As our modern world evolves further and further into the mindset where all that matters are the cheap distractions of the here and now, it becomes all too true that we as a people begin to forget some of the more basic realities of the world we live in – namely, the realities of our pasts, both personal and the history of the broader world. This is a truth that is frequently discussed by thoughtful individuals who see the drawbacks of such shallow indulgences as iPhones and Facebook, but it is still an issue that continues to manifest itself in an endless parade of developments in “helpful” technologies. And it is a truth that is played upon in the new film Robot & Frank, both satirically and in an admirably subtle fashion.
The story of Robot & Frank concerns an older gentleman, played by Frank Langella, whose growing dementia concerns his son Hunter, who decides to make a daring decision and hire a caretaker for his stubborn father. Now, the twist is that the Cold Spring, New York of the film’s setting is not the Cold Spring, New York that we know – not quite, at least. Instead, it is Cold Spring of the near future, not only where the virtually abandoned local library has been converted into a lounge for young people as a means to “build community”, but where robots have become so advanced as to serve as assistants for the elderly, Frank’s new caretaker being one of these standard – and apparently, semi-controversial – service devises. Despite Frank’s initial reticence towards the robot, he soon discovers that this special tool can be used to his advantage: Frank is a retired cat burglar, and quickly hatches a plot to make some small-time (albeit valuable) lootings with his new assistant-turned-accomplice.
And, as is bound to happen, Frank grows rather close to the nameless Robot, and soon holds him true as his only friend in what proves to be a lonely, distanced world.
There is an inherent sadness to this movie which is certainly detectable on its shimmering surface, but which, when explored in greater depth, speaks to an even more fundamental notion of tragedy about the road of progress that the human race is currently taking. Frank is a man who is slowly losing himself to a failing memory, as is evidenced by slight lapses he experiences over the better part of the movie, in addition to a startling realization that is made maybe five sixths of the way into the story – as well as in a tender and heartbreaking resolution that is the film’s final sequence. The Robot becomes his sole companion as he undertakes his final attempts at thievery, in spite of the Robot’s repeated corrections that, ultimately, no matter how human he may seem, he cannot think and feel in the same way that human beings can, something that doesn’t sit well with Frank – nor with the viewer, for that matter. This is all kept very peripheral to the action, however, until Frank makes his discovery at the five-sixths point, and ultimately reaches its fullest power in the quietly resonant climax, where we see, definitively, just how fleeting the personality and memory of this Robot is: that it is simply a functioning machine, with no real sense of being alive once its memory is taken away.
The immediate tragic parallel here is found within the character of Frank himself, as he finally loses his personality to his fading memory, and thus opens up the story in a way that is breathtaking simple and almost unnervingly sad. It is within this reflective parallel that the movie’s principle question of How do we define ourselves? is so eloquently expressed, but the movie also poses an incredibly astute observation on the ways of our world, based around another of its central issues – the dwindling closeness of human relationships. This is an idea that is elaborated on in endless variations, from the new function of a public library as a communal center for hipsters – as mentioned before – to the distanced and strained relationships between Frank and his son and daughter; to this daughter’s airily brief but revealing description of the humanity she encounters on her journeys as a philanthropist in extremely impoverished countries. This idea of a basic mental and emotional disconnect is contrasted by the sudden feeling of friendship Frank develops towards his Robot caretaker, but then is brilliantly highlighted as the duo’s “friendship” is stripped of its humanness, exposing the truth that this “friend” Frank has come to care for is no more than device – a functioning robot that happens to act like a human.
The tragic irony in this exposition of the Robot’s soullessness is that Frank proves to be no more than a machine himself, devoid of memory and a sense of self, and that his dependency on this deceptively “human” object has marked the final grasp at a personal relationship that he is capable of making. That it should come in the form of a robot says a lot for the very modern tendency of people to rely on technology rather than on each other, and that as we become so invested in such deceptively “personal” objects which are, in truth, fundamentally impersonal, we very quickly forget the qualities and benefits of a personal, human relationship. We cease to remember our humanness; we lose our humanness – and that is what is lost by Frank over the course of this movie: his humanity.
As you may have guessed, I heartily endorse this movie. It is rare that one can find a film to which one can credit so much meaning and insight, and that one can enjoy as simply being quality entertainment. In this sense, Robot & Frank is a magnificently delicate, softly funny film that features superb acting on the part of Mr. Langella, and a clever yet at times – purposefully? – misleading screenplay by Christopher D. Ford. On top of all that, the film has a deep, rich atmospheric look presumably worked out by director Jake Schreier and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd that does much to boost the sense of quiet mournfulness that lingers over the film, and actually does much to complement its sense of humor rather than weigh it down.
In the film’s final shot, we find Frank in his nursing home, reflecting on the other residents who pass by, with their own robots trailing behind them. A hint of recognition flashes across his face, before Frank – robot-less and without memory – shuffles on into his room. Beware of technology as a substitute, this movie seems to say, or else when it is taken away, you will find that you are left with something worse than nothing: you will be suspended, in limbo, alone in a world where everyone and everything feels so far apart.