REVIEW: Robot and Frank

r&fI first saw a trailer for this movie last summer but, honestly, I knew I’d want to see it before I even saw the trailer. The title and the poster image did it for me. This looked like a movie I’d want to see. The trailer just sealed the deal.

When it came to theaters, I missed one of the limited engagements that actually came within driving distance of me.

I’m SO thankful for Redbox, though. It was finally released to DVD, and it was right there, waiting for me at my local grocery store!

Frank Lengella plays a former thief who is getting old and slowly losing his memory, which makes it even more difficult for him to deal with the changing times. Frank is cantankerous, of course, and resists any efforts from his children to help. The movie opens with Frank, disoriented and and shuffling through his day, dealing with his Alzheimer’s. His son (James Marsden) is frustrated that he can’t help their father, so the other title character is purchased to help him out. Robot. The rest of the movie follows Frank and Robot’s odd couple relationship, and Frank’s courtship with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon, whose library is being remodeled to remove all the books and turned into a virtual reality experience).

It’s a quiet sci-fi story with a tight script and a gentle pace. The special effects are subtle, appearing mostly as part of the scenery. The robots are practical effects — Robot is a person in a suit. The budget would never allow a CGI robot character, but a person in a suit is a charming and grounded presence. It also references a few other movies (Frank says to Robot “she doesn’t like you, I don’t like you either,” referencing a classic C-3PO line to R2-D2 and Robot’s interactions are reminiscent of Hal from 2001).

And as a science fiction movie, it explores life in ways you couldn’t do in a more realistic context:

* Frank is jealous of Robot’s perfect “photographic” memory, while Robot is aware of his existence as a programmed thing and does not care if his memory is wiped, and then in a later scene Frank refers to the brain as an amazing piece of hardware. Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s is wiping Frank’s own memory.

* Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) is an activist who is anti-robot service, not because robots in service are slaves, but because people become slaves to the convenience robots give them.

* Frank anthropomorphizes Robot, and there is an interesting twist or two on the old “robot exceeding its programming” trope.

* And there are some interesting explorations of morality and the use of technology, although it sidesteps some of the answers to moral questions that it brings up.

* With the Alzheimer’s/computer memory dichotomy, it brings up questions of what makes us humans different from robots. Interestingly, it is Robot who has the answer to that. An answer programmed into him by humans.

* And what good sci-fi movie can go without referencing great literature that has similar themes? (In this case, Don Quixote.)

Robot and Frank is one of those thoughtful sci-fi movies that I enjoy, with a small budget and big ideas. It’s a glossy independent movie with recognizable actors (Jeremy Sisto has a small part in it — I could listen to that guy read a phone book). It doesn’t overextend its reach by trying to turn the Robot into a Data-type character who wants to be human or a Johnny 5 type character who gets struck by lightening, giving it the spark of life. It just takes what we are already doing with robotics, extrapolates what that might look like in a few years, and tells a good story with interesting characters.

The most important thing about Robot and Frank? I’ll be thinking about it later.

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