Friday, March 18, 2016

Shoplifting Robots and Aging Draculas, or Frank Langella in Robot and Frank

Frank Langella has made a career of playing bad guys since Dracula (1979), Skeletor in Dolph Lundgren's Masters of the Universe (1987) and even Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2004) and he is still technically playing a bad guy in Robot and Frank (2012), where he portrays a retired jewel thief in the near future saddled with a domestic robot by a well meaning son.  Like Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), Robot and Frank explores the rapidly evolving relationship between humans and machines.  The entire genre could be viewed as a metaphor for the Age of the Smartphone.
Frank is a man out of time and also outside of time, as he faces an almost dystopian future of too much information in formats he cannot access or understand.  He’s the only one going to the library, fortunately there’s a comely librarian played by Susan Sarandon working there, along with a walking photocopier named Mr. Darcy.
The titular unnamed robot looks like Honda’s ASIMO, speaks in a humorless monotone reminiscent of Hal 9000 and moves with the reflexive fluidity of a guy in a robot suit.  This is no prissy C3PO protocol droid; whatever personality the robot develops is given to, or reflected by Frank.
And that’s where the movie takes an interesting turn; as Frank is an ex-jewel thief and proceeds to teach his robot how to shoplift, pick locks and case joints.  The robot has no moral center, he understands laws but chooses not to follow them.  His motivation is to build a relationship with Frank through shared projects and sees it as a form of therapy.  It doesn’t interfere with Asimov’s laws of robotics; he’s not harming or causing physical harm to humans and the actions are not harmful to his own existence so from the robot’s perspective, he’s in the clear.
It’s a classic “one last heist” movie but the goal is not to retire, Frank’s already retired.  Instead, he takes up his old profession to stay young and active, and maintain his identity while his memory slips and his body succumbs to old age and infirmity.  Frank Langella is excellent as he reminisces of his old life to his new companion, and it is tragic for the viewers as they witness his memory fade in and out.  There’s a poignant and bittersweet twist at the end that only serves to reinforce our need as a society to take better care of our seniors.

It should be noted that the word “robot” comes from roboti, a Slavonic word meaning “slave”.  Frank has a conversation with his robot where the robot questions his existence and quotes Voltaire, but does not claim sentience.   Robots in this world are treated like appliances or cars, when in fact they are more like a talking companion animal, another species that does not share similar rights as their human masters.  It’s a subject tabled for future discussion, but let’s not let it sneak up on us like Napster and digital rights in the 90’s.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.