With the summer blockbuster season—and the releases of The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, etc.—now behind us, we geek cinephiles will have to wait another several months until the next crop of big-budget nerd-oriented films hits the big screen. But while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Wreck-It Ralph, Man of Steel, etc. still seem ages away, there are plenty of smaller films out there worth checking out in the interim. One of those is first-time director Jake Schreier’s indie sci-fi/comedy/drama Robot & Frank.
In the film, Frank Langella plays Frank, a retired jewel thief suffering from the early stages of dementia whose son (played by James Marsden) buys him a robot caretaker/butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to take care of him. Not content with the robot’s suggestions that he take up gardening as a hobby, Frank decides to teach the robot the tricks of his old trade and pull off a few more heists.
But the acting and the story, though superb, aren’t the parts of this movie that got me the most excited.
Robots, guys. Robots.
I’m not sure what the film’s budget is, but it’s a good guess that The Avengers probably spent a larger amount on marketing. Robot & Frank is a well-made, solid movie, one shot in very few locations with a small cast that includes, in addition to Langella, Marsden and Sarsgaard, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler and Jeremy Sisto. The acting is for the most part great, and the story (aside from a third-act reveal about Susan Sarandon’s character that didn’t ring true for me) admirably avoided schmoopy, sentimental territory.
Robot & Frank is set in “the near future,” and aside from fancy glass phones, a weird-looking smart car-type thing, the presence of helper robots, and the funky hairstyle Ana Gasteyer’s shopkeeper character rocks in one scene, nothing much screams “futuristic.” Technology has advanced, sure—one of the movie’s subplots centers around the conversion of a small-town library to a high-tech “community center” where digital, not physical, books can be checked out—but really, life is more or less the same. Simply put, the vision of the future set forward in Robot & Frank is one of the most realistic I think I’ve seen in any movie.
I’m not a futurist or a scientist or anything, so I can’t predict with any accuracy how technology will change in the coming decades. And I don’t want to get into how accurate Robot & Frank may or may not be. But the movie got me thinking: Decades ago, the 21st century was depicted in cinema as being the time of flying cars and jetpacks. I don’t think many people living in the ‘80s actually expected there to be hoverboards by now, but I for one still feel a low-level, subconscious disappointment that the future didn’t shape up to be as awesome as Back to the Future: Part II said it would.
But the future as it is now is still pretty freaking awesome. The majority of Americans carry computers with us wherever we go that are vastly more powerful than the average home computer was a decade ago despite being a fraction of the size of Gordon Gekko’s giant cell phone from Wall Street. We don’t have flying cars yet, but we can access pretty much every movie, album, and TV show in existence without even having to change out of our PJs and leave the house. We can have conversations with people anywhere in the world without having to rely on Ye Olde Snail Mail.
The way things have advanced has been pretty cool… and the way things will advance (in reality, as opposed to in sci-fi movies) will in all likelihood be pretty cool as well. The robots in Robot & Frank can’t fly you around on their backs or teleport you places, but they can cook for you, clean for you, interact with you. The fact that the movie lacks the fancy, visually captivating bells and whistles to be found in other future-set films kept Robot & Frank firmly out of “Yeah, this is cute but it would never happen” territory.
And it helps the drama of the movie itself as well. The relationship between Frank and the robot—his protege and only real friend—is beautifully explored despite the fact that the robot doesn’t feel emotion. He isn’t sentient. He follows his programming and neither A) rises up to overthrow his human oppressors—which is what all robot movies say robots are going to do eventually—or B) somehow develop consciousness so he can Frank can have a heartwarming moment together in the last five minutes. Watching the movie, I cared about the robot and his relationship with Frank… which, given how the robot has no feelings of his own, ended with me feeling more of a connection with the movie’s main human character.
(So in a way, the robot is Manic Pixie Dream Girl done right… Manic Pixie Dream Robot? Moving on…)
To the human characters, the robot helpers (including a library assistant cheekily named Mr. Darcy) are appliances, just a part of their world in the way that cell phones are a part of ours. The closing credits—interspersed with videos of robots as they exist today, running, picking things up and playing chess—only serve to emphasize how the “near future” of the movie isn’t all that different from our present. Hell, Frank’s children are named Hunter and Madison—they’re the tech-conscious young’uns of today all grown up.
Robot & Frank’s vision of the future being so subtle—props are due here to the visual effects team, which did a great job making the futuristic elements of Frank’s world look both awesome and complete normal—helped me better maintain a connection with the characters, which can be tough to do in sci-fi movies where everything and everyone feels so different from how things are now. What will it be like when today’s adults get older and have to be taken care of by their (now teenaged or young adult) offspring, as Frank is looked after by his kids? How will people and communities be affected as certain jobs—like shelving books, for example—get more and more automated? What will robots actually be like, and how will be relate to and interact with them?
I, for one, really hope that the future becomes what it is in Robot & Frank. I don’t need a flying car, and I could take or leave hoverboarding to be honest, but having a robot around to clean up my apartment would be great.
Rebecca Pahle writes for MovieMaker.com.
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