|Frank and friend case the joint.|
«««« Robot and Frank. Written Christoper D. Ford. Directed by Jake Schreier.
It's the best of times and the worst of times for movie science fiction, but mostly just the latter. Though supreme at the box office, most onscreen science fiction has become the equivalent of the historical epics of the '50s and early '60's: empty spectacle, concocted by deeply unimaginative people to put fannies in the seats. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells didn't pioneer the genre to give the world the likes of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen--or even brainless fun like The Avengers. In a way, it was better for sci-fi a couple of generations ago, when it was a despised, B-list genre. Exceeding expectations, and challenging our complacence, was easier then.
So we're thankful for Jake Schreier's Robot and Frank, a small drama about some very big ideas. Frank Langella plays Frank, a septuagenarian ex-con living (or more precisely, "enduring") old age in our immediate future. Weary of the ten-hour round trip to visit him, his son (James Marsden) buys him a robot companion (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) with the programmed goal to improve Frank's quality of life. "Let's start a garden," suggests the Robot with maddening, anodyne mildness. "Go screw yourself," grumbles Frank, who wants nothing more but to return to his former profession: breaking into people's houses.
It's no spoiler to disclose that Frank gets his wish, although in a way he never would have anticipated. For unlike many of the much bigger movies that work this corner of the genre--AI and I, Robot come to mind--Christoper D. Ford's script for Robot and Frank recognizes that what's revolutionary about some technologies is not the technology itself, but what it brings forth in us. Where a less imaginative movie would have dwelled on the robot's "humanity", this one is more concerned with the possibility of human beings behaving humanely.
Frank Langella is pitch-perfect. He's adrift in his world, both because it has left him behind and because aging is increasingly making him a stranger to himself. Langella shows flashes of Eastwood-esque crabbiness here, but seems to recognize that would be too obvious a choice. Instead, his character comes alive when he shows a child-like delight in his misbehavior, aided and abetted by his surprising accomplice.
There's a Jobsian sleekness to the Robot, stylishly devoid of toggles and gyros and the other dagmars of classic robotdom. Sarsgaard voices it/him some of the same all-too-programmed compassion of HAL in 2001, as if some attitude switch is permanently set to "patronizing". When Ford has him declare to Frank "In the same way you know you are alive, I know I'm not," one can just about hear Descartes rolling in his tomb ("I think I am not, therefore I am not--?"). In this and many other ways, Robot and Frank is a genuine sleeper: the kind of movie that comes out of nowhere to remind you why you're sitting there in the dark. Not to be missed.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro