3 Stars – Thought-Provoking
Humanity has long realized that basic moral laws prohibiting lying, stealing, and killing one another are required for there to be peace. Robot & Frank takes this to the next level and asks whether these moral laws are also necessary for the artificial intelligence of robotic assistants. Recognizing that we often ask only whether something can be done, or done safely, rather than whether it is right or wrong, this film creates the situation in which a robot helps an elderly man rob a neighbor if Frank can do it safely. The central question is not whether such behavior betrays a neighbor but whether or not it is safe for Frank as an individual. It is individual happiness and health that is the only concern of the program on which the robot is acting. Individual illegal gain at the expense of another is not even in Robot’s “mind.”
Directed by Jake Schreier and written by Christopher D. Ford, the title role is played by Frank Langella. As an elderly man with intermittent cognitive impairment, Frank lives alone in what we’re told is the “near future.” Having lived what he describes as a “colorful life”, we soon realize he has been imprisoned for his thievery and has been divorced for many years. His children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler) have a conflicted relationship often resulting when a father was absent in childhood. This conflict causes Hunter to buy his father a robot to take care of him so he doesn’t have to make the ten-hour round trip to check in on him.
Frank’s primary connection with the outside world is the library and the librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). When an arrogant group of younger people come in to remove the books and turn the library into a digital community, it is then that Frank discovers the anomaly of Robot’s programming and he teaches Robot to steal. Deciding to steal the most precious book in the library to give as a gift to Jennifer, Frank and Robot begin their life of crime.
We won’t spoil the intrigue as this unlikely duo combines their mental and moral impairments to begin their capers, but their interplay is fascinating. Explaining repeatedly that he is not a real being, Robot nevertheless becomes a source of health and friendship in Frank’s life. Though their relationship is artificial, their friendship is very real. But like the 1973 film Westworld, in which an amusement park is populated by robots that look and act like humans in virtually every way, the eventual outcome portrays the reality of their differences.
Robot & Frank is a fictional tale about very real questions of our developing technology and our relationships with it. As such, it provides a modest contribution to these larger issues of modern life.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. The relationship which Frank has with Jennifer creates a source of connection with the real world. When did you become aware of who she is in his life?
2. The film suggests that Frank’s children, Hunter and Madison, are willing to benefit from the thievery of their father. If your father stole millions of dollars in jewels and could get it to you without anyone knowing, would you keep it or give it back to its rightful owner? Why?
3. The fact that Frank returned to stealing when Robot provided the ability to do so suggests that he did not change while in prison. Why do you think this is true?