The Review: Consciousness is a fragile thing. Somehow, the collection of atoms and molecules that make up our brains manage to form thoughts and memories, and thankfully the organ that stores that operations centre in each of us has a fairly hard shell protecting it from shocks and damage. Sadly, the one thing it can’t protect us from is the passage of time, and sooner or later that will catch up with all of us. It’s amazing that something so complex keeps running for so long in most of us, and despite the advances in science in the 21st century the finest minds of all of us haven’t yet managed to either successfully extend that lifespan, or indeed to replicate the complex functions that make us human. But when science gets to that point, will we be accepting of our new robot friends, or fear our potential new overlords and the uprising that might follow?
It’s common for films to assume the latter, despite the fact that the appliance of science generally seems to be directed to make life more comfortable for us mere mortals. Robot & Frank follows the former path, and when his son Hunter (James Marsden) decides he needs to devote more time to his own family, rather than weekly ten hour round trips to his ungrateful father Frank (Frank Langella), he gets him a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially both he and his world traveller absentee daughter (Liv Tyler) are resistant to the idea, but once Frank latches onto the potential of a robot friend, his enthusiasm grows. Frank, it seems, has a shady past and sticky fingers, one he’s not even keen to share with the lady at the library who’s caught his eye (Susan Sarandon), and what better sidekick than a piece of easily swayed modern technology with Frank’s best interests at heart?
At its core Robot and Frank is a poignant tale about memory and the passage of time. While set in the future, the shading and details make it feel close to our own time, but just as believable as other, grander, futuristic vistas in bigger budget films. It’s not about the technology, but the lack of that personal connection, and those like Frank still clinging to the physical elements of the world are seen to be relics, almost museum pieces. Frank’s failing memory occasionally sees him drifting into the world of his past, and there’s a deep poignancy to his yearning for the restaurant now replaced by a home store or the library throwing out all of its books.
But deeper than that is the exploration of family. Frank’s son and daughter come across initially as disaffected and tied only by the obligation of bloodlines, but it becomes clear that for every action, there’s a reaction and Frank’s certainly seen a lot of action. That Robot & Frank succeeds so well in that family dynamic is down not only to the strength of the performances from those involved, but also to the script and direction, which invests the characters with genuine emotion and which manages to pull off some late twists deftly, without the feeling of soap opera melodrama.
At the core of the movie in every sense are the two titular characters. Initially reluctant to take on his robot servant, Frank starts to see the possibilities and runs through the whole range of potential clichés, from odd couple domestic drama to mismatched buddy heist movie and eventually to surprisingly tender and almost heartbreaking scenes as Frank starts to form the kind of bond with a machine he’s never managed with a human. Warm and resonant, but playful and mischievous and ultimately deep and thought-provoking, Robot & Frank packs a wide array of ideas into its slender running time, and handles every single one beautifully. If you ever imagined having your own robot as a child, the thought of that coming true might just equate to the joy that Robot & Frank could bring; the prospect that it never will in our lifetimes may just match the bitter-sweet feeling you’ll get from it as well.
Why see it at the cinema: See this with a big audience to share the emotional rollercoaster, as well as a decent selection of laughs from the inappropriate OAP.
The Score: 10/10