The robotics guys working on Chris Columbus’s latest minivan—his usual rich-suburban, vaguely fascistic dramedy guaranteed by Satan’s henchmen in Glendale to pull off a triumph of the till—have encased Robin Williams from head to toe in a silicone-and-plastic robot suit so that he can portray the positronic, immortal title character of Bicentennial Man. This remote-controlled contraption reproduces Williams’s facial tics with minimalist precision, amounting to a fine unwitting joke on his beatific love-me shtick. But laughter turns to tears when Williams goes in search of robots produced in the same assembly line and they all look like—Robin Williams! Dear God, they’re multiplying!
We’re supposed to be weeping because Williams’s compatriots have all been “deleted” or “reprogrammed” by their manufacturer, since a systems glitch invested them with emotions and an inkling of free will: scary stuff for the suits who created them. “It is a household appliance and yet you act like it was a man,” The Man says nervously to Williams’s sympathetic owner (Sam Neill, playing a disposable income in a Polo sweater and penny loafers). The film, spanning 200 years with the same set design, wants to draw an analogy between the robot technology of “the not-too-distant future” and bigotry; Williams vomits up half-digested molasses like “Millions have died for one idea: freedom” and “How does one obtain freedom?” and the robot’s human paramour (Embeth Davidtz) worries that “if we’re together, we’ll never be accepted—we’re different.” Amid the complacent self-congratulation (the film’s sole black character is the president of the World Congress) is a bizarre reactionary bent: An underfunded inventor makes enough snide asides about “relentlessly unfashionable android technology” that you half expect Williams to start speechifying about the merits of cloning. After all, clones are people too. He should know.