Bicentennial Man

(Hidden Assumptions)
Last week a priest friend and I watched Bicentennial Man. While it was mainly a "fun movie," it did have a couple of assumptions so common they usually go unnoticed. Before commenting on them, I should warn you this is not a movie review. If you haven't seen Bicentennial Man (and plan to) read no further since my comments necessarily involve revealing the plot. Based on a 1976 novel by Isaac Asimov, the film follows the "gradual transformation" of a robot into a human. As I watched it, I noted the following steps:

1. Upon arrival at its household, the robot receives a name (Andrew) and gives a name to the younger daughter, "Little Miss."

2. When he accidentally breaks Little Miss' glass horse, he studies books on carving and sculpts a lovely wooden one for her.

3. His master observes him listening meditatively to classical music.

4. Andrew asks for his "freedom" and builds a house where he lives alone (made possible by his job & bank account).

5. He meets a technician who takes off his metal face, hands, etc. and replaces them with human-like skin. (He of course has the face of Robin Williams.)

6. Later he gets a full nervous system which allows him a sense of touch and pain.

7. Next comes a digestive system and, after a coy conversation with the technician, he becomes a "complete man."

8. Thus he is able to engage in (sterile) sex with Little Miss' granddaughter. He convinces her using her previous statement about how it is often "right" to do what is "wrong."

9. He ages and just before his death, a U.N. assembly recognizes him as human.

10. Andrew dies next to Little Miss' granddaughter who tells the nurse to "pull the plug" so she can also die.

Two uncritical assumptions underlie this plot. First, the transformation from machine to man is supposedly gradual. But it was quite instantaneous. By step two it is clear he possesses a capacity which distinguishes human beings from other animals. In Everlasting Man Chesterton identifies the difference by reflecting on cave paintings:

"That is the simplest lesson to learn in the cavern of the
coloured pictures; only it is too simple to be learnt. It
is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in
kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it
sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew
a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say
that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man.
Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it
is unique. Art is the signature of man."

Andrew's ability to create an original work of art, not just generate one based on previous programming, places him on a human level. He has become "human" in a flash - not by a slow process. The other steps are at best secondary and even signs of degeneration. Of course to deteriorate is "human" but in a different sense of the word.

The second uncritical assumption relies on the equivocal use of the word "human." (As in, "The temptation to steal was just too much; after all, I am only human.") Consider how the last seven steps of Andrew's "gradual transformation" parallel the Fall described in Genesis: When the first man was formed, he was already complete. This is signified by his power to give names to other creatures - including his wife to whom he gives a generic name, Ishah, i.e. woman. He had an unalloyed appreciation of beauty and music. But he wanted to assert himself ("become like the gods" - Gen. 3:4) which resulted in separation and loneliness. He becomes superficial - what matters are appearances (Andrew's desire for human skin). He confuses right and wrong, sometimes craftily to deceive others. He corrupts even the greatest gift by using his sexuality in a sterile manner. The affirmation of others becomes paramount for him. The movie adds a final, contemporary touch - assisted suicide caps off the dreary rebellion.

To make these observations should not detract from appreciation of what in many ways is a pleasant movie. My priest friend and I both got choked up when Robin Williams came to Little Miss' deathbed. Taking her hand, he uncovers part of the wooden horse which she clutches in the other. It does have many nice scenes and of course funny ones too. Enjoy, but please also be aware of cultural assumptions. In this case the view that we create our humanity rather than discover it. And that the Fall was somehow a "fall upward."


The "Religion" of our Culture: Naturalism

A sceptical look at Carl Sagan

Hawking, Galileo and the Pope

A Reflection from Larry Fox