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Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Some Guy and Some Guy in a Robot Costume

Ow. Yellow. It burns.
Who here loves South Park? High five! Yay for being another immature man-child who likes to pretend you watch it for the social commentary.

"Hehe, he's all covered in- I mean, consumerism and government and...something."
Although there should be no need for justification in bringing up such comedy genius, my question has a point. Some long-time fans may remember a certain episode featuring Cartman's AWESOM-O 4000 robot, which, to the uninitiated or those who don't click every hyperlink they see, consists of Cartman dressing up in some cardboard boxes and talking in a monotone voice to convince the town moron that he's a robot sent from Japan to be his new best friend.

*insert racist Asian joke here*
If you ever wondered what that concept would be like if it was stretched over the course of an entire film and replaced the town idiot with an elderly shut-in in the early stages of dementia, then your worryingly specific request has been granted by Robot and Frank, a relatively low budget slow-paced, sort-of-sci-fi drama featuring Frank Langella. You might know him better as the one who wasn't the TV presenter in Frost/Nixon or the guy with half a face in the hastily excised haemorrhoid that I've mentioned previouslyThe Box. God, I hated that movie!

Judging by his performance, I assume his character also only had half a buttock.
So what's Robot and Frank like? For twenty minutes it's a bland tale about a very typical forgetful, grumpy old man getting given a robot aide by his "I-care-about-you-but-I'm-obviously-too-successful-and-busy-to-be-a-good-child" son, Hunter, a gesture which he is unsurprisingly unhappy about, but is slowly brought over to as the two of them strike up a wonderful friendship. Essentially the formula for every elderly companionship movie ever made excluding the only good elderly companionship movie ever made, Harold and Maude, but this time with a robot.

This sub-genre needs more robots.
After the twenty minute mark, the addition of, and consequently also the thoughtful moral dilemma surrounding, Frank realising he can use the robot to assist him in reviving his past career as a cat burglar adds some desperately needed individuality to the otherwise forgettable prologue. They decide to rob the local library which is soon to be turned into a completely computerised system, apparently destroying all of the books once they're scanned because that's definitely what you'd do when trying to preserve literature. One of the books in jeopardy is of course an extremely valuable copy of Don Quixote (why it's just sitting in a cabinet in a small town library we will never know), and Frank takes it upon himself to rescue it; most likely from Susan Sarandon's character, who can't help but constantly play with all of the extremely fragile books.

Never before has a priceless artefact been so needlessly fondled.
Then we spend a little while pottering about watching Frank stake out his next target and occasionally forget stuff so we remember that he's not well. Then some more inconsequential plot developments. To be honest, the whole film feels very...bitty... No one aspect of the plot sticks around for long enough to actually get going. We're watching Frank get to know the robot. Now we're being given some sort of heavy handed parable. Now it looks like he's under the most obvious police surveillance ever.

Frank himself is, frankly (eh, eh!), dull. The writers have tried to push him away from the old man stereotype by making him an ex burglar but despite that he is still just the old man stereotype. He's forgetful, grumpy, unwelcoming to new things and firmly set in his ways.

The robot is, equally so, just a robot, and in many scenes very obviously not a robot. If we would like to go back to my very first comparison, its plainly obvious in parts of the film that the robot is just a person wearing no more that some painted cardboard boxes. Now, it would be impossible to actually use a real robot for the variety and detail of tasks being performed in the movie and still keep a budget under the billions, but did they have to make it so obvious that the whole suit slipped on like a jumper? The blatant falseness of the robot costume, although not a deal breaker, is certainly jarring in a few scenes and definitely takes away from the illusion of a highly sophisticated piece of machinery. That said, Peter Sarsgaard's voice performance as the robot is probably the most convincing piece of acting in the whole movie.

"I have more talent in one circuit that all of you flesh sacs combined."
The other characters out-with the titular pair would be more at home in Flatland than anything requiring three dimensions. The aforementioned son turns up, dumps the robot and leaves, throwing in a few lines to express exasperation and mild sarcasm. All of the other male characters in the film are equally as sarky in everything they do, not one of them managing a single serious sentence without smirking halfway through like so many art students talking about their views on philosophy after reading the wiki page on Nietzsche. The worst perpetrator of this is the smarmy grease-ball that is the closest thing to a villain that the film manages. He looks like a cross between a weasel and a confused toad and seems to be incapable of basic human interactions, including knowing when not to sound like a sarcastic, self-entitled bastard. Essentially me.

I have nicer glasses.
The daughter, Madison, can only be described as an air-headed liberal who spends half of the movie in [impoverished country] "finding herself", turning up just long enough to shoehorn in the inevitable requirement of approaching the "robots replacing humans" dilemma, and raising the argument that although robots can complete the same tasks, they can't do it with the love and affection of humans. After five minutes she realises it's too hard looking after an old person on your own and uses the robot anyway.

To bury Frank and save them all the bother.
Then there's the near-future setting that our story is based in. It's presented as a kind of pseudo-future with little technical advancements here and there, suggesting the more feasible subtle changes in technology likely over the next few decades instead of the Jetson's-esque levels of jetpack awesomeness more commonly presented in cinema. Although it was a nice thought, the people behind making this future world have still managed to fall down the usual potholes, most notably the idea that our phone calls will be voice-activated and permanently displaying video on the living room TV.

"Dad, why are you masturbating at the cat?"
What if you've lost your voice and can't activate the phone with a "hello", or if you're currently in a less than flattering situation, or very simply not in that room? Where's the microphone; do you have to shout at the screen to be heard? What if the room is noisy, or there are other people there? Or if you want to keep watching TV while you're on the phone? There's so many flaws with this idea that I'm amazed people keep trying to suggest it. I mean what brainless fool would actually- oh.

*slow clap*
I've been whinging for a good few paragraphs and I've just polished of a very smooth bottle of Pinot so why don't we take the opportunity to look at at least one good thing to come out of this film? Due to the unique amalgamation of Frank's deteriorating condition and the introduction of an ethically ambiguous piece of pseudo-sentient machinery, the film's makers have stumbled across a goldmine of a parable in the form of the importance of memory in making a person, or being, human. The fragility of Frank's unstable memory is paralleled with the robot's memory, which can be wiped at any time by its owner, and we realise that his attachment to the robot is built predominantly around it's memories of him and their experiences together. When it comes to the choice of whether to wipe the robot's memory or not Frank is hesitant because, by doing so, is he essentially destroying a being which he has slowly grown to know and helped to nurture over months? It is the only moment in a movie otherwise devoid of plot, character or individuality which makes the entirety of the hour and a half of slightly de-saturated stumbling about almost worthwhile. And I needed a bottle of wine to appreciate it properly.

Take from that what you will.

Overall Ben Equivalence Rating

Watching a Feature-length Honda Advert -
Lots of desaturation, pseudo-advanced technology, robots and a distinct lack of plot.

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