Monday, October 8, 2012

Robot and Frank

At the close of a summer season filled with big-budget spectacle, Robot and Frank arrives from the quiet end of the science fiction spectrum. The original plot wasn’t adapted from a short story, but it would make a good one. Robot and Frank starts with a solid premise, and with the help of strong performances from veteran actors, it mostly delivers.

In the near future, aging ex-burglar Frank (played by Frank Langella) lives alone, though his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) calls him often, and his attorney son, Hunter (James Marsden) visits him on the weekends. Frank mostly keeps to himself, though he regularly walks to the library, reminiscing with the librarian (Susan Sarandon) about print media. Concerned about his father’s memory loss and onsetting dementia, Hunter purchases a robot to help keep his father in check. Frank is resistant to the idea at first but warms considerably when he finds that the robot doesn’t seem to have any ethical qualms with stealing.

Robot and Frank marks an impressive debut for both writer Christopher Ford and director Jake Schreier. The film excels in its subtle and realistic depiction of the near future. Technology has clearly advanced but not so far that we can’t relate. The only bit that doesn’t ring true is the notion of robots being integrated into society without being programmed to strictly obey local and federal laws, but that’s not really a story flaw, as the film does great things with the concept. Passing references to ethical and political disagreements over robotic development (which there already are and most certainly will continue to be) help further ground the story in reality.

Frank Langella (you may remember his virtuoso turn as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon) gives a fine performance as a man both resistant to change and in denial about his memory loss. I believed his progression with the robot, and I think it shows what will almost certainly happen in the years to come: humans easily forgetting that robots aren’t alive. If ever we create artificial intelligence, that will be another matter, but until then, our machines are only programmed to emulate human behavior. After a few weeks in the company of a very helpful machine that can carry on a conversation, that line gets blurry for Frank.

The always dependable Susan Sarandon plays her everywoman self as the kindly librarian, and James Marsden and Liv Tyler effectively depict children with different responses to their father’s illness. The only weak link in the chain comes in the character of Jake (Jeremy Strong), the arrogant hipster in charge of renovating the library. His character often feels more like a caricature than a real person, but that’s a minor qualm, only noticeable because the rest of the characters are so well-realized.

Robot and Frank is a solid piece of science fiction, one that I recommend both for sci-fi buffs and those who don’t typically enjoy the genre. The majority of its projections of the near future ring true, but it’s more concerned with its characters. Like all good sci-fi, Robot and Frank uses futuristic concepts to examine present realities. Aging, memory loss, how best to care for the elderly: these issues aren’t going away, and just as technology won’t hold all the answers, this film doesn’t try to provide them. I found Robot and Frank’s lack of preaching refreshing; while exploring various ethical issues, the film doesn’t tell us what to think. It just tells us a good story.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some language.

Language is the only concern here. I remember there being a couple of F words, along with a peppering of other curses. The story is slow-moving and mature in nature, enough so that younger viewers might not connect with it.

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