Archive for March 18th, 2013

A Writer Reviews: Robot & Frank

Robot_and_frank_posterSet an unspecified number of years in the future, Robot & Frank combines two elements that I wouldn’t expect in the same movie. Frank Langella and a robot. Wait, no, I meant science fiction used as a lens for looking at dementia. It focuses on an elderly cat burglar who is slowly losing his grip with reality and reduced to pocketing soap cats at the local store, and the robot his son buys him to keep him company and exercise both his mind and his body. It’s a sweet movie, focused much more on the nature of aging than on being science fiction. The script, through Frank Langella, captures dementia with a heart breaking realism. Solid 7/10, and I’d recommend it, but avoid seeing the trailer if you can as it’s about 95% of the plot.

It feels odd to come out of a movie like Robot & Frank and say it reminds me of a line from Plan 9 from Outer Space. But…well, there you have it. Specifically Criswell’s awkwardly written monologue at the beginning: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” The movie comes down to an elderly man coming to grips with spending the rest of his life in the future. The library he walks to daily is being digitized. His new companion is a robot. The world is changing around him, as it will change around all of us as we get older. This is, perhaps, getting a little philosophical about the nature of time and technology, but this movie reminds us that there are generations growing old today with technology they couldn’t imagine and children, and so shall we probably all. Looking at near futurism through the perspective of an elderly protagonist is a fascinating twist.

And there’s the two word phrase I wanted to focus on with this review. Not “fascinating twist,” “near futurism.” This is science fiction set next year. Not specifically 2014, but at a time where technology has made a few steps but not yet any great leaps. On current television the best expression of near futurism is Person of Interest. It’s set “today” with just a little bit of magic tech thrown in, but magic tech that feels fully plausible. In days gone by the best expression was the Mystery Science Theater theme song placing the show “next Sunday, AD.” That’s as good a definition of near futurism as any.

So in the next Sunday, AD of Robot & Frank the primary bit of new tech are robot assistants. Mr. Darcy at the closing library. Frank’s robot “Robot.” They’ve clearly moved just beyond being toys, but haven’t reached a full saturation. There are moral questions surrounding these robots, what they represent, whether it’s fair to enslave them. These all happen on the outskirts of the story, and primarily through Liv Tyler’s character, but they deepen the world by hinting at broad debates that don’t apply to the central plot. It’s good to know the questions are being asked, but it’s not necessary to hash them all out on-screen.

There are other little expressions of advanced technology. James Marsden’s skinny one seat wide car (based on a concept vehicle dating back to 2009). Video phones channeled through the television (already offered in some areas). See-through cell phones. All just little tweaks in the world we live in, none out of place as potential advances of the next five years. The biggest leap is in the robotics. Even then, the closing credits of the movie shows the current state of the art in domestic robots. These shots are footnotes to everything Robot can do in the movie, consolidated into a single machine.

So let’s briefly compare the subtle future of Robot & Frank with another movie that may happen the same year. Robot & Frank makes no actual claims, but let’s say this technology could exist within six years. That’s probably optimistic on the robotics, but I’m choosing it as a handy date because 2019 places it in the same year as Blade Runner. With the two movies we have potential views of the same year, but imagined nearly 30 years apart from each other. One is set in the near future and one in a much more hypothetical and, at the time, distant future. If you want a difference between near futurism and more distance futurism, there it is. In one 2019 there are cell phones and helper robots. In another there are wars happening in deep space and earth is partially inhabited by almost indistinguishable robots.

One of the real strengths of Robot & Frank is this handling of the near future. It’s hiding around the corners of the movie in very subtle ways. Slight changes to fashion. Slight changes to technology. And, most important, slight abstractions from current trends. This is the best tool for handling the near future, and why a prospective author of near future needs to pay attention to where the state of the art is, where technology is going, and where controversies lie. These are where story details thrive. It’s not about being “right” about the future, it’s about using the abstraction to make a commentary. Are we ever going to have assistants quite like Robot? Perhaps not. Is it possible we’ll see a new round of robot labor issues? It is. Could the digitization of books lead to the closing of libraries? It already has, just not quite in the way depicted in the movie.

The near future is tough. Some writers may feel a pressure to be prescient, may feel that they’ll be held to their predictions. Some may be worried that the story could quickly be dated. I can’t say how well Robot & Frank will hold up as we slip into, then past the future predicted. The point may not even be for it to hold up, but for it to be a product of a moment of time. And, in this moment of time, it’s a very effective little story.

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