By Anna Bielak | December 9, 2012
Director: Jake Schreier
Writer: Christopher D. Ford
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard (voice), Jeremy Strong
Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, winner of the Alfred P. Sloan prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, is a story set in the near future; however, we hardly see anything within the frames not furnished in an old-fashioned way, except for one beautifully modern house in Pearl River. The director claims that he simply wanted to create a world which could be considered close to everyday life and far removed from it at the same time. What could be better for that than a wooden house in rural New York? It is more dreamlike than a science-fiction idea; however, Schreier’s film is neither overloaded with super-modern technologies nor shot in typical-for-science-fiction, hospital-like, snow-white settings. There is a common mess in Frank’s (Frank Langella) house — clothes are scattered all around and there is usually nothing but cornflakes for his late-morning breakfast. Does this mean that nothing really changes in the future? It seems that the world runs in circles or everything just repeats itself like a broken record.
Frank lives alone but he speaks with his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), via videophone quite often; and every weekend his son, Hunter (James Marsden), comes to Pearl River. Hunter seems tired of it all, so one day he brings a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) along. Hunter wants the robot to become Frank’s minder. The robot will prepare Frank’s daily schedule, follow his proper diet and accompany him during everyday trips to the local library run by Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). His presence allows us to discover soon enough that Frank really has problems with his memory — but is keeping a tight rein on him really the best way to bring him back to life? Schreier’s story is filled with bittersweet experiments which allows Frank to test several kinds of modern world relationships while the viewer looks for diverse interpretations of the story.
Only at first glance is everything unveiled. Relationships between two protagonists are as clear as daylight. The robot knows that he is nothing more than a programmed simulation, without a name and real existence. What the robot will become depends upon humans. In Frank’s surprisingly ex-cat-burglar hands, the robot turns into a charming and sophisticated thief, handling robberies in velvet gloves. Thanks to Frank, the robot begins to collect memories and by having them he gradually becomes a more human-like creature. The robot just will not be ever able to make independent decisions or make judgments with moral standards; Frank is the one who can explain how to name each emotion and evaluate events. Langella is brilliant in his role. If man is a creature of habit, Langella is used to acting on stage alone, so he connects with the faceless robot without any difficulties.
Meanwhile, Schreier allows us to see that artificial intelligence is no better than human memory and it may be deleted equally fast. You prefer the other way round? Alzheimer’s is like a never-finished hard drive defragmentation When it comes, the ability to collect and place memories in order vanishes. Frank tries to fight it; he would like to rearrange his life, but it is not possible anymore. What is going on inside Frank’s head reflects what is happening within the four walls of the local library. All of the printed books are destined for scanning, to exist only in electronic forms within the computer system, supposedly protecting and forever saving them. But why then does Schreier stress that the robot’s memory can be totally devastated by pressing only one button — and this could be one of the most dramatic events within the plot? Frank claims that the post modern tossing away of books is just a new version of post-war book burnings. Is he joking? Probably — yet, Frank is the one who knows what real memory loss means and what happens when life dissolves into pieces.
There is one more question that concerns me a lot, though. I wonder why the most valuable book in the library is Don Quixote of La Mancha written by Miguel de Cervantes? Jennifer wants to protect it and Frank tries to steal it. When do we — as the Spanish hero does — tilt at windmills nowadays? What is Frank’s lost battle? What is the one combat that cannot be won? Is the old world earmarked for demolition, leaving nothing that can be done about it; or is the new one so strong that nobody — or nothing — can escape from its coming? Robot & Frank is such an extremely simple story that it is really amazing just how many questions Schreier asks within its tragi-comical plot. One thread leads to another, as if he made some sort of never-ending story, which — in many ways — fires both hearts and minds.