ROBOT AND FRANK. Starring: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, and Liv Tyler. Directed by Jake Schreier. Rated M (Coarse language). 89 min.
This is an American film about an ageing, lonely jewel thief, Frank Weld (Frank Langella), who has served two terms in prison for theft. As Frank slips into dementia, his son, Hunter (James Marsden), tries to find a way of avoiding committing his father to a nursing home, and gives his father a robot as a companion (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard).
The film takes place some time in “the near future”. The robot walks, talks, cooks and cleans, and is programmed to be Frank’s butler. It becomes part of Frank’s daily life, and helps to keep Frank’s brain active. It is also programmed to supply Frank with therapeutic care. Frank Langella gives a wonderful performance as the old man who first resists his robot, and then slips into accepting the robot as his talking and helping companion.
The robot is not programmed to be law-abiding, only to serve Frank’s needs, so Frank thinks he can use it to return to his old thieving practices. Together, they steal an antique copy of Don Quixote from the town’s library, which is headed by Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) the local librarian. Ironically, she is one of the few living beings in a library that is almost completely automated. Frank finds her very attractive, but he has also forgotten that she was once his wife.
Frank’s activist daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) develops ethical objections to the robot and wants him to let it go. She regularly checks on Frank via a video screen over his fireplace at home, which saves her the nuisance of making personal visits. But she changes her mind, when she comprehends how significant the robot is to her father.
Now, partners in crime, Robot and Frank decide to steal some expensive jewels. The finger begins to point to an ex-con, and the robot suggests to Frank that he wipe its hard-drive to hide what has been done. Stimulated by everything, Frank comes out of his dementia to realise momentarily that the librarian is actually the person to whom he was married, but his memory is deteriorating rapidly. As the film finishes, and with Frank in a nursing home, we learn that no one has (yet) found the jewels, which the robot has hidden somewhere around the tomato plants in Frank’s garden.
The film deals with ageing and fraility, and combines sadness with humour in unexpected ways. It joins comic fantasy with real life, and tackles some weighty issues that affect human beings’ relationship with Technology. The film raises specific ethical issues posed by the impersonality of modern technology. We come to care about Frank’s relationship with his robot, as he does, because, “human-like”, the robot has helped a proud man cope with his fear of growing old. The robot reminds Frank constantly that it is not “alive”, but it looks more and more human as it acquires what Frank values most, his memory.
As Frank’s memory slips away, the social issues raised by the movie grow in their relevance. How much can a robot emulate human life? What are the limits of artificial intelligence, and can robots ever be programmed to think and behave morally? Finally and perhaps most importantly: How can we best shape the technology that is all around us, which the robot represents? The final credits for the movie, which contain images of helping robots in action, challenge us vividly about what lies ahead.
This is a smart movie, well-scripted, well-acted, whimsical and thoughtful, and it is gently confronting. There is something immensely sad about the fact that, as the movie opens, Frank realises that he is robbing his own home.
The movie tells us that our memories are important, but it also tells us poignantly that, regardless of human capacity, and the help that technology might deliver, not all of what we remember is ever what it seems.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Sony Pictures International.
Out November 15th. 2012.