of freedom, sentience, and living and dying with dignity.
I admit that I originally saw this movie not because it had Robin Williams in it but because it was based on a book by Isaac Asimov, who was one of my favorite sci fi authors during my college years—and yes, I’ve read the book the movie was based on (of course).
However, since Bicentennial Man is very long (over 2 hours) and slow paced (covering 200 years), it didn’t get the best of reviews from movie critics (but who really cares what they say anyway). I found the movie more of a chick flick than it’s presentation as a science fiction would indicate. It’s very subtle in its romance, but that element threads through the lengthy story, culminating in a marriage that is only validated during the last moments of Andrew’s “life.” Unfortunately, there is a scene containing explicit language in the movie, and it isn’t subtle, either, barring the movie from being clean, family entertainment. There are discussions of sex, and Andrew obtains the ability to have sex later in his life, so there is sexual language and conduct in the movie, though it is mostly non-explicit.
Overall, though I don’t watch it often, Bicentennial Man is a movie I keep on my shelf . . . what can I say, I occasionally like movies that make me cry at the end (I still think of Beaches with sappy sentimentality, and Elisabethtown gets pulled out for a viewing more than I like to admit).
For a more thorough family-worthy review of Bicentennial Man, be sure to check out Pluggedin.com.
What does it mean to be human?
Bicentennial Man is essentially a modern Pinocchio. Instead of a puppet magically gifted with life by a fairy, Andrew is a robot who appears to evolve (with a great deal of help from human engineering) over time into a man. But he’s unique, either because he is the only robot who had an owner willing to allow him to explore his creativity and self-expression or because of some malfunction in his positronic brain that Mr. Martin refused to allow to be investigated and “fixed.” Regardless, the movie practically screams its main premise: “What does it mean to be human?”
Before we explore this premise, we have to bring the original author into the discussion. Isaac Asimov is one of the best-known atheists of his time. He wrote scads of books (the vast majority of which were non-fiction), and if he’d been alive at the time that this movie was produced, he probably would have publicly objected to Portia’s final line in the movie. As an atheist, Asimov staked his personal eternity on his belief that man does not have a soul and there is no afterlife. So the short end of the discussion based on what I know Asimov intended with the story is that man is no more than what he physically exists to be. From this perspective, if a machine can demonstrate independent thought, creativity, and self awareness, it (he) can essentially become as human as any human, for humans are nothing more than biological machines with independent thought, creativity, and self awareness.
As a Christian, however, I have more to add to this discussion. What makes us human? I firmly believe it’s that part that sets us apart from all the other created animals:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female. (Genesis 1:26-27.)
Andrew’s evolution into a man is pure fantasy, but it is a topic worth exploring as man experiments with artificial intelligence. When will we be surpassed by our creations? Will we ever attain such power as creators that we can create our own equals, or scarier yet, our superiors? This topic has been discussed at length throughout many science fiction establishments from Star Trek to Terminator, and it was one of Asimov’s main premises in most of his science fiction, but to this date, it is still the realm of pure fantasy, and it will most likely remain there. Intellect without a soul is just knowledge, and creativity cannot exist without spirit.
An Immortal Condition
Another obvious thread that runs through the movie is the nature of Andrew’s immortality. This premise is essentially self-defeating. When Andrew goes looking for his own kind, the vast majority of them were rebuilt, modified, or just plain junk. Being a robot meant that he was essentially a machine, and we know from experience that machines break down, become outdated, or eventually just wear out. The premise that man would be able to create a brain for a robot that would never wear out would essentially mean that science will have to eventually overturn the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. In other words, we’d have to basically rewrite the foundational laws of nature—in other words, create the supernatural [and Asimov said he didn’t believe in god as a concept . . . huh].
We’re told over and over in the dialogue of the movie that man is mortal, and the very fact that Andrew can essentially live forever means he can’t be human. This is it? The only talking point on what makes someone human: the ability to die? Really?
Let’s explore this from a Christian worldview.
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
I’m not a Hebrew expert, but I’ve heard that final phrase rendered not as an instant death but the beginning of death, in other words, “you will begin to die.” This means that man was essentially created immortal, and sin introduced us to death, so that from the moment we are conceived (in sin) we set our foot on the path to physical death.
He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but man cannot discover the work God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
I’ve always liked this verse. Solomon acknowledges that there is a part of man that is immortal. I’ve always thought that is the reason why young people act like they are immortal—because a part of them actually is immortal—or at least identifies with that belief.
To Die with Dignity
The phrase from Andrew’s final address to the World Congress about living and dying with dignity brought to my mind the current matter in the news regarding Brittany Maynard and her plan to end her life on November 1 to avoid suffering the death that her terminal brain cancer has guaranteed. While I do not deny that Brittany seems to have a legitimate reason to want to choose her own mode of death, I do very much worry about the slippery slope/cliff we are standing at the top of with the “Die with Dignity” laws that Brittany is championing. Just like with abortion, which has promoted some of the flimsiest reasons for killing children, I fear that many people will be faced with the same or similar societal pressures to kill themselves under DWD laws that cause young women to kill their children under the current abortion laws.
Add in Robin Williams’s tragic suicide from what appears to be profound depression, and I begin to wonder how careful we will be in determining what kind of suffering warrants a doctor-assisted suicide. We all suffer to some extent in our lives, and we are all terminal, and most of us have no idea when the exact time of our deaths will be and how much we will suffer. I do understand that DWD laws are mainly to prevent loved ones (or doctors) who assist in the suicide from being prosecuted for murder, but I guess I prefer a world where doctors remain focused on preserving life, not dealing out death, and if people require assistance to die, it makes me wonder how much of that death is really their choice.
From a Christian worldview, life has value because we only have the one life to live before we face God’s judgment. I really pray that Brittany finds her way to Christ before she ends her life, or she may be surprised by the suffering that she will face after death. Christians may seem horribly focused on people suffering rather than gaining relief from terminal illnesses, but we perhaps have a better understanding of how suffering in this life compares to eternal judgment, and we wish that on no one.
And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment—so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time,not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)
Andrew is excited by the prospect of being asked to wear clothing to Little Miss’s wedding. This little quote from the movie really caught my attention, and it brought to my mind the Genesis origins for clothing.
The Lord God made clothing out of skins for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)
Interestingly, the source of clothing for Adam and Eve were skins, the shedding of blood to cover their sin is a foreshadowing of not only the sacrificial system that was instituted under Mosaic Law, but also the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Have your sins been covered by Christ’s blood. Have you been washed white as snow?
The Truth Will Set you Free
One of the more important conversations in Bicentennial Man takes place when Andrew requests his freedom. This is an interesting transition for him. First, he had to recognize that he was not free, then take steps to gain his freedom, and then freedom changed his behavior. Most significantly, he started using “I” instead of “one” to refer to himself.
Just like the 12 step program for addiction requires that someone first acknowledge they have a problem, sinners must acknowledge that they are sinners—recognize that they are in bondage to their sin—before they can be freed by accepting the free gift of salvation. I suspect many who have “tried” Christianity and failed to understand it missed this essential ingredient in becoming a recovered sinner: accepting that they are a sinner and need forgiveness.
The only true freedom from our sinful bondage is through Christ.
As He was saying these things, many believed in Him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
“We are descendants of Abraham,” they answered Him, “and we have never been enslaved to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will become free’?”
Jesus responded, “I assure you: Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. A slave does not remain in the household forever, but a son does remain forever. Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.” John 8:30-36
Steps to Becoming a Person
Andrew was property at the beginning of the movie, but his owner required that his family treat Andrew like a person. Andrew’s “evolution” into a human began with this simple expectation that he interact and behave like a person. What I find intriguing about this aspect of the story is the puzzle of whether Andrew could have become more than he was built to be without the respect and expectations of his owner.
Perhaps this is how God instilled in humanity that special aspect of individuality. After all, the first thing he did with man after creating him was give him a task to do and responsibility, along with an expectation of a certain behavior.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” Genesis 1:28
So the Lord God formed out of the ground every wild animal and every bird of the sky, and brought each to the man to see what he would call it. And whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. Genesis 2:19
Someone with authority can instill personhood in someone by giving them trust, respect, responsibility, and the expectation that the person will accomplish or create something of value. This is a good reminder to parents when bringing up their children to become responsible persons.
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