I’ll admit when I first read the title, I immediately thought of another of my favourite indie films, Lars and the Real Girl which chronicles a social outcast’s new (seemingly non-sexual) relationship with a blow-up doll. I even thought of a cheesy title to relate the two films. However, it took a different turn altogether and brought me to many themes including the moral issue behind the existence of robots, the struggles of growing old and inter-species friendships (if you could call it that). It asks a lot of questions and doesn’t necessarily give all the answers but it is certainly a story about the power of relationships and wellness for the mind.
A Modern Moral Dilemma
First-time director and former television writer Jake Schreier and Christopher Ford, respectively, offer up a heartwarming yet thought-provoking film about an unlikely friendship in Robot and Frank.
Former cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) has a wandering mind that is beginning to worry his two adult children, Madison (Liv Tyler) and Hunter (James Marsden). After serving time in prison, Frank has difficulty adjusting to life particularly due to his growing senility. The film takes place in the “near future” and so a robot (Peter Sarsgaard) is purchased for Frank as a butler/healthcare aide.
However, what becomes clear to Frank early on is that the robot, unlike most humans, lacks a sense of right and wrong. Frank quickly jumps on his newest project: teaching the robot how to steal. While having the robot around seems to be doing great things for Frank’s mind and well-being (including the garden-fresh food he’s fed every meal), the impending danger of illegal activity is not.
Visually, the colours of the film do well to represent the initial state of Frank’s life: dull, boring and lifeless. Clothing reflects this well as the opening scenes show streets full of people dressed in black, white and beige. While this colour representation does not seem to shift much once the robot comes around, it’s clear Frank’s demeanour changes as we begin to see bright colours in the mise-en-scene, such as through his meals and outdoor activities.
Viewers are introduced early on to the moral dilemma of owning a “servant” robot. The notion that owning a robot takes jobs from human workers and that the supposed companion is not actually real or alive are presented forcefully by Frank’s daughter Madison. While Frank eventually warms up to the robot, he fails to recognize his comfort does not stem from a mutual friendship.
It becomes clear very quickly that the robot is doing more harm than good when it came to Frank’s spiritual well-being, which the robot (being that it is not alive) could not fully understand. Frank asks the robot how it feels about the fact it stole something and it is unable to emote let alone provide a response.
The film takes a few twists and turns, including Frank’s relationship with the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). It took me awhile to understand this relationship as Frank seems to meander aimlessly and shows minimal interest in Jennifer. Enter plot twist which I’ll let you see for yourself.
It’s hard to ignore the stance that Madison takes against the immoral owning of a robot. While Frank deserves companionship, it is difficult, almost painful to watch this relationship bloom into nothing, really. And on that note, it was a little disturbing to see the lifelike features and tone of voice that the robot had. All of these characteristics which make the robot more lifelike and acceptable to humans creates the illusion that they are able to act and react like humans, which is absurd… until the robot carries on human conversations with you, participates in human actives with you. Therein lies another dilemma.
In the end, we are shown that, obviously, the robots do not go away and that it is up to each individual to seek out this type of aid if they feel it fits. It is up to each individual to determine how they wish to live their life and who they wish to have in it. An interesting story that will make you think.
*Image courtesy of nytimes.com