When I was growing up in the 1950s I was sure flying in a spaceship would be in my future.
Now that I’m getting old, I wondering if a robot will be my companion for my waning days of life.
Robot and Frank is a little movie about a man coming undone. That’s what getting old and dying is all about, coming undone. Whether we spend our last days in dementia is a matter of luck. Frank, an ex-con and jewel thief, played by Frank Langella, is not so lucky. His mind is unraveling too. Frank lives alone and barely makes do. Frank’s son, played by James Marsden, must drive ten hours to check up on Frank every weekend, neglecting his own family. His solution? Give Frank a robot.
Most science fiction fans will not think Robot and Frank much of a science fiction movie, there are no explosions, chases, superheroes or saving the world. No one even saves Frank from dementia. So why do I claim this is the best science fiction film since Gattaca? This is a story Isaac Asimov could have written for Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s. As far as I can tell, this little robot, which is never given a name other than robot, follows all the three laws of robotics.
But Robot and Frank is more than a modern day Asimovian tale. The film explores what it means to be a human losing his intelligence while a robot is gaining its awareness. Robot and Frank is not sentimental, or even particularly cute. This is an adult story. I wonder if anyone under 50 will even understand it. Unless you’ve experienced memory loss, unless you’ve cared for a dying parent, unless you have first hand experience of becoming helpless, I doubt you’ll empathize much with Frank. Robot and Frank is for an audience that has often said, “I’m having a senior moment.”
Oh, don’t worry, there’s enough of a story for a person of any age to enjoy this delightful movie, but I tend to think, only those of a certain age will feel deeply moved. Middle age viewers might be horrified by the fear they will one day have to care for their aging parents, and I bet some of them might watch the film and think about opening a savings account to start collecting money to buy a robot. I know I wondered if saving for a robot might be a better use of money than paying into nursing home insurance. The Japanese are working full steam ahead on developing androids.
Robot and Frank is set only slightly in the future. The closing credits shows clips of real robots being tested. However, the mind of the robot in this film is very far from what we can create now. That’s why the film is science fiction. The robot is halfway to Data from Star Trek. Somewhere between R2D2 and 3CPO. I don’t know if we need to reach the Singularity to get this kind of intelligence in a helper bot, but I don’t think it’s in the near near future. Maybe 2025? I’ll turn 74 that year.
When you watch Robot and Frank, you’ll have to ask yourself, “Will I be happier with a robot or human caretaker?” At first you think the son and daughter are shirking their duty but by the end of the film, you might change your mind. Frank gets quite attached to robot, and spends a lot of time talking to it. But who or what is he talking to? But who or what is Frank talking to when his son or daughter is with him? What is consciousness? When we’re alone, and our days are dwindling, what kind of companion do we really want? Are we wanting to listen, or are we wanting to be listened to?
Yes, what we want is a spouse we’ve spent our whole life with. After that we want our children. But what if we don’t have children, or a spouse? Is a personal robot better than an impersonal nurse? Robot is able to observe and understand Frank. And isn’t that what we’ll want? Someone to know where we’re at, no matter how Swiss cheesy our memory becomes?
I found Robot and Frank tremendously uplifting. I left the theater feeling mentally accelerated and physically better than when I walked in. We will all come undone. We will all have to deal with it. Suicide is one way to avoid the issue, but this movie doesn’t consider that path. Frank’s mind keeps unraveling, but he lives for moments of being himself. The movie suggests a robot might help find those moments.
JWH – 9/17/12