Review: Robot & Frank

Posted 8 December 2014

‘Hello, Frank. It is a pleasure to meet you.’ ‘How the hell do you know?’

Robot and Frank

Perhaps of 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 our population.

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.

Pulling the 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.

Naturally, 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?

Other such 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.

There’s a 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!

jake Richardson

Jake Richardson

Our student sci-fi criticRead more posts by Jake Richardson

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