Robot & Frank

robot-frank-gardening

(Jake Schreier, 2012)
(Originally posted at Take One)

Taking a bold and refreshing step in new directions within a genre clogged up with overt derivatives, Jake Schreier’s confident debut Robot & Frank (2012) is a dutiful shot in the arm to science fiction that calmly addresses a range of prescient topics without overcrowding them with easy answers or flashy aesthetics.

Set in ‘the near future’, Frank Langella plays the eponymous Frank, an aging cat burglar edging closer to the cusps of senile dementia. Living alone in a cluttered house, Frank spends his days thieving petty items from local gift shops and frequenting the local library where his friend Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) works, casually showing evidence that he is losing grasp of his memory. Despite the occasional visits from his son Hunter (James Marsden) and video calls from daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), Frank lives a life of grouchy solitude and pines for his productive days as a jewel thief.

Noticing that the lack of company affects his general wellbeing, Hunter invests in a robot butler (brought to life by the sultry voice of Peter Sarsgaard, channelling Kevin Spacey’s desolate tones in Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009)) to aid his father’s day-to-day existence; effortlessly carrying out the chores Frank cares little for. Immediately sceptical of this new addition, Frank – a product and cheerleader of the analogue charms of the old world – quickly begins to confide in his newfound friend, realising that its job to obey its master’s orders can be manipulated to his advantage. Conspiring to help save the library’s acquisition by a wealthy socialite, who looks to convert its dusty interiors to a more modernised community, Frank hatches a plan that requires his trusty robot to help in a series of burglaries, teaching it skills that are new to its artificial intelligence (lock picking, etc.) whilst forming a dependable friendship that is tested somewhat by the local law enforcement hot on their trail.

Marrying creative, and sometimes laugh out loud, humour with a subtle projection of an entirely plausible near future, Robot & Frank is a clever and outwardly light film that peers in on current issues regarding humanity’s embrace and  – to some extent – reliance on robots and technology, concerns that are not particularly overstressed by the relatively thin premise. Embedded amongst a leafy upstate New York, the story (a first-time feature from the clearly intelligent writer Christopher D. Ford) is stimulating through its existence as a sci-fi with only delicate and understated affiliations with genre conventions. Transcending CGI and action driven subplots (two of many elements all too comfortably associated with the genre), Schreier and Ford’s film contains only whiffs of technological advancement; a zippy vehicle here and a sleek robot there are features only drip-fed throughout an unidentified world that is almost familiar to a contemporary audience.

Much like the plot to switch the library from a house of knowledge to an augmented simulation of reality, the film calls to mind the current rivalry between books and the increasingly popular Kindle, with the latter doing away with and replacing the physical act of turning pages and actually buying and appreciating the written word. This is similarly mirrored by the character of the robot as, by and large, a replacement for humanity and the processes of memory; its computerised functions make for an interesting duality in conjunction with Frank’s ailing mental health.

Though not without its faults, namely the all too rosy finale, Robot & Frank is a film full of merits, and is both a poignant depiction of ageing and loneliness and sci-fi that refuses to give in to the normalities of the genre.

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