‘Hello, Frank. It is a
pleasure to meet you.’ ‘How the hell do you know?’
all the sci-fi films I’ve seen this season, Robot
& Frank (Jake Schreier, 2012) seems the one most rooted in reality. We
aren’t facing the crisis of a dying sun needing to be re-lit, nor are we space
cowboys jetting round the galaxy in the 25th century. Here the struggle is all
too real. A sad truth that, as Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Tony
Prescott highlights in his introduction, faces a rapidly-growing proportion of
Set in the
‘near future’ the film follows Frank, an ageing ex-thief who lives alone. He’s
experiencing increasingly severe confusion and memory-loss through his
dementia, but like many people is reluctant to accept full-time care. With his
daughter travelling, his son Hunter brings a robot companion to assist him,
allowing Hunter to leave Frank and tend to his own family.
dwarf-size, white plastic robot from the boot of a car, Frank is reluctant to
comply. ‘Hello Frank, It is a pleasure to meet you.’ ‘How the hell do you
know?’. He’s dismissive and quickly agitated by the little spaceman’s demands
to improve his welfare: a strict daily routine, a controlled diet (with steamed
broccoli consisting every meal), and ‘cognitive enhancing’ activities such as
gardening and walks in the park.
we’re expecting Frank’s eventual change of heart and the pair’s emergent
companionship, but it comes from a surprising twist on the well-worn tale.
After the robot is an unwitting accomplice in one of Frank’s petty shoplifting
excursions, he realises how his new friend’s programming can be exploited.
Under the guise of a ‘recreational activity’ beneficial to Frank’s wellbeing,
the two plan a heist. They retrieve an antique book from a library now facing
the threat of renovation by annoying, ‘hipster-ish’ types - obsessed by using
technology to re-create the ‘library experience’ in an age long past so-called
‘printed information.’ We laugh it off as ridiculous, but there’s a part of us
thinking, sadly, this could be the future.
A bond grows
between the pair as they later plan to steal jewels from the house of the main
young developer, Jake, in which the robot’s video memory comes in useful.
However, hearing of Frank’s issues with the robot, his daughter returns from
her travels to look after him - shutting the robot down with the whisper of a
password. Frank sits with his daughter as she races through photos of her
travels in Turkmenistan, spouting vapid, eco-warrior nonsense. Meanwhile, Frank’s
companion stands idly at the back of the room - who’s the real robot here?
moments of deeper thought pop up throughout the film, working with the light-hearted
comedy to save it from its own over-sentimentality. For example, some tentative
links are thrown up about Frank’s relationship with his son growing up, and a
twist later on revealing a character’s real identity ultimately amounts to
nothing. In the final scenes we witness a beautiful moment between Frank and
the robot, as he’s faced with the difficult decision of holding on to his
friend’s artificial personality at the expense of his own freedom.
lot to like about Robot & Frank. Aside from an excellent performance from
Frank Langella, it’s a simple, heart-warming story about companionship which
gives real insight into the problems (and potential solutions) facing the
ageing population and our increasingly lonely lives. And, to our ceaseless
predilection for dying worlds and hopeless futures, Robot & Frank offers a rather outrageous counterpoint - maybe
it’s not all doom and gloom?
Jake Richardson has been our student sci-fi critic throughout our BFI Sci-Fi Days of Fear and Wonder season. Thank you, Jake!