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Robot & Frank

August 27, 2012
Robot & Frank

For those of us who bemoan the identification of “sci-fi” with CGI shoot-em-ups and space opera, independent film is a welcome oasis. Just this summer we’ve had the low-budget Sound of My Voice and Safety Not Guaranteed. And now we have the charming Robot & Frank, which not only manages to raise some excellent conversations about how technology impacts our daily lives, but does so in the service of an engaging, character-driven buddy comedy.

The film is set in “the near future”, and indeed almost everything we see is recognizable. Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone in upstate New York, but it’s not clear how long that can last; his mind is slowly escaping him. He manages to feed himself all right; he walks into town to visit the library — he seems to be the last regular patron — and even flirts amiably with the librarian (Susan Sarandon). But then he decides to have lunch at Harry’s, not remembering that it’s been closed for years. Frank’s daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), is off in Turkmenistan saving the world, and his son, Hunter (James Marsden), only makes the drive up from the city — five hours each way — on the weekends if at all.

Hunter wants to put Frank in what amounts to an assisted living facility with a focus on helping slow or reverse his memory loss — itself a fascinating idea that the film wisely avoids digging into lest it spread itself too thin — but Frank is having none of it. As a strong-armed compromise, Hunter leaves Frank a robot (Rachael Ma, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to take care of the house and to improve Frank’s mental and physical health. Frank chafes at the idea of gardening, but he quickly realizes that the robot — which he never names — could come in handy in his old career: catburglary.

Langella’s performance is remarkable. We see both Frank’s old, sly, fun-loving side and his recent decline. He slips as smoothly into the past as any patient in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. And his chemistry with his robot counterpart is seamless, despite the obvious complication of acting to one body and a different voice.

Part of that interaction may have been eased by the broken quality of the robot’s delivery; either the sound editors took Sarsgaard’s lines and chopped them together to mimic a clipped, computer-generated delivery or Sarsgaard himself is a phenomenal voice actor. As to the lines themselves, the single most thoughtful touch in Christopher D. Ford’s script is that he stopped short of making the robot “intelligent”. That is, this is not an android that “really” thinks and feels on its own; it is instead a tremendously sophisticated descendent of script-driven expert systems like Siri or Google Now. Not only is this made explicit in the dialogue, but we see it leak through when a scripted conversational pleasantry is followed by a scheduled reminder about an enema, or in default responses like “I don’t have any thoughts on that.”

While Ford and director Jake Schreier hardly skimp on the story, they find plenty of time to explore our interactions with technology. What, for instance, is the proper analogy for the robot, if any? Is it a butler? a slave? Are there ethical implications to the answer? Is it possible, given a sufficiently sophisticated system, to develop a friendship? What would that mean to us? to the robot? And what are the legal ramifications of such systems? Not only are all these points raised, but there is even some variation of opinions on display, leaving them open to further discussion. And there are even broader questions, like “what is the role of a library in the age of a commonly-accessible Internet?”

There will always be tent-poles for CGI space operas and gritty future-noirs shot through with half-baked freshman philosophy. It’s stories like Robot & Frank that show us what science fiction can look like at its best, able to turn back and say something meaningful to us.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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