Robot and Frank
2012 • 89 minutes • Samuel Goldwyn Films
Most of my friends are open-minded cinephiles, between my MST3K-style comedy troupe from college and Captain Cinema herself. They’ll give anything a shot, so long as riffing is allowed as soon as the film sours. (Not in an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, of course, because we are ladies. Also, if I ever get kicked out of an Alamo, I will never forgive myself.) This makes group movie-going very easy—as long as a film shows promise (be it good promise or hilariously bad promise), we’ll give it (and occasionally ourselves) a shot.
Not so selecting films for my family. My mother and I watch period dramas together; my father and I have a long-standing tradition of sneaking off to action movies without her; the last film my brother took me to as a kiddo was Watchmen. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that I’ve gotten very good at. After years of research and development, I have concluded that the films that work best what I refer to as near-future sci-fi: films like About Time, Her, and today’s film, Robot and Frank.
The appeal of near-future sci-fi is obvious, for both a filmmaker and an sf-shy viewer. It’s cheaper than a special effects extravaganza and its often single tweak to the world we live in requires less suspension of disbelief than, say, Game of Thrones. But their simplicity reminds us why speculative fiction is a powerful genre in the first place: it can ask questions about our world that you simply can’t in contemporary fiction. That sense of possibility that permeates any sci-fi attempting to predict our future is just underneath the surface, already visually integrated into our everyday lives. (This stuff doesn’t age that well, but hey, neither did the Frankfurt Kitchen. It’s all in the name of progress!)
Unfortunately, the films I’ve seen that fit into this microgenre so far don’t use this power to arrive at any strong social critique. (Recommendations, as always, are welcome!) About Time uses its time travel element to conclude that life is precious (and that I will watch anything with such an affable cast), while Robot and Frank mostly uses the conceit of the robot to break your heart gently, over and over.
When Frank (Frank Langella), a retired burglar, begins suffering significantly dementia, his son purchases a live-in care robot for him, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. At first he despises the robot, but once he realizes that the robot can be taught to pick locks, he immediately perks up. From there, the film is largely about Frank and Robot’s heists and the family drama. It’s as gentle and soothing as Peter Sargaard’s voice, but it does have a few sharp edges that make it more than a cozy independent film.
Firstly, there’s hints of worldbuilding beyond. When Frank’s daughter learns that he now has a robot, she’s incensed enough by the use of artificial labor that she stays for a few days. The main plot of the film revolves around the public library being turned into a high tech community center, and the comeuppance Frank delivers to the patronizing yuppie scum in charge of it. It’s our world, mostly, but it’s clearly been thought through.
But the most interesting part about Robot and Frank is how robots are treated. It’s almost refreshing to find a depiction of robots that show them as their own form of “life,” instead of yearning to be human. Robots in this universe are largely disinterested in each other, as their programming makes them almost exclusively focused on humans. Robot is totally disinterested in the fact that he doesn’t have a name. Robot can be argued with and convinced, as long as it satisfies his highest programming—taking care of Frank. But, as he constantly reminds Frank, he’s not a person. He’s not even alive. The closest the film comes to a thesis is the link between memory and identity, as expressed by the contrast between Robot’s perfect memory and Frank’s rapidly deteriorating one.
But those sharp edges never cohere into something truly memorable, largely because the director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford didn’t want to say anything about technology—just depict its slow creep into our lives:
But while “Prometheus” and other films offer a dystopian view, showing us how close we are to a world full of technology gone haywire or spiraling out of control, “Robot & Frank” isn’t trying to impart such lessons. “It’s wrong to be afraid of the future in a knee-jerk way,” Mr. Schreier said. “You almost always end up on the wrong side of history by the end of it.”
He and Mr. Ford merely wanted to examine the implications of our increasingly intimate symbiosis with technology. “It’s not bad or good but it will change the way we relate to each other,” Mr. Schreier said. “There’s no stopping it.”
Such neutrality on the pervasive nature of technology is laudable, but it means that Robot and Frank never even really comments on the codependent relationship between Robot and Frank that’s at its heart. It makes for soft watching, when that’s what you want, but I’ll be honest: that’s not why I consume speculative fiction.
I saw this film on Netflix Instant.