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An Asimov twist: Robin Williams, robot


December 15, 1999
Web posted at: 2:57 p.m. EST (1957 GMT)

From Dennis Michael
CNN Entertainment News Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Imagine a family far in the future, in a time when purchasing an android to perform household tasks is as commonplace, or nearly so, as buying a microwave oven. It's in this futuristic setting that an unusual robot turns up in the film, "Bicentennial Man," which goes into wide release on Friday.

As far as the robot's manufacturer, U.S. Robots, is concerned, the android's "positronic" brain -- which any "Star Trek" fan will tell you is a device that lets robots make creative decisions -- is defective. But the robot, called Andrew Martin, doesn't think it's a factory reject. "He" grows over 200 years, seeking through technical upgrades and simple personal growth to become human.

Robin Williams stars as the title character in the Chris Columbus-directed film based on the work of heralded science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who died in 1992. "Bicentennial Man," published in 1975, is one of a series of Asimov robot stories that includes "I, Robot."

Williams plays a robot on a 200-year quest to become human

Williams a sci-fi fan

Williams says he's a fan of sci-fi. "I'm fascinated, even by the worst ones," he says. "'Attack of the Killer Vibrators' -- I'm there, I'm watching. I'm just looking to see ... what the future is like. And my favorite is 'Blade Runner.'"

In "Blade Runner," the Philip K. Dick novel adapted into the 1982 Ridley Scott movie, human killers hunt down escaped robot "replicants" who turn out to be more vivid and alive than their human creators, much as "Bicentennial Man"'s Andrew Martin is more human than many of the humans in his story. Martin has a sense of justice, a sense of fairness, and -- thanks to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics -- is incapable of violence against humans.

The same can't be said of the people around him, try as he might to act normal and blend in.

"(Dick's) is a darker view," Williams says, "but also with the same quest. Those replicants are desperate to blend in with humans and have a life."

Theatrical preview for "Bicentennial Man"
Windows Media 28K 80K

Inserting comedy into earnest tale

The original short story wasn't a comic work, but since this is a Robin Williams film, a little comedy is as unavoidable as celluloid.

Yet "Bicentennial Man" isn't just a couple of hours of robot jokes. In fact, it isn't about being a robot at all. It's about what society says qualifies as a person.

Can emotion exist within a machine? Not today, Williams says, but he isn't sure where technology will take us. "It is an interesting element in terms of science fiction, and in terms of our future," he says.

"What would be -- if a creature wanted to achieve human status, and be declared a human being -- what would be the prerogatives, and what would be the parameters of us saying, 'OK, you can be one of us now'?"

In the process of determining that, Williams says, we may find the answer to what makes humanity so special.

Disney halts big-budget Robin Williams flick
November 19, 1998
From 'Mork' to Oscar, a look at Robin Williams' career
September 22, 1998

Official 'Bicentennial Man' site
Touchstone Pictures
In Memory of Isaac Asimov
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

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