Making the Grades
I’m all for time saving household appliances and technology. But am I ready to have a robot be the primary caregiver and relationship of my aging mother, or myself for that matter—even if it cooks and cleans? That is just one of the ethical and pragmatic questions raised in Robot & Frank.
Living in the near future, the aging Frank (Frank Langella) adamantly declares he wants nothing to do with the robotic health care aid his son Hunter (James Marsden) brings to the house. But after making yet another weekly 10 hour round trip to check on his dementia-ridden father, Hunter needs some help. His own family is suffering in his absence and the extent of his sister Madison’s (Liv Tyler) efforts is confined to brief phone calls from whatever far region of the world she is currently traveling in.
Yet while the elderly man initially balks at every request Robot (voice of Peter Sarsgaard) makes of him, he slowly begins to accept the mechanical being’s presence. Meanwhile, Frank, a former jewelry thief who still has a penchant for shoplifting, makes regular trips to the local library, as much for books as a chance to talk with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) the woman behind the desk.
While in town, Frank discovers his new neighbor Jake (Jeremy Strong) is among the well-heeled yuppies who intend to remove all the old-fashioned books from the library and revamp it into a community gathering spot. Whether Frank can’t resist the lure of all the expensive bling hanging on the necks of the young professionals or he just wants to mete out a little comeuppance to his pompous neighbor, the retired cat burglar pulls out his old tools and begins teaching Robot the finer techniques of “breaking and entering”.
In many ways the script relies on Frank’s deteriorating mental capacities as a way to lessen the seriousness of his crimes, much like the story of Don Quixote excuses its hero’s unusual antics. However, this elderly protagonist is coherent enough to think his way through the steps of a robbery and the subsequent questioning he undergoes. That, along with his family’s compliance in his illegal activities and the script’s pervasive profanities, makes this film hard to recommend for family viewing.
However the discussion points the story generates might be worth the price of tickets for adults. For technology geeks, the script offers a fairly reasonable, if still very futuristic, depiction of what robotic care may look like. For those with aging parents or facing the onset of their own golden years, the story raises numerous concerns about elder care, society’s growing reliance on technology and the decline of human to human contact.
Robot & Frank seems to suggest that with fewer children, more working adults and increasingly far-flung families, mechanically provided healthcare is inevitable. However I’m still unsure if I’m ready to take medical direction from a highly advanced cousin of my microwave.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Robot and Frank.
Several high tech companies have started thinking seriously about developing robots to care for the aging baby boomers. For more information read: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=robot-elder-care
A rare copy of Don Quixote is one of the items Frank and Robot steal. How does Frank’s life mirror that of the literary character? What similarities do Robot and Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza share? Read the full text of Don Quixote online at Project Gutenberg or visit your local library.
What care giving challenges does this film raise? How do Hunter and Madison’s involvement in their parent’s life differ? Should Hunter be able to make a decision to introduce robotic care despite his sister’s objections since she is not providing any help? How does their differing opinions about Robot affect their sibling relationship? What similar issues do real families face when considering care for their aging parents?
Although Robot repeatedly reminds Frank that he is a machine and not a real person, what does the script do to make Robot seem more human? How does Frank project his desires for human contact onto Robot? What adaptive technology would have to be in place for a robot to be able to provide this kind of care to a client? How do you feel about the ethics of robot vs. human care? Would you be willing to take orders from a machine?
Although technologies such as text messaging make for quick and easy communication, they are yet one more way human contact is declining. What other ways does this film portray? Are Madison’s brief calls (even though they contain a visual) the same as a visit? How are people developing “relationships” with their technology today? What impact is that having on real friendships? Consider all the ways you can go about your daily activities without ever having to have direct interaction with another human being. (I can go the bank, buy gas and groceries, check out books from the library, get supplies at the hardware store and wash my car without ever having to talk to a person.) Do you think this is healthy or not?