Nuts, bolts and bonding
It’s amazing, and somewhat ironic, how much we tend to feel for robots in movies.
The best, most fist-pumping moment in any of the Star Wars prequels was R2-D2 leaking oil then pulling a burn job on a droid in Revenge of the Sith. The most romantic picture of the past decade was arguably Pixar’s Wall-E.
Silent Runnings – which featured one human and three robots that didn’t talk – remains an enduring cult classic among science-fiction geeks. Without the sweet, goofy Bumblebee, Transformers would have been scrap metal, and whose heart didn’t ache for the innocent and estranged Edward Scissorhands?
We all cast a heavy sigh when Schwarzenegger melted himself in Terminator 2, and during vengeful replicant Rutger Hauer’s haunting final speech in Blade Runner. Not even the presence of Steve Guttenberg could take away from the ecstasy of knowing ‘‘Johnny 5 is alive’’ in Short Circuit.
Robots in movies are like animals, loyal and committed, but normally much smarter and they can usually talk back.
In Robot & Frank, screen-writer Christopher Ford and director Jake Schreier have achieved the crafty task of working robots and little sci-fi into what would otherwise be standard indie fare.
His facilities dulling and memory fading, retired jewel thief Frank (Frank Langella) is struggling to take care of himself, worrying his kids – the dutiful Hunter (James Marsden) and free-spirited flake Maddison (Liv Tyler). Kind of strange how these 30-something adults have trendy kids’ names from the present, eh? That’s because we’re in the future, around 2040.
Frank could go to some place called the ‘Memory Centre’, but he’s a bit of a hard-arse. He wants to look after himself, make overtures towards the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) and shop-lift soap bombs from a gift store, likely revenge for it replacing his favourite coffee shop and proving to himself that he’s still got it.
So Hunter buys him a robot – gloriously designed to resemble something out of an old Buck Rogers episode – who cooks, cleans and is set the task of improving Frank’s lifestyle and daily routine to help blow the cobwebs out of his mind.
As is expected, the new house guest is not greeted with much enthusiasm. But cantankerous Frank soon warms to Robot – cooly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard – and when he realises abiding by the law isn’t one of the machine’s core functions, he finds he not only has a friend but an accomplice.
Planning heists, picking ‘marks’, Frank feels alive again.
What starts out as a quaint, futuristic odd couple scenario turns into a mad catch-me-if-you-can caper as Frank and Robot piss off yuppy scum who come into town and re-imagine the town library as a pretentiously retro chic ‘‘knowledge space’’.
Schreier and Ford have plenty of fun playing in the future – a place where reading books is considered eccentric – and with genre conventions.
The script is crisp, very funny and pretty relentless in terms of Frank’s hardness and selfishness. He may have a soft spot for the robot, but there is no easy forgiveness – neither sought nor granted – for past hurt caused to his family.
Like several recently released indie pictures, such as the similarly sci-fi leaning Safety Not Guaranteed, Robot & Frank doesn’t quite know what to do with itself in the final half-hour. A revelation involving Sarandon’s character is confusing and feels desperate, and the titular relationship is forced to play second-fiddle to plotting.
Upper Hutt Leader