Robot and Frank–The Best Science Fiction Film Since Gattaca

When I was growing up in the 1950s I was sure flying in a spaceship would be in my future.

Now that I’m getting old, I wondering if a robot will be my companion for my waning days of life.

Robot and Frank is a little movie about a man coming undone.  That’s what getting old and dying is all about, coming undone.  Whether we spend our last days in dementia is a matter of luck.  Frank, an ex-con and jewel thief, played by Frank Langella, is not so lucky.  His mind is unraveling too.  Frank lives alone and barely makes do.  Frank’s son, played by James Marsden, must drive ten hours to check up on Frank every weekend, neglecting his own family.  His solution?  Give Frank a robot.

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Most science fiction fans will not think Robot and Frank much of a science fiction movie, there are no explosions, chases, superheroes or saving the world.  No one even saves Frank from dementia.  So why do I claim this is the best science fiction film since Gattaca?  This is a story Isaac Asimov could have written for Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s.  As far as I can tell, this little robot, which is never given a name other than robot, follows all the three laws of robotics.

But Robot and Frank is more than a modern day Asimovian tale.  The film explores what it means to be a human losing his intelligence while a robot is gaining its awareness.  Robot and Frank is not sentimental, or even particularly cute.  This is an adult story.  I wonder if anyone under 50 will even understand it.  Unless you’ve experienced memory loss, unless you’ve cared for a dying parent, unless you have first hand experience of becoming helpless,  I doubt you’ll empathize much with Frank.  Robot and Frank is for an audience that has often said, “I’m having a senior moment.”

Oh, don’t worry, there’s enough of a story for a person of any age to enjoy this delightful movie, but I tend to think, only those of a certain age will feel deeply moved.  Middle age viewers might be horrified by the fear they will one day have to care for their aging parents, and I bet some of them might watch the film and think about opening a savings account to start collecting money to buy a robot.  I know I wondered if saving for a robot might be a better use of money than paying into nursing home insurance.  The Japanese are working full steam ahead on developing androids.

Robot and Frank is set only slightly in the future.  The closing credits shows clips of real robots being tested.  However, the mind of the robot in this film is very far from what we can create now.  That’s why the film is science fiction.  The robot is halfway to Data from Star Trek.  Somewhere between R2D2 and 3CPO.  I don’t know if we need to reach the Singularity to get this kind of intelligence in a helper bot, but I don’t think it’s in the near near future.  Maybe 2025?  I’ll turn 74 that year.

When you watch Robot and Frank, you’ll have to ask yourself, “Will I be happier with a robot or human caretaker?”  At first you think the son and daughter are shirking their duty but by the end of the film, you might change your mind.  Frank gets quite attached to robot, and spends a lot of time talking to it.  But who or what is he talking to?  But who or what is Frank talking to when his son or daughter is with him?  What is consciousness?  When we’re alone, and our days are dwindling, what kind of companion do we really want?  Are we wanting to listen, or are we wanting to be listened to?

Yes, what we want is a spouse we’ve spent our whole life with.  After that we want our children.  But what if we don’t have children, or a spouse?  Is a personal robot better than an impersonal nurse?  Robot is able to observe and understand Frank.  And isn’t that what we’ll want?  Someone to know where we’re at, no matter how Swiss cheesy our memory becomes?

I found Robot and Frank tremendously uplifting.  I left the theater feeling mentally accelerated and physically better than when I walked in.   We will all come undone.  We will all have to deal with it.  Suicide is one way to avoid the issue, but this movie doesn’t consider that path.  Frank’s mind keeps unraveling, but he lives for moments of being himself.  The movie suggests a robot might help find those moments.

JWH – 9/17/12

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 56, Again

It is so easy to get distracted while writing.  My goal the other night was to focus on what it means to search for sense of wonder books in late middle age, but I got sidetrack from this intent by reminiscing about Clifford Simak’s City.  We science fiction fans often agree that around age 12 is when discovering science fiction is the most exciting.  But should that be so?  And is it true for everyone?  Indeed, it is easy to become jaded as one gets older, as well as becoming better educated, more cynical, sophisticated, and, dare I say it, more discerning.

Does that mean we are destined to outgrow science fiction?  I have to admit that I find it very hard to discover new SF&F to enjoy.  Furthermore, I’ll admit that when I reread some of my favorite books from my golden age of discovery they often fail to bring me back to the good ole days.  The thrill is gone.  And when I do reread books that I still love I’m worried that I’m just wallowing in nostalgia, and not appreciating the story for its own merits.

Is the power of science fiction at its greatest potency when viewed by twelve year olds because they are wild-eyed, full of enthusiasm, and anxious to discover everything exciting about the world, or because children are easily manipulated by the slight-of-hand of fantastic stories?  At 12 our critical x-ray vision isn’t very strong, so we tend to welcome everything with believability.  I know it’s just entertainment, but when I was a kid I wanted to believe in science fiction.  It was my religion.

To play devil’s advocate to my own supposition, I should admit on cross examination that I read with great excitement the Harry Potter novels and the Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.  There is a clue here.  Those are young adult (YA) novels.  Furthermore, my all-time favorite novels to reread are Robert A. Heinlein’s twelve YA novels.

The mature of the literary world have often sneered that science fiction is crude pulp fiction for adolescents.  I don’t know how mature I am at 56, but I still find excitement in the concept of science fiction, and want it to be an art form for all ages.  Now this could be avoiding adultification on my part, and I may not be alone, because look how successful Harry Potter books have been with my fellow boomers.  Many of the blogs I read about science fiction are written by old guys like myself fondly looking back to their favorite books.

There is a boom in YA fiction, being read by kids and adults.  I know plenty of middle age people who have found a renewed excitement for reading through YA novels.  So, is it the age of the reader, or just the YA subject matter that stir up our minds?  YA writers know how to target their audience with stories that resonate with the teen years.  Science fiction and fantasy, whether marketed as YA or adult fiction strongly appeals to youthful readers.

This finally brings me to the question I want to ask:  If literature can be targeted to the formative years, can it also be targeted to the waning years?  When I first started reading Old Man’s War by John Scalzi I thought, “Hot damn, science fiction for old guys.”  If you’ve read the novel you’ll also probably guess my disappointment in the change of direction it eventually takes.

As a boomer seeing my golden years glow on the horizon, I want those years to be a new golden age of science fiction.  I wonder if there’s a market for sunset science fiction?  Who knows, maybe I have a bad attitude towards aging, but I can’t help but thinking I’ll have 15-30 years of wrinkly freedom.  It won’t be like being young, but it doesn’t have to be all about dying either.

I think the excitement of reading YA fiction is the quality it brings to thinking about the future and exploring what we can be “when we grow up.”  One reason many people turn away from fiction is because growing up turns out to be a dud in relation to our YA fantasies.  Adultification sets in and dreams dissipate with compromising.  One of the tragic beliefs of youth is we’ll have lots of time to pursue our dreams after high school, but college, jobs and marriages kills that dream fast.

If I retire and have 15-30 years of free time, I’m going to have that free time I wanted in my youth.  I might not be fit to do anything, but I shouldn’t give up.  What we need is RA fiction, Retired Adult fiction that inspires us to do something with those years of freedom.  Fishing, golfing and shuffleboard are philosophical lacking, so I want sense of wonder ideas for my elder years.

Hell, maybe J. K. will write a series about a Hogwarts Retirement Home.  Or Victor Appleton II can be resurrected to write about the adventures of a geezer Tom Swift.  However, this time around I want maximum sense of wonder with less fantasy.  I can believe fantasies about a robotic Jeeves becoming a geriatric companion easier than I can believe being downloaded into a cloned body.  I’d love to read more stories about the possibilities of mental rejuvenation.  I’m not against physical overhauls, but so far medicine only seems to produce scary people with rigid faces.

What we need is the idealism of the 1960s for octogenarians.  Let’s see some creative utopian assisted living homes.  And does anyone write erotica for the wrinkled?

Science fiction original sold me the Brooklyn Bridge on Tau Ceti.  It’s easy to fool kids that rocket travel is just around the corner.  This time around I want science fiction writers to really wring their imaginations and bring about another golden age of SF.

Jim