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• Robot and Frank

Robot and Frank generated some buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, and I’m happy to report that it wasn’t just hype. It’s a genuinely entertaining character study set in the next 50 years that manages to be both funny and surprisingly touching. And while it is a relatively small independent film you wouldn’t know it from the cast, which includes recognizable stars Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, and Liv Tyler (with Peter Sarsgaard providing the voice for the titular robot).  Langella is a perfect fit for the part, and if you’re sick of the tiresome trope of the killer robot you’ll find the film’s premise totally refreshing.

As a younger man Frank was a cat burglar, and even though he’s well over the hill old habits die hard. The problem is his memory ain’t what it used to be, and with his independence quickly deteriorating his son Hunter brings him the latest in assistive robot technology.

As might be expected, Frank is none too thrilled about the prospect of a robot babysitter. The VGC-60L humanoid is about the size of a child and speaks with a neutral voice a bit like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In appearance it looks less impressive technically than Honda’s ASIMO – boxier and rougher around the edges – more akin to the Russian humanoids Arne and Arnea.

Frank’s got a thing for Jennifer, the local librarian (played by Susan Sarandon), who is a bit overwhelmed by the changes brought on by the digital age.  Some rich yuppies have decided the library needs to change, get rid of its books (except for a few valuable antiques), and become a kind of community center.  It sort of makes sense, as in the near future everyone has access to any book they want whenever they want it.  Jennifer’s got an assistant robot too, though Mr. Darcy (as she calls him) is much less advanced than Frank’s new plastic pal.  Those two robots have a great scene in the film.  Frank’s robot (which oddly never gets a proper name) gradually wins him over, especially when he realizes that its limited artificial intelligence won’t stop it from helping him steal.

The film bypasses its budget limitations by employing a fairly realistic looking robot suit, which, while not quite as good as it could have been, has a certain charm all its own.  Besides the robot and some telecom technology, there are few gadgets that support the film’s future setting.  That’s ok, as the thrust of the film isn’t the sci-fi bits but about Frank, his condition, and his relationships.  These are handled very well.  Luckily, aside from one or two problems, the script is smart.  Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler), initially dislikes the robot too – she’s politically aligned against them – a movement that will likely emerge as robotics technology encroaches our daily lives.  And there are some very poignant moments between Frank and the robot that really got me.

Robot and Frank is up there with the best robot movies out there.  I took my mom to this movie and we both really enjoyed it, so it goes to show that you don’t have to be a robot geek to see it.  The credits even include footage from a handful of contemporary robot projects to show the audience what is out there, including Karlsruhe University’s Armar III, Murata Boy (the cycling robot), Waseda University’s TWENDY-ONE, Pal Robotics’ humanoid REEM-B, the University of Tokyo’s Assistant Robot, and a few others.  This was a nice touch, but the omission of Honda’s ASIMO and KAIST’s HUBO was a tad galling.  In any case, we have already been in contact with Jake Schreier, the director, and we expect to hear back from him and writer Christopher Ford soon, so be on the look out for an upcoming interview!

  • ixneedxaxlife

    Glad to know it was a good movie, just wish it was available in more theatres…

    • http://twitter.com/PlasticPals Robotbling

      That’s the problem with small movies, they can’t edge out the bigger ones at most theaters. It’s a shame.