This post was first published on Culturewatch as part of the Film & Bible Blog. © Tony Watkins 2013.
For discussion material on this film, see my Damaris Film Blog discussion guide and the supplementary questions in the published version of this article in the Film & Bible Blog

Robot & Frank

A house is being burgled in the dead of night. The door lock is picked, the drawers ransacked. By the light of his torch, the intruder catches sight of a framed photograph, showing a man and his two children. The burglar is shocked to recognise himself; the picture falls from his hands and shatters on the floor. Retired cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) is developing dementia — and has broken into his own home.

The following morning, Frank clears up the broken glass, but his home is a mess. His daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) worries about him, but her work has taken her far away to Central Asia; his son Hunter (James Marsden) lives fives hours’ drive away but comes to check on Frank weekly. Hunter is concerned that, with his failing memory, his father can no longer cope with living independently, so one day he brings a robot to take care of Frank. Frank objects to the automaton, but reluctantly accepts it, knowing that the alternative is to live in the ‘memory centre’. He reacts to Robot’s attempts to improve his mental and physical health by insisting that he would rather die from a cheesburger-induced heart attack, but the machine informs Frank that, if it failed, it would have its memories wiped.

Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella in Robot and Frank
© Momentum Theatrical, 2013.
Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella in Robot and Frank
© Momentum Theatrical, 2013.

Memory is right at the heart of the film. While Frank’s power of recall is deteriorating, Robot’s is perfect. Many of Frank’s memories — of his children growing up and of life before his divorce thirty years previously — are precious; Robot’s are simply data with no emotional associations. Robot’s statement that it might have its memories wiped sounds like a terrible thing to Frank, so it evokes his compassion for the android — and therefore his compliance with its healthy eating programme. Later, we discover that Robot ‘only said that to coerce’ Frank. ‘You lied?’ asks the astonished human. Robot replies, ‘Your health supersedes my other directives. The truth is, I don’t care if my memory is erased or not.’

Frank’s memories — both good and bad — make him who he is: he is a product of the years being married with two young children, of his life as a burglar, of his time in prison and everything else that has happened to him. But as the dementia takes hold and the recollections fade, his sense of self becomes increasingly fragile. The artificially intelligent Robot has no ‘sense of self’ to lose; it is defined by its programming, not by the data it collects in its memory banks. It says, ‘I do what I’m programmed to do. . . . All those things [talking to Frank, gardening and lock picking] are in service of my main programme.’ When Frank learns that Robot doesn’t care if its memory is erased, he asks, ‘How can you not care about something like that?’ The Robot replies, ‘Think about it this way: you know that you’re alive. You think, therefore you are. . . . In a similar way, I know that I’m not alive. I’m a robot.’ Frank doesn’t like this philosophical turn to the conversation and remarks, ‘I don’t want to talk about how you don’t exist. It’s making me uncomfortable.’

Frank Langella in Robot and Frank. &copy Momentum Theatrical, 2013.
Frank Langella in Robot and Frank
© Momentum Theatrical, 2013.

Does Robot’s invoking of the famous statement from Descartes miss the point, though? It is right to distinguish between Frank knowing that he is alive and Robot knowing that it is not alive, but doesn’t saying ‘You think, therefore you are’ suggest that it is only the process of thinking which enables Frank to recognise his ‘aliveness’? But Robot has artificial intelligence, so doesn’t it, in some sense, think? Certainly, they both carry out reasoning, decision-making processes in some way, but Frank’s mind is more than a sophisticated data collection and processing unit — it includes emotional and memorial aspects, which Robot lacks. This is what enables Frank to recognise patterns in human behaviour which Robot misses: he understands the emotional components of that behaviour, prompting him to call the human brain ‘a lovely piece of hardware’. And, crucially, it is the emotions and memory, together with reasoning, which enable Frank to know that he is alive.

Nevertheless, before this conversation occurs, Frank has begun to develop a bond with Robot. The android feels nothing for Frank, but the human feels something for it. He begins to feel that it is a partner with him.

What begins to change Frank’s attitude to Robot is, a little ironically, the realisation that it has no moral dimension. Since an artificially intelligent robot can easily learn to be a highly accomplished lock picker, Frank reasons that Robot could be useful to him in restarting his criminal career. ‘You want to be partners? Let’s be partners. I mean, you said yourself, I need a project. I do. I need something to keep me stimulated, to keep me exercised. Well, look. This is it.’

Frank Langella in Robot and Frank. © Momentum Theatrical, 2013.
Frank Langella in Robot and Frank. © Momentum Theatrical, 2013.

Their first job is to steal a rare volume from the local library before all the books are removed as part of a plan to make it entirely digital. Frank has been a regular visitor to the library — to flirt with its last remaining human employee, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), as much as to borrow books. When she shows him a rare copy of Don Quixote in the library safe, he determines to steal it so that he can eventually give it to her. The man behind the programme is the objectionable but wealthy Jake Finn (Jeremy Strong). He and Frank quickly develop a strong, mutual distrust — which makes Finn the ideal target for Frank and Robot’s second job.

Being partners in crime develops Frank’s emotional attachment to Robot. So when Madison turns up to care for her father herself, and turns Robot off, Frank is upset. He needs him for the burglary, but he also acknowledges that he has come to see Robot as a friend. The emotional attachment he feels is because they are sharing experiences together, and the memory of those experiences — not simply data about them, but the pleasurable recollection of them — is important.

Frank Langella in Robot and Frank
© Momentum Theatrical, 2013.
Frank Langella in Robot and Frank
© Momentum Theatrical, 2013.

When, at Jake Finn’s instigation, Frank falls under suspicion for the robbery, he wastes no time in destroying all physical evidence of his planning. Robot points out a problem, though: ‘My memory can be used against you. You must reformat me.’ Frank is desperate to avoid this. His memories are fading, and he longs to hold on to them; Robots’ memories are perfect, but they need to be wiped.

It is a reminder that we remember not only the good things of life, but things that incriminate us — not necessarily before human authorities, but certainly before the ultimate judge, God, who will call every human being to account for the way that they have lived: the Apostle Paul writes:

Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘”As surely as I live,” says the Lord, “every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.”‘ Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. (Romans 14:10–12)

Frank Langella and Liv Tyler in Robot and Frank.
© Momentum Theatrical, 2013.
Frank Langella and Liv Tyler in Robot and Frank.
© Momentum Theatrical, 2013.

Even if our own powers of recall are degenerating, the consequences of our actions are borne — and remembered — by others, for good or ill. Frank’s children recall their childhood in different ways: Madison seems to look back on it more fondly as it seems she was sympathetic to her father’s criminality, but Hunter is bitter about the past. ‘The best thing you ever did was being locked up,’ he shouts, ‘so I didn’t have to be raised by you.’ Painful memories are so often the result of other people’s malice or simple self-centredness. Our memories make us who we are, but not always in a good way. The way we respond to the things that are done to us is crucial, which is why forgiveness is so important: Jesus said that, ‘God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy’ (Matthew 5:7). All of us know that we have hurt others. Being forgiven by someone brings a profound sense of release, which can enable a relationship to be rebuilt, yet probably all of us are familiar with the pain of people holding things against us.

But what can we do about our standing before God? Like Frank, we may eventually lose any memory of our offences, and others may forget what we have done, but God knows everything. Frank is impressed by Robot’s ability to see and store everything that is going on around him, but God even sees and notes what goes on in the depths of our hearts. What hope is there for us, then? Extraordinarily, the fundamental message of the Bible is that God is prepared to forgive us — not to simply overlook what we have done as if it doesn’t matter, but to bear the judgement we deserve, and to atone for us: ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10, NIV). As a result of this one perfect sacrifice, God says he will ‘never again remember their sins and lawless deeds. And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices’ (Hebrews 10:17–18).

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