The best science fiction is usually about our relationship with technology in some way — how technology changes us, and how we shape it, in turn. But it's rare for science fiction movies to have something interesting to say about technological and scientific progress. That's why Robot and Frank isn't just one of the year's best movies — it's also a must-see piece of science fiction.
Minor spoilers ahead... Having just rewatched the movie's trailer, let's just say that this review will be considerably less spoileriffic than the ultra-spoilery trailer.
In Robot and Frank, Frank (Frank Langella) is a former cat burglar who's retired, and who's losing his marbles somewhat. Frank's son Hunter (James Marsden) is sick of driving six hours to check on his dad once a week, so he decides to get Frank a personal care robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Frank hates the robot at first — until he realizes he can talk the robot into helping him to return to his burglarly career, in the name of helping his recovery.
There's also a fascinating subplot in which the local public library, where Frank likes to hang out, is being turned into some kind of digital monstrosity and all the books are being recycled. The local librarian (Susan Sarandon) is having to come to terms with the changing ways people read and interact with information, and she's saddled with her own, somewhat more obnoxious, robot helper. In charge of the library's renovation is Jake (Jeremy Strong), an unbelievably smug hipster whom you want to toss off a tall building the first time you meet him.
(We hosted a Q&A with director Jake Schreier last week, and you can read it here.)
At its heart, Robot and Frank is a family movie — it's the story of Frank and his family, and what happens when a robot becomes part of the family. But as this movie makes space for the characters of Frank and his two kids (and their absent mother) to become living, breathing characters, the robot's role in their lives becomes more complex — and the inclusion of the robot makes this a much richer and more honest family portrait, instead of just being a shiny gimmick grafted onto a traditional story of a senile man and his kids. All of the performances in this film are amazing, especially Langella, whose elderly wiseguy reminds me just a tad of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.
To a large extent, the robot is in loco parentis, looking after Frank and controlling his life — trying to get him to eat right and exercise and take on beneficial activities. But he's also standing in for the Frank's son, acting in Hunter's interests, and to a large extent speaking for Hunter. Meanwhile, Frank's daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) hates the robot and wants to get rid of it, even after Frank starts thinking of the robot as his friend and companion.
The movie plays with the the divide between an appliance and a person. The robot is part of the family, but is it like the family dog, the family television set, or a family friend? The robot is smart, but sort of like a smartphone and sort of like a smart person. As Frank (and the audience) get used to the robot being around, we tend to humanize it more and more — but the robot doesn't actually change or start seeming more human.
People will inevitably compare Robot and Frank with the summer's other big movie about robot-human relations, Prometheus. Prometheus was really eager to suggest that Michael Fassbender's David was sentient — and, in fact, creepily sadistic — it didn't, in the end, seem to have any ideas about human-robot relations other than "daddy issues are universal." Meanwhile, Robot and Frank is incredibly precise about exactly what this robot is, and what sort of thought it's capable of — and by setting strict limits, the movie actually opens up more avenues of meaning.
Meanwhile, Frank's burglarly expertise allows the movie to open up questions of what we consider valuable — as Frank explains to the robot, he always specialized in taking the highest value objects that he could steal the most quickly. But what makes something valuable? When Frank shoplifts horribly kitschy bathbombs from the schlocky store that's replaced his favorite restaurant, he treats them as precious because he stole them. And meanwhile, the public library is recycling all its books — except for a few volumes, which are valuable. What makes them more valuable than other books? Is it the information in them, or how it's presented?
The focus on books also leads obliquely into the movie's overall focus on different types of information storage — from Frank's brain, which is slowly failing as a storage medium, to the robot's memory, to the written word.
Most movies about robots get stuck on the question of whether they're "alive," or whether they have something we'd recognize as consciousness. But Robot and Frank sidesteps those questions, to get to some much trickier ones. The movie is pretty clear that the robot doesn't have any independent sentience of its own — it's just an extension of Frank, no different than a wheelchair or a telephone.
But that doesn't mean the questions about the robot's consciousness don't matter — in fact, they're a lot more complicated than you'd think at first. The more we start to see the robot as an extension of Frank, the more the robot's fate becomes intertwined with Frank's.
Robot and Frank is the first story about robots in a long time to sidestep questions about whether robots are human — and instead, to delve into arguably more tricky waters about how dependence on robots affects our own humanity. As a result, you won't just walk out of the film with the rich drama indelibly etched on your brain — you'll also leave debating the questions the movie raises. This is definitely one of the year's best movies.
For a list of which theaters Robot and Frank is playing at, and when, click here.