Robot And Frank (Review)
By Rachael Kelly (PhD)
Originally published in Infinite Earths (online; September 2013)
Ask a hundred people to name their all-time favourite robot movie, and there are half a dozen titles that only a foolish punter would bet against. Chances are, the likes of Cyborg 3: The Creation (Schroeder, 1994), isn’t going to feature on too many lists, but there are some perennial classics that immediately spring to mind: the Terminator cycle (Cameron, 1984 & 1991; Mostow, 2003; McG, 2009); RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987); Blade Runner (Scott, 1982); Short Circuit (Badham, 1986); WALL-E (Stanton, 2008). Twenty different conversations will have twenty different ideas about the level of heresy involved in failing to include, say Transformers (Bay, 2007) or A.I. (Spielberg, 2001) – or, indeed, Cyborg 3: The Creation – in the list above, but that’s very much the point of the exercise: to demonstrate the enduring fascination of the robot in the popular consciousness. That, and to point out how often the movie ‘bots are trying to kill us.
Robot and Frank’s titular droid, however, has no such murderous intent, and neither do its colleagues. Instead, the movie envisages a world in which robots really are our mechanical helpmeets, where Asimov’s fundamental Laws allow for interpretative wiggle-room only inasmuch as the “no harming humans” part remains inviolate, and artificial intelligence neither finds nor seeks self-awareness. This is important, and not only in the way that you might think. Because, make no mistake, Robot and Frank is still a movie about our robotic overlords – it’s just that this narrative has a very different idea of what machine supremacy might look like.
To be fair, that’s not something that’s immediately obvious – indeed, if it wasn’t for the fact that the opening scenes situate it firmly in “The Near Future” – and for the fact that it features, well, a robot – it would be difficult to categorise the movie as science fiction at all. Director Jake Schreier, in fact, actively seeks to distance his text from this generic classification: “I never really looked at it as a science fiction film,” he says in an interview with SFX magazine. “I suppose technically it is. But it’s also a buddy movie. It’s a very odd hotch-potch of genres” (Golder, 2013). Distinctly and deliberately low-tech, the movie takes place in small-town upstate New York, where the modern conveniences of twenty-odd years from now are only gradually filtering through. The occasional space-age vehicle flits through the verdant countryside, mobile phones are fashioned from slimline slices of transparent material, and the books at the local library are diligently re-shelved by a talking filing cabinet on wheels, but the cars don’t fly, food is still cooked from scratch, and there’s not so much as a hint of gold spandex in the local fashions. Into this curious blend of the familiar and the discordant new, the narrative pitches Frank (Frank Langella), an aging ex-jewel thief, whose ferocious independence is threatened by the early symptoms of dementia. He doesn’t want to be cared for by his absentee children any more than his absentee children want to care for their ornery old dad, and so, while daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is safely on the other side of the world on a humanitarian mission to Turkmenistan, son Hunter (James Marsden) discharges his familial responsibilities by purchasing a carer robot, designed to see to Frank’s wellbeing and get the best out of his failing mind. Initially hostile to his artificial interloper, Frank’s interest is abruptly piqued when he discovers that, of all the things the robot is programmed to do, discouraging Frank from resuming a life of crime is not among them.
The result is indeed, as Schreier characterises it, “a very odd hotch-potch of genres,” but it is, for the most part, a deeply affecting one. Part Odd Couple, part The Italian Job, part family melodrama, what it specifically does not look like is the robo-narratives that have filtered so pervasively into the popular consciousness in recent years: the Terminators, the Matrixes, the I, Robots. This is, at least in part, a dictate of low-budget filmmaking – and Schreier acknowledges the centrality of budgetary concerns in guiding the film’s narrative: “It is hard to come up with ideas that are achievable on a scale that you know you are going to have for an indie film but also have some kind of hook, you know? …[I]t was always just an idea that struck me but there is this really nice built-in limitation, which is that it is in this rural area. So you don’t have to art-direct an entire snazzy future” (Weintraub, 2012) – but necessity is, as ever, the mother of invention, and this “built-in limitation” allows – obliges, in fact – the movie to refocus the science-fiction lens on character rather than cool, and to explore the ramifications of its future-tech on the micro-scale of interpersonal connection. And this leads the narrative down a very interesting path.
The thing is, there’s a bit of an obsession in the popular consciousness with the idea that our rush to develop the full potential of artificial intelligence will turn out to be a Very Bad Thing for humankind. “The fear of robots is no crude superstition,” writes Mark Crispin Miller in The Robot in the Western Mind, “but a psychological response with a lengthy pedigree” (Miller, 1988: 286). Exactly how lengthy it is becomes clear when he lists the robot’s cultural depictions throughout the ages: “Centuries before Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1920) gave them their name (from the Czech robota, for ‘corvée,’ the term of labor a serf owes his master),” he says, “these creatures exerted an intense fascination, haunting the myths of antiquity and the Middle Ages: Daedalus built statues that could move; Hephaistos, the Iliad tells us, was attended by two golden automata ‘in appearance like living young women’; Albertus Magnus had a robot servant which Thomas Aquinas piously wrecked” (Miller, 1988: 285). To this, we might add the sixteenth-century fable of the Golem of Prague, which provides a cautionary tale of the perils of creating and attempting to harness artificially constructed labour; Isaac Asimov’s introduction to The Complete Robot (1982), in which he recalls a 1930s adolescence spent reading robot stories and dividing them into two classes, the first of which was “Robot-as-Menace”, a “mixture of ‘clank-clank’ and ‘aarghh’ and ‘There are some things man was not meant to know’” (1982: 9); and the popular website TVTropes.com, which uses the heading “Crush Kill Destroy” to refer to that category of pop-culture that persists in viewing robots as the “dangerous slave” (Miller, 1988: 288), and lists, as cinematic exemplars, “any scifi movie with robots before 1970” (Anon, no date).
Today, according to Daniel Dinello, “[f]rom the destructive robot-witch of Metropolis (1926) to the parasitic squid-machines of The Maxtrix Revolutions (2003), the technologized creatures of science fiction often seek to destroy or enslave humanity” (2005: 2). Whether this reflects a forward-looking anxiety about a future we can neither see nor predict, or a backward-looking collective guilt about the horrors of slavery and a sense that humankind’s inevitable exploitation of a sentient order of machines that will be both stronger and smarter than their masters is bound to end badly for us – or some combination of the two – is a whole other discussion, but the fact remains: a brief survey of the science fiction of recent years reveals a distinct return to the notion that “A.I. Is A Crapshoot” (to quote from TVTropes.com again), and that to pursue the creation of intelligent artificial life is to play with fire. Artificial intelligence, as narratives from Blade Runner to I, Robot remind us time and again, must eventually discern its slave status and/or its fundamental superiority to humanity, and, when that happens, all bets are off, but it’s not looking good for the likes of you and me. Even WALL-E, with its self-aware and supremely sympathetic robotic heroes, invokes the sinister mechanical Other in the form of AUTO, the ship’s computerized co-pilot, who attempts to seize control from Captain McCrea when he tries to return humankind to a long-abandoned planet Earth. Robot and Frank’s robot, however, though it displays a considerable degree of autonomous reasoning and a level of independent thought consistent with a device whose main function is to persuade an unwilling patient to accept the care that he requires, is unambiguous about its status: “I know that I am not alive,” it tells Frank. “I am a robot.” It is clear about its function and its non-self, and neither matter is a source of concern.
Yet the lack of overt danger that the robot presents is, in many ways, an illusion. Not in the sense that the narrative attempts to flag up the seeds of a future uprising – though the movie does make the occasional noise about the ethics of robotic labour, poorly developed and jarringly inconsistent alongside the wider narrative – but in the very absence of a discourse of threat. “The fear [of A.I.],” argues Miller, “was that the robots would either revolt outright, or pamper us all into tubby passivity” (1988: 297). While we have become accustomed to seeing the former writ large across our movie screens, the latter is more insidious, more gradual, and more difficult to rally against, given that the source of humanity’s hypothesised obsolescence is humanity itself, our decline the result of our own inherent laziness. WALL-E engages directly with this mode of silent conquest, envisaging a world that is not quite post-human, but certainly post-human-usefulness, but the narrative is insistently optimistic in tone, offering the promise of humanity’s ultimate redemption as the denouement to its cautionary tale. Robot and Frank, on the other hand, positions itself as the descent into ever-greater reliance on machines is just beginning, and, as such, projects a sense of inevitability into the narrative, which is only reinforced by the bittersweet closing sequence. Moreover – and most unsettlingly – it argues convincingly, through allusion, implication, and connotation, that we’re already halfway there. We may not yet have the option of robotic eldercare to assuage our niggling collective conscience, but, the movie suggests, we’re probably ready to accept it as an option.
It’s a question of anthropomorphisation, and it’s a point to which Schreier returns repeatedly when discussing his movie. “What we tried to do is design the robot [with] a ‘less is more’ philosophy,” he explains. “It was always very important that it be faceless. Humans will ascribe emotion to a toaster; we’re so good at that, we like to talk about everything as though it’s real. If [the robot] is faceless, in the beginning, hopefully you find it a little bit creepy. Then as Frank grows to care about it, hopefully the audience goes on the same journey” (Brown, 2012). It’s a neat trick, and aided both by generic expectation (“curmudgeon” plus “unwelcome companion” always equals “unlikely friendship”), by continuing character development (Madison, initially horrified at the idea of leaving her father’s care to a robot, is gradually persuaded to accept Frank’s growing bond with his mechanical buddy after Frank insists that “he’s my friend”), and by the only other example of robot/human interaction presented by the text: Frank’s love interest, Jennifer, and her mechanical library assistant, which she has fondly nicknamed Mr. Darcy. And yet, even as the narrative sets up these anthropomorphic cues, it is constantly pulling them apart: Frank steadfastly refuses to name the robot – that part of the title is starkly literal – and the robot itself resists Frank’s later efforts to humanise it, to Frank’s chagrin (his response to the robot’s assertion – quoted above – that it is not alive, is to complain, “I don’t want to talk about how you don’t exist! It’s making me uncomfortable”).
A mid-narrative exchange between Robot and Mr. Darcy is a case in point. Jennifer and Frank are attending a party at the library, and both robots are present. As Jennifer turns to greet Robot, Mr. Darcy appears bearing a tray of hors d’oeuvres, and she asks, “Are you two enjoying the party?” “I am functioning normally,” replies Mr. Darcy, and Robot adds, “As am I.” Nonplussed, Frank suggests, “Why don’t you two mingle together?”
Mr. Darcy: I have no functions or tasks that require verbal interaction with the VGC-60L.
Jennifer: Mr. Darcy, that is so rude!
Frank: So, when all the humans are extinct, you’re not going to start a robot society?
Robot: I don’t understand, Frank.
Frank: Well, why don’t you pretend that Mr. Darcy is a human being, like me, and start up a conversation?
Robot [Turns to Mr. Darcy]: Hi there. How are you doing?
Mr. Darcy: I am functioning normally.
Robot: As am I.
Frank and Jennifer’s efforts to invest the robots with human idiosyncrasies – distaste, interpersonal rudeness, enjoyment – not to mention the human need for society, companionship, and conversation, are met with polite confusion from the robots, who make a valiant effort to apply the questions to their own sphere of experience but come up blank. The scene is played for laughs, but the source of the comedy is revealing: Frank and Jennifer have attempted to anthropomorphise their artificial aides by ascribing to them psychological and emotional constructs that are meaningful to the human psyche, but for which the robots have literally no frame of reference. They are not the mechanical Pinocchios of A.I., the Golem of Prague, the replicants of Blade Runner, desperate for human connection, the right to self-determine, the chance to be a Real Boy. They are machines that look vaguely humanoid, and they don’t know how to be anything else.
This concept is most profoundly explored in the sequence towards the end of the film in which Robot is attempting to persuade Frank to erase its memory, in order to obviate any effort by law enforcement officials to use it to incriminate Frank in the recent burglary of his unpleasant yuppie neighbours, Jake and Ava – a burglary that was conceived, plotted, and carried out by Frank, with Robot’s able assistance. Memory is a key theme in the film, and the source of many of its most moving exchanges, in which Frank’s early dementia, without warning, lifts him out of the moment, making him, essentially, a stranger in his own life. It is, indeed, the conceit that shapes the strikingly effective opening sequence, in which we follow Frank through a skillfully executed housebreaking, only to discover, as he jimmies open a bureau drawer, that the home he is robbing is his own. Later, in a reveal that can be viewed as either painfully contrived or heartbreakingly raw, depending on one’s level of tolerance for this sort of characterological rug-pulling, it transpires that Jennifer, whose affections Frank has rather misguidedly been trying to win by stealing the library’s valuable copy of Don Quixote in order to present it to her as a gift, is in fact his ex-wife, whose identity his failing brain has apparently erased. These sequences, as well as a series of smaller, beautifully understated moments throughout the narrative, repeatedly underline the film’s concern with memory and the construction of the self – if the person we become is a product of the experiences that have shaped our lives, then how do we define that person when those experiences are beyond the reach of recall?
“Memory loss undermines selfhood; it dissolves identity,” says Ilana Shiloh, in her discussion of Memento (Nolan 2000), another study of the power of recollection and its importance in constituting selfhood. “Our sense of identity is contingent on our ability to construct an uninterrupted personal narrative, one in which the present self continues into the past self” (Shiloh, 2011: 81). Frank’s initial refusal to accept his children’s offer of care, as an early scene makes clear, is at least partly predicated on his refusal to accept the encroach of memory loss and all that this implies. His sense of self is constructed on his identity as a jewel thief, and that identity is dependent on a high-functioning brain – indeed, a memory lapse during his theft of Don Quixote almost leads to disaster, when he absent-mindedly leaves his reading glasses at the scene of the crime. But more than that: the further and faster Frank’s memory retreats, the more aware he is of its function in situating him as a father, as a husband, as a person: a discrete unit constituted by his own experiential narrative and a network of interpersonal connections, instituted and maintained through recognition of a common past.
As such, Frank’s objections to Robot’s insistence that its memory be wiped reads as both a wider, human recoil at the destruction of the self, and, on a more personal level, as Frank’s heightened reverence for a faculty that is slipping away from him. “Frank’s memory is very important to him,” says Schreier. “And he doesn’t want to lose it. It’s very confusing for him to have this friend that doesn’t care about his memory at all. Frank is always trying to grapple with that. He finds it hard to believe, because he has made this true, emotional connection with this robot. And the robot doesn’t value the thing that Frank thinks makes him the most human” (Orange, 2012).
That Frank has begun to conflate his own memory issues with Robot’s is made clear in the sequence in which he finally concedes defeat. Seated on his bed, with the robot standing in front of him, it is necessary for him to pull it into a pseudo-embrace in order to reach the reformatting panel on the back of its neck. As he presses the button that erases their entire friendship, Robot collapses forward onto Frank’s shoulder, and Frank stares disconsolately around the room for a moment, before the scene cuts to the epilogue, in which Frank, now confined to an institution, fails to recognise his son.
Yet what is striking about the reformatting sequence is that the profound sense of sadness and loss is entirely projected, both by Frank and by the audience. The robot feels no attachment to either its memories, or to the connection with Frank embodied therein. “It’s like I explained to you, Frank,” it says, in its habitual soothing monotone. “I’m not a real person.”
As such, the question that unavoidably looms large over the text becomes: why does Frank – why do we – insist on seeing Robot in terms that it explicitly rejects? It’s a question that the film, very subtly, poses time and again, every time it sets up an affect-cue, only to undermine it with Robot’s lack of response. The inescapable inference, to which the narrative discourse continually returns, is that, formal aesthetics notwithstanding, Robot is, essentially, a machine. Technology permitting, we can co-opt the machine into a caring role, but that does not change the fact that it is, and remains, a machine – a machine that explicitly does not, and cannot, care in the emotional sense. And yet, by giving it humanoid form, by affording it a voice designed to mimic human speech, by slotting it into a role traditionally (and almost by definition) filled by humans, we are able to ascribe to it the traits of sentient self-awareness – not only ascribe, but actively insist upon them. Is there a genuine bond of friendship between Robot and Frank? The film is entirely too clever to offer a definitive yes or no to that, instead posing a question of its own in response: why do we want there to be a bond? It’s certainly a subject that fascinates Schreier. “In Japan they have these little baby seal robots, which they give to people pretty far gone with dementia,” he says, in a discussion of anthropomorphisation that both acknowledges the impossibility of providing a conclusive answer to his central theme, and sketches the terms of the debate as he sees them. “And they have found a real health improvement just from their sense of connection. Frankly, I don’t think anyone has a problem with a robot vacuuming, but if there’s a benefit from a simulated human interaction, are we gonna be OK with that? Is that just too creepy?” (Shoard, 2013)
That, at least, is a question with an answer: creepy or not, we’re already okay with it. We’re doing it. Moreover, this is the species that will “ascribe emotion to a toaster” – it’s not beyond the limits of imagination to expect that someone, somewhere has invested their Roomba with a name and a whimsical character; in the same way that we’ll ask stupid questions of Siri to see if we can provoke a software application to respond in kind; in the same way that we’ll talk back to the SatNav when it informs us, in that patronising tone, that we’ve obliged it to recalculate the route; in the same way that we’ll curse the imagined personality of a sluggish computer for its cantankerousness first thing in the morning. We don’t genuinely expect sentience, but we the fact that we do it at all is indicative of the extent to which we have, in effect, normalised the ubiquity of intelligent technology by collapsing the distinction between Us and Machine in order to manage its encroach in terms that make sense of its omnipresence in our lives. Recall that Miller argues that “The fear was that robots would either revolt outright, or pamper us all into tubby passivity,” and then note the proviso with which he qualifies that statement: “Such fear,” he says, “depends upon our seeing the robot as an alien thing, coming out of nowhere to conquer or displace. But if we can somehow see ourselves as robotic, the robot ceases to frighten” (1988: 297). Miller was writing in 1988, a decade in which the personal computer was only just beginning its campaign of western-world domination: chunky, uni-functional mobile phones were the exclusive domain of a wealthy elite, 64 KB was considered a reasonable volume of RAM, and the internet as we know it was still the better part of a decade away. Today, in a world saturated with information technology, where our everyday lives revolve around interaction with machines designed to mimic human discourse as closely as possible – and with ever greater accuracy – do we, in fact, need to see ourselves as robotic in order for the robot to lose its sinister aspect? Or will it suffice to make the robotic seem like us?
This, essentially, is the “threat” that Robot embodies: not a superior strength or intellect, not a sense of grave injustice inflicted by its enslavement at the hands of humankind, not an overly literal reading of Zeroth’s Law that obliges our mechanical brethren to take humanity’s willful irresponsibility firmly in hand. The singularity, Robot and Frank seems to suggest, won’t look like Terminator, it will look like WALL-E: adult responsibility abdicated as drudgery is delegated to machine labour, at the expense of interpersonal bonds and human interaction. Robot And Frank succeeds on many levels, but, as a science fiction text, its primary achievement is to dramatise just how willing we are to accept a sliding scale of disconnection – sure, we’re antsy now about the ethics of farming grandpa out to a Care-bot, but we’ll go along for the ride, we’ll warm to the imagined connection forged between a man and a machine that explicitly and demonstrably cannot reciprocate the friendship that’s offered, and we’ll imagine that we see, in Robot’s expressionless face, a hint of personality hiding behind that smoked-glass visor.
“There’s so many things to digest about the way human interaction is changing,” says Schreier. “You finish a picnic with people on a beautiful outdoor day and everyone is looking down at their phones, no one is talking to each other.” But he’s philosophical about the changing paradigm: “The easy thing is to lament that,” he adds. “But one thing’s for sure – it’s funny. It’s very easy to reference when we didn’t do that. I remember when it used to be rude if the ringer even went off in a restaurant” (Shoard, 2013).
And that’s the crux of it. Robot and Frank is about many things – as one interviewer notes, “Were you to watch the movie with five friends, you would come out with five different opinions about what the film is ‘about’” (Brown, 2012) – and there’s true beauty in the many layers of meaning, the multiple subject positions available to the viewer, the collision of genre, the way it weaves together such variety into a coherent symphony of storytelling with only a very occasional discordant note. This is the sort of movie that scholars write lengthy books about. But as a science-fiction text, Robot and Frank’s great strength is the ease with which it feeds into an established socio-cultural anxiety, draws from the rich tapestry of signs and meanings, and refuses to hide behind comfortable allegory or fantasy. We’re not likely to run into a Terminator any time soon. Roy Batty and his team of murderous replicants aren’t lurking in the shadows at the end of the street. But Robot – well, Robot’s another matter altogether, and Schreier and company refuse to give us an easy out. Robopocalypse Now? No. Not quite yet. And not even in the movie’s near-future timeline. But make no mistake: if Robot and Frank’s observations are as astute as they look, we’re already well on our way.
Anon. (no date). Crush Kill Destroy. Retrieved August 12, 2013, from TVTropes.com: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CrushKillDestroy
Asimov, Isaac (1982). The Complete Robot (Granada Publishing)
Brown, E. (2012, August). The Future According to Jake Schreier. Retrieved August 8, 2013, from Interview.com: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/jake-schreier-robot-frank/
Dinelli, Daniel (2005). Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology (University of Texas Press)
Golder, D. (2013, July). ‘Robot and Frank’: Director Interview. Retrieved August 8, 2013, from SFX.co.uk: http://www.sfx.co.uk/2013/07/15/robot-frank-director-interview/
Miller, Mark Crispin (1988). “The Robot in the Western Mind” in Miller, Mark Crispin (1988) Boxed In: The Culture of TV (Northwestern University Press)
Orange, B.A. (2012, August). Director Jake Schreier Talks Robot and Frank. Retrieved August 12, 2013, from Movieweb.com: http://www.movieweb.com/news/exclusive-director-jake-schreier-talks-robot-and-frank
Shiloh, Ilana (2011). The Double, the Labyrinth and the Locked Room: Metaphors of Paradox in Crime Fiction and Film (Peter Lang) p.81
Shoard, C. (2013, March). Robot and Frank: Vision of the Future? Retrieved August 8, 2013 from TheGuardian.com: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/mar/08/robot-and-frank-vision-future
Weintraub, S. (2012). Director Jake Schreier and Screewnwriter Christopher D Ford talk ROBOT AND FRANK at Sundance. retrieved August 8, 2013, from collider.com: http://collider.com/jake-schreier-christopher-d-ford-robot-and-frank-interview/