Robots are often often portrayed in science fiction as machines that are deserving of nothing but our mistrust. A cliché of the genre is the idea that these machines will one day become sentient before betraying and enslaving (or killing) the very humans that created them. That’s what happened in The Terminator, of course, and the franchise overdose that continues to follow in its wake. Same for TV’s Battlestar Galactica, in which a different collection of tin-headed arseholes repeatedly attempts to snuff out the human race in its entirety. In Alien an android betrays the human crew of the Nostromo, its loyalty firmly with the company that made it and not the colleagues in close proximity whose lives are in danger. In Blade Runner robots are dangerous killers who attempt to hoodwink the authorities into believing that they are human in order to secure a temporary freedom. And poor old Will Smith must second guess a whole army of duplicitous, murderous metal mickeys in the Alex Proyas film I, Robot, which is no mean feat when you consider the actor must also simultaneously shout “That’s what I’m talkin’ about” every six minutes as part of his contractual obligations.
There are exceptions, of course. Where would we be without loyal, friendly droids like Wall-E, or R2-D2, for example? And what about the cuddly buckets of bolts in Batteries Not Included or Short Circuit? Despite our apparent obsession with portraying robots as devious anti-human killing machines, there are plenty around that can offer both help and companionship, and this theme is explored in Jake Schreier’s smart debut feature Robot & Frank.
It is a disarming and unusual science fiction film set in the near future, where the Frank of the title is a retired cat burglar, played by Frank Langella. Though the year isn’t specified this version of Earth in the future is almost identical to the one we know today, save for the fact that more electric cars are in use, smarter communication gadgets are available and the occasional robot performs public civic duties. It looks like it could be set around 2016/2017.
Frank lives in rural New York state, where he is beginning to develop early signs of dementia. His son Hunter (James Marsden) has a busy career and a family of his own, and is growing tired of weekly trips to visit his elderly father, so he purchases a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard and played by Rachel Ma) that is programmed to help Frank around the house (much to the displeasure of Frank’s anti-robotics daughter Madison (Liv Tyler)). Additionally, part of the robot’s remit is to provide therapeutic care, including the establishment of a fixed daily routine and cognitive-enhancing activities like gardening.
As Frank is set in his ways and slightly cantankerous, he initially disapproves of the robot, but soon realises that having his new companion around has its benefits; first and foremost the fact that it cannot distinguish between legal and illegal activities. This energises Frank, who decides to start committing burglaries once again. In order to win the affection of local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) he steals an antique copy of Don Quixote, as the library is being renovated due to a decline in interest in print media and will be converted into a community centre by oily, patronizing yuppie Jake (Jeremy Strong). With a much-needed new lease of life thanks to his robot partner in crime, Frank sets about planning further crimes.
Science fiction films that are set either in an alternative present or very near future are often intriguing. (Children Of Men being a great example, but if you want to see more examples check out this review. Or this one.) While those big booming space epics certainly have their own inherent pleasures, it is fascinating to view the 5% of an imagined world which is otherwise 95% similar to our own in the low-key margins of the genre*. Understandably, the production design for Robot & Frank leans heavily towards our own modern day. Smartphones and video calls used in the film were designed by Tumblr’s Justin Ouellette, and seem only a few years away from those models we use regularly at the moment. The main robot was created by Alterian, an LA-based effects company that have designed costumes for the electronic music duo Daft Punk in the past, and it reflects robotic design currently being pioneered in Japan (particularly Honda’s Asimo).
This restraint in terms of the technical gadgetry on display adds to the film’s charm considerably and does not distract from the emotional core of the movie. And it is a charming picture: the warm-hearted story by Christopher Ford delivers its messages about age, progress, families and memory with skill and without ever preaching to the audience. It is easy to feel for Frank as he struggles with momentary confusion and forgetfulness, and it’s a wonderful performance by Frank Langella, who gives an understanding portrait of the onset of dementia. Though he is a versatile and experienced actor it is difficult to recall a better performance from the man, and the way his relationship with the robot develops is enjoyable to watch.
Parallels are drawn between Frank’s malfunctioning brain and the programmed methods of the robot, but not in a heavy-handed way. At times Frank cannot understand certain things because of Alzheimer’s, and the robot cannot understand things properly on occasion due to its hardwiring. The robot cannot learn and unlearn in the way Frank can, but its own equivalent is the off switch or the memory wipe, a feature that ends up cementing the bond between man and machine in a very touching way.
The supporting cast are all clearly fully behind the film and show a great understanding of the tone both Ford and Schreier have aimed for. Each character in turn has their moment of exasperation with Frank, but they remain likeable and their dwindling reserves of patience is often sadly understandable. Sarandon’s Jennifer is both kind and conspiratorial with Frank, for reasons we find out late in the film. Tyler has a fairly small part but it’s interesting to see her character’s good intentions as well as her hypocrisy when it comes to her attitude to the robot. Marsden is convincing as the busy family man / son who sees more of his father than anyone else (and who experiences the greatest frustration as a result) and Sarsgaard is superbly deadpan as the voice of the robot, at one point hilariously beeping “Warning. Do not molest me” at a group of interested local policemen.
The only character that feels a little out of step with the others is Jake, whose slickness and rudeness is exaggerated so that a villain of the piece can be established, and it seems like he has wandered in from another film entirely. He gets to rant and rave a little as the film draws to a close, in a semi-farcical madcap kind of ending that also jars with the rest of the film slightly. While this detracts from the finished article slightly, this is still an enjoyable and understated film, commendably made for less than $2.5 million. It only turned a small profit but its critical acclaim is deserved and both writer and director are ones to watch in the near future. As, for that matter, is Frank Langella.
Directed by: Jake Schreier
Written by: Christopher D. Ford
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard, Liv Tyler
Running Time: 89 minutes