Bicentennial Man

Originally published in December 1999 | Science Fiction Weekly | written by Melissa Perenson

He is like no other. In that respect, Robin Williams shares something in common with his robotic alter-ego Andrew in the film Bicentennial Man. Williams' dexterity with comedy--physical and verbal, subtle and overt--is unmatched. And it shows, even in casual conversation. One moment Williams will be bounding out of his chair in some demonstrative, humorous skit; the next, he's subdued and serious, his words illustrating the depth of his humanity. Williams, who began his career as a stand-up comedian, first found fame when he guest-starred on the 1970s sitcom Happy Days as Mork, the manic extraterrestrial humanoid with an odd handshake. That guest spot turned into the series Mork & Mindy, and from there, Williams made the leap to the big screen, starring in such films as Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Patch Adams. Currently Williams is starring in Bicentennial Man, which is based on Isaac Asimov's robot fiction. He recently sat down with Science Fiction Weekly to talk about the challenges of translating Asimov's work to film.

Did you read Isaac Asimov's stories before Bicentennial Man came up?
I read I, Robot in college. "Bicentennial Man" I'd only read after we decided to do the movie. And then I read The Positronic Man, which is the book that Asimov wrote with Robert Silverberg. It's pretty interesting, because [the movie] keeps to the spirit of what he was capturing with robots. It's weird that Asimov has never been made into a movie before; I'm pretty sure that's correct.

When you first read the script, what made you say, "This is a role I want to do"?
Because it talks about artificial intelligence and human behavior. I've always been fascinated by both. Hence acting. That's kind of the drill, really, I mean, to find different aspects of it. But with this, it's the idea of a creature evolving. And Asimov was basically talking about a moral, humane creature, of robots as being these sentient beings who were bound by the three laws like commandments. They can't violate them, even if they wanted to.

How did you research your role as a robot, and later android?
It's only during the research when you start finding out how far they are, robotically, now. Not just robotic factories, which have existed since the '60s, but real artificial intelligence in a robotic shell. The first ones would take 30 minutes to get from here to that tree. To cross this room, [designers] would put chairs and different obstacles [in the robot's way], and it would start and move its way, and then go, "Ooh, microphone" [when it encountered an object]. It was basically scanning and plotting a path. So I looked at some of that. And then there's an initial demonstration of a Honda robot that looks like an old Jewish man in Miami, because it walks like this... [Williams jumps up to demonstrate, shuffling along.] ...with the sensors in the feet, it kind of goes like this, "Hello... hold the door... hold the door..." And then if it senses something, it's like, oh, hold the door. It's very slow, and even then they have to tether it, because it costs so much. So you look at the research and you see what's the potential, and kind of extrapolate that. I mean, Asimov thought that they would have a robotic intelligence, an AI that would function as a sentient, interactive [robot] by 2030. He predicted that. Talking to some computer scientists, they say that in the next 20 years, things will change as much as the last 200 years. Especially if you talk to people about quantum computing. Which I think is what Asimov was going for when he talked about positronic brains. A positron is just a particle with no charge, but I think he was getting at the idea of micro-nanotechnology, of a brain working like a quantum computer. So is it possible? Yeah, and I was just thinking about, well, what would it be like to have a being that from its very inception was curious, intuitive, drawn to certain things, fascinated by certain things?

What do you think is the element of fable in this story?
It's more the allegory. You get to look at human behavior through the eyes of, like in a fable, of an animal. You're telling these stories, but basically you're talking about us and how we respond. In Asimov's books, it was much more that robots were very much a minority, treated as the ultimate minority. There were riots, and the quest for robotic civil rights was very intense. There used to be a courtroom scene in this film, in the very beginning, where I had to go plead for my freedom, and basically say how I am a slave, an involuntary slave.

Two hundred years is an awfully long time. How long do you think you would want to live?
I would want to live? It depends; depends is the operative word there. If you're just sitting there like this [Williams settles into a fixed, stiff-necked position and changes his voice] going, "Oh what a great day. This is wonderful. I'm 199 years old today. Happy birthday to me." No, if it's that, no, no. It depends on what the quality of life is. I don't know. I think mortality has a purpose. You have a life, and you go through all of that, and if you start to push it too far, I don't know.

You're such a visual, and physical, actor. And yet for so much of this movie, you were under a suit.
Yeah, but even in that, people said they could read me through it. When they put other people in the suit, it didn't work as well.

Was it difficult to bring that across?
No, because I took a class at Juilliard called mask. This is mask; this is basically the idea of a neutral mask, this is a neutral face. Almost like Greek, in that sense. [Andrew] looks like a statue at first. And it's just finding all of those little things within there. And yet, it isn't wild, he's not dancing around the room. That was left to Galatea, who's the next generation. That's why he was fascinated by her; that she was so physical, and so amazingly sexy as a robot. It's that idea of finding within this thing [within Andrew] the slightest human movement, that was what appealed to me.

How did you arrive at Andrew's voice?
It's hard to top HAL, after that voice [William's intonation flattens out into a monotone modeled after the HAL 9000 in 2001] which was very much the standard, and has become standard for many things. Have you ever talked to Wildfire, which is a totally automated phone answering service? People think it's a person, because it's a very nice woman who answers. "Hi, is Phil there?" "No, Phil's not here right now." "Well, can I leave a message?" "You certainly can. If you wish to leave a message, press one." And then after a while, you realize, I've been talking to a machine.

Did you improvise a lot?
The thing that came when the robot fell out of the window came from one time when I dropped my son's Furby. Before, it [said], "Oh, yum, good." [Williams' voice takes on a crazed feel.] I dropped it, and it went, "Ahhhhhhhh." And I immediately thought I killed it. The voice synthesizer broke, and it sounded like it was in awful pain.

What is it like working with director Chris Columbus, whom you've partnered with twice before this movie?
He just has a great [style]. He gives me the freedom to try things, but he also has a vision of what he wants, which helps.

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