On my last day of true freedom before returning to the drudgery and sub-par tuna sandwiches of Concordia University, I decided to have one last hurrah and spend a day at the talkies. My experiences ranged from “stupid but occasionally fun” (Expendables 2) to “one of the best movies of the year thus far” (ParaNorman). Sitting comfortably in the middle is Robot and Frank, a charming thoughtful new flick starring Skeletor himself, Frank Langella.
The film takes place in the not too distant future, the setting of oh-so-many sci-fi movies that don’t have the budget to go all Minority Report on us. Langella plays Frank, an elderly actor of no small skill who’s never quite gotten the recognition he deserves. Actually no, I’m messing with you. He plays Frank the elderly man living alone and coping with the slow onset of senility, as his memory begins to go.
The inevitable turn comes when Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden, still sore over the whole X3 thing) brings him a robotic caregiver, mostly so he doesn’t have to drive out to Frank’s secluded house every once in a while to check up on him. Spoiler alert, Frank’s kids are kind of terrible.
The robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard doing his best impression of Kevin Spacey in Moon, slowly forms a psuedo-bond with Frank, who, cranky old codger that he is, is resistant to this bit of newfangled wizbangery.
But there’s another wrinkle here, besides the ones in Langella’s face. Frank is a retired jewel thief. And when he starts teaching Robot his old tricks of the trade, he gets the idea to use his new friend to burglarize the local rich yuppy. It’s what I’d do if I got a robot. Besides install death rays and send it towards Adam Sandler’s house.
The first thing you’ll notice about Robot and Frank is the persistent visual simplicity. Not just in the camera movements, but almost every visual element of the film is about as straightforward and simple as you can get, with the titular robot being a perfect example. The robot looks like a particularly industrious child’s attempt to create a space suit out of cardboard, then remade with glossy plastic. It’s about as far removed from the overly-designed, visual clusterfuck monstrosities that all movie robots seem to be in the wake of Michael Bay’s Transformers. It’s all smooth whites and a space helmet for a head. And the amazing thing is, despite having no face whatsoever, it still manages to become endearing, saying as much through simple body language as any bayformer can through multi-million dollar CGI facial animations.
Someone once told me that Gromit from the Wallace and Gromit cartoons speaks entire volumes with his eyebrows. The robot in Robot and Frank, by contrast, can speak a good sized magazine article by simply tilting its’ head. This is pulled of by dancer Rachael Ma, and casting a dancer, someone used to expressing themselves through physical performance, as the suit performer was a wise choice.
On the subject of performances, Langella knocks it out of the park, as expected. If I gave two shits about the Academy Awards anymore, I’d say that it would be a crime if he didn’t get a best actor nod. This is about as sympathetic and endearing a portrayal of the onset of senility as you’re likely to see. The rest of the performances are merely average. Liv Tyler whines her way through the movie as Frank’s anti-robot daughter. Perhaps she’d have an easier time if she were swooning at Viggo Mortensen in Elvish. Susan Sarandon does an okay job as the local librarian and Frank’s late-in-life romance, and Jeremy Strong makes for an effective and easily hate-able villain as the local yuppy douchebag.
What instantly won me points with Robot and Frank is that it’s that sadly rare breed of sci-fi that isn’t about showing how cool our toys are gonna be in the future, but how advancements in technology will change us and affect who we are as individuals. Can a robot and a man really be friends, despite the fact that, by the robot’s own admission, it’s just a collection of chips and circuits, and has no inherent desires? Can a mass produced appliance form a meaningful bond with someone who has largely closed himself off from humanity, with just a soft voice, head inclinations and artificial concern? Is this a real bond, or is Frank just projecting a desire for friendship onto the robot? The film doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, instead leaving the conclusion to the audience.
It reminded me of the first section of Fantasia’s Doomsday Book, a thoughtful meditation on the interaction between life and technology that only slightly owes everything it has to Isaac Asimov.
The one knock most people may have against it is the ending. Firstly we get a Shyamalan-esque twist that some people may find contrived and overly-saccharine in parts. As for myself, I’m on the fence. I can understand why you wouldn’t like it, but it’s not like it turns out the robot is Tyrion Lannister in a robot suit and he spends the last third of the movie slapping the yuppie guy in the face. That actually would have been awesome though.
Secondly, as I mentioned before, the film is largely open-ended, leaving the audience to make its own conclusions about what it all means. Those audience members who expect their morals to be wrapped up in a nice pretty package and spoon-fed to them may find the closing scenes maddeningly vague.
As for me, I loved Robot and Frank. It’s not the kind of “Oh my God, this is the best thing evaaar!” experience I had with ParaNorman just beforehand, but then again precious few things are. It’s a quietly moving, simplistically beautiful film that any connoisseur of fine science-fiction needs to check out.