Robot & Frank is the hopeful, shiny yin to the apocalyptic yang of the Terminator franchise.
Set in a near future where the beneficial use of robots is commonplace in almost sphere of life, it tells the story of Frank, a retired cat burglar in strident denial of his growing dementia who gains the companionship of a healthcare robot when his son Hunter (James Marsden) grows tired of the five hour commutes to check on his irascible father with whom he has, to put it politely, a strained relationship.
At first Frank is brusquely dismissive of the “appliance”, as he terms the robot, whose sole programming directive, to keep Frank fully mentally engaged and physically healthy, is executed with a relentless precision worthy of a Japanese car maker’s assembly line.
Frank, who complains long and loud to his robot-phobic hippie-chick daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) that the robot, who is never named, is ruining his life refuses initially to cede any ground to his automated companion who improves his life almost from the word go when he makes dinner on the night of his arrival and even bakes up a cake mix he found in the cupboard.
It it clear to everyone but Frank that the robot is profoundly reshaping his life for the better, although you do begin to see, little by little, through the beautifully nuanced performance of Frank Langella, that Frank is slowly warming to the unexpected addition to his ever more forgetful twilight years.
Not of course that he will ever admit it.
He is not, by nature, a warm and cheerful soul and seems happy, after two stints in prison for cat burglary and tax evasion respectively, to keep as much of the world at bay as possible.
With the exception, of course, of a beautiful redheaded woman named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) at the library in town, which is in the process of being re-imagined into a “communal meeting space” (which involves the scanning and recycling of all the physical books kept there) who seems to genuinely enjoy seeing Frank when he comes in.
It’s not till later that we discover why she is so happy to see him, and why Frank’s acceptance of her invitation to a party where all the library bigwigs will be in attendance means so much to her, but it is clear that it is a bright spot in the day for a man, who though he won’t admit it openly, is troubled by his “forgetfulness”.
And it is as the dementia begins to claim more and more of Frank’s world that the touching bond between Frank and the robot becomes so much more than just the master/servant relationship that everyone else treats it as.
While the robot repeatedly cautions Frank to remember he is not alive, and he shouldn’t be treated as if he is, Frank can’t help but begin to trust and depend on his helper to the point that when his daughter arrives unexpectedly to “save” her father and switches the robot off, Frank is at a loss to know how to function.
He begs his daughter to reactivate the robot – partly from needing the robot to help him with a planned burglary that has him more aware and engaged that he has been for some time – but also because, as he tells his daughter, “he is my friend.”
Now to be fair, and this is where Frank Langella’s performance is so perfectly wrought, though Frank is a master manipulator, adept at coercing people to do what he wants (and clearly switching his accomplice in crime back on fits his purposes) you still get the sense that his affection for the robot is genuine.
The source of the affection goes far deeper than you might immediately think.
It’s true that the robot, who is programmed above all else to keep Frank as far away from the abyss of dementia as he can, and thus condones the preparation for, though not the execution of, Frank’s limited return to cat burglary is useful to the old man on a number of very practical levels.
But it quickly becomes apparent, especially when a chain of events towards the end of the movie necessitate Frank possibly having to wipe the memory of the robot, constant entreaties not to do so notwithstanding, that Frank regards his mechanical companion as a real person.
And painfully aware as he is that his cognitive ability are failing (though again he won’t admit this, assuring anyone who will listen that “there’s nothing wrong with my memory”) he simply can’t bring himself to regard the memories of the artificial being that has become his last chance at holding on to reality as being any less worthy of preservation than his own.
Thus the scene where Frank has to decide whether or not he will erase the robot’s memory is harrowing indeed, far more so than you might have expected of an “appliance” and his owner.
It is truly raw, affecting and as heartfelt as good cinema storytelling gets.
But it’s also a wryly humourous film.
The exchanges between Frank and the robot are an hilarious contrast between a human being’s need to invest the significant people and things in their life with meaning, and the robot’s programmed requirement to complete its mission irregardless of sentiment.
It’s best illustrated in one scene where Frank turns to the robot and says something along the lines of “You’re beginning to grow on me”, a major admission by Frank and the sort of statement that would have an impact on any person, especially one who had been trying to win the affection of a man who doesn’t give it away easily.
The robot’s response?
“Why thank you Frank. Now … it’s time for your enema.”
It was these sort of stark contrasts between the humanity of Frank and the matter-of-factedness of the robot that provided the movie’s flourishes of laugh-out-loud humour but also underlined just how much was at stake for Frank in his final days of lucidity.
The inevitably cruel comparison of the robot’s potentially everlasting consciousness, and Frank’s very transient grip on the same thing, is poignant indeed.
The movie’s true gift, apart from a subtle but tour-de-force performance by Frank Langella which suffuses this deceptively simple film with real warmth, humour and complicated humanity, is that it dares to ask the hard questions about getting older.
The truth is that only robots can stay eternally young and while we know that, as we watch Frank come alive, admittedly by tentatively embarking on a renewed life of artificial companion-assisted crime, we wish that he could escape the harsh sentence that is being handed down to him.
That he doesn’t is inevitable, but even so, the power of the relationship between the robot and himself is so real and affecting and so life-affirming that you leave the film curiously buoyed by the sense that even in the dark final days of life, it is possible to still live, and live well.