Robot & Frank (2012)
Directed by Jake Schreier
Produced by Lance Acord, Sam Bisbee, Jackie Kelman-Bisbee, Galt Niederhoffer
Written by Christopher D. Ford
Starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Liv Tyler
Music by Francis and the Lights
Cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd
Editing by Jacob Craycroft
Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films, Stage 6 Films
Running time 89 minutes
Context: Robot and Frank is a 2012 American film that delves into social and cultural issues of an imminent future integrated with the growing robotics industry. The story revolves around Frank, an ex-convict and thief who is now living an estranged life, suffering from increasingly severe mental deterioration and dementia. Frank lives alone, in a home quite far from any general populace, and even has poor relations with his family. His son, Hunter, who has been visiting him once every week, via a five hour drive, is just about at his limit in trying to deal with his cantankerous father. It is also very clear that Hunter is having trouble with dealing and coping with his father’s dementia. Hunter is reminded of this every visit as his father still thinks that Hunter is a university student, attending Princeton University. As a result, Hunter purchases a robot companion, simply named Robot, to help Frank with therapeutic care, including a fixed daily routine and cognitive-enhancing activities such as gardening. Unsurprisingly, due to an apparent generational divide, Frank is unwelcoming to this new addition in his life. But Hunter forces this companion onto his father, and Frank gradually begins to see Robot’s worthiness as a companion and cohort in burglary. Which one of these attributes is more important to Frank, of course, changes throughout the film, as other happenings of conflict and resolution occur.
Now, of course many elements throughout the film are remarkable in their own right, but my favorite thing about the film’s narrative is the relationship between, as the title stresses, Robot and Frank, with the slight inclusion of Hunter. It initially struck me unusual that Robot was never actually given a name, as it is a common attempt in films of this nature to humanize the robot character. In retrospect, it is one line in the movie Robot says that really brings confidence to my interpretation of his role in the film.
Think about it this way. You know that you’re alive. You think, therefore you are. In a similar way, I know that I’m not alive. I’m a robot.
Robot is a robot. He is not alive and he cannot feel. But often times, the inhumane things in life can represent something bigger than life. And in this sense, I believe Robot to be a symbol of Frank’s relationship with Hunter. Hunter literally replaces himself with Robot in that Robot literally and figuratively cares for Frank. At one point in the film, Frank lies to Hunter about his own impending death as a way to use Hunter as a temporary scapegoat in his heist. Hunter eventually realizes this and his reaction is quite heartbreaking. It is here that we know Hunter is done with his father. All of Hunter’s attempts up to this point have been futile as Frank is still in just as bad health and bad character. Hunter had failed. So, if we fast-forward to the finest moments of Frank’s heist, as Frank frantically tries to successfully complete the mission without reformatting Robot’s memory (as to not let the police download Robot’s memory of scheming and enacting the burglary with Frank) we see that Robot has succeeded himself where Hunter had failed. In this climactic scene, Frank is adamant against Robot’s suggestion of wiping his memory, that is until Robot opens Frank’s mind to one thing.
Frank, I know you don’t like to hear this, but I’m not a person. I’m just an advanced simulation. After you’ve wiped my memory, things can go back to normal. And you can continue planning your next job. Remember, Frank? Your next job. You deal in diamonds and jewels, the most value by the ounce. Remember? It’s not too late, Frank. Don’t give up. Lifting that high end stuff., no one gets hurt, except those insurance company crooks.
It just hurts hearing the lines. There are so many levels Robot is operating on. He had originally been substituting Hunter, but now quoting Frank’s own words, Robot is nothing less of a medium for Frank to look dead straight into a mirror of his wretched life. It is in this moment that Frank realizes that he forced a robot, an object with no inherent chastity, into a loss of innocence. And this subsequently opens his mind to how grossly he has affected his family and himself. And with this clear in mind, Frank clears Robot’s.
The film delves deeper into a common motif of technology serving to do the things that we as humans have been limited from. Except in this case, the limitation is one of unprecedented social interaction. In the end, it was Hunter who brought Robot for Frank, so in the end is was Hunter who finally mended his father. But after watching the events fold out the way they did, we cannot deny the significance Robot played as medium.