How robot characters serve their flesh-and-blood co-stars.
There’s an old showbiz adage: Never act with kids, dogs, or robots. Actually, I just made up that part about robots. But when you think about it, they’re some of the worst scene-stealers. Just look at the comic duo of C-3PO and R2-D2, or Short Circuit’s Johnny 5—not to mention Robby, the pincer-clawed prototype of the can-do ’bot in that 1950s classic Forbidden Planet. It takes a supremely confident actor to go toe-to-tractor treads with a lovable pile of nuts and bolts—someone like Frank Langella, who co-stars in the aptly titled new film Robot & Frank.
Despite the billing, it’s Langella who comes out on top in this witty sci-fi comedy, which was a hit at Sundance and arrives on local screens Friday. As a cranky, semi-senile jewel thief who turns a home-care robot into his partner in crime, the Tony-winning actor is at the peak of his comic powers. He has to be, since the robot is a major charmer—a short, cute chunk of shiny white metal that looks like a child astronaut and is voiced with a sweet imperturbability by Peter Sarsgaard. But the filmmakers have also wisely kept in mind that robots are meant to serve men, which includes enhancing, not eclipsing, the performances of their flesh-and-blood co-stars.
Still, what makes these walking, talking appliances so attractive? It could be because they combine superhuman attributes—prodigious strength or, as in the case of Robot & Frank, an encyclopedic memory—with the disarming qualities of those other inveterate spotlight grabbers, dogs and kids. Like a canine pet, they’re loyal and reliable. Like a child, they suggest innocence and simplicity. Even such nasty androids as the Terminator assassins or Maria, the fembot fatale in Metropolis, are simply machines designed for evil purposes. Reprogram them and they can just as easily save the day.
Physically, they often provide a similar reductive appeal. Langella’s mechanical sidekick in Robot & Frank is faceless, his head a sleek helmet with a blank, black visor. What personality he possesses is conveyed entirely by Sarsgaard’s even, slightly metallic delivery, making him a great deadpan foil for Langella’s irascible Frank. Indeed, with a robot it’s often the voice, not the face, that is the window into its synthetic soul. Think of melancholy Marvin, dolefully vocalized by Alan Rickman in the film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Or HAL, the rebellious computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose unnervingly soft-spoken tones were provided by Canadian stage actor Douglas Rain.
Yet a robot doesn’t need a voice or a face to make an impact. Gort, the alien bodyguard in the Cold War parable The Day the Earth Stood Still, was the strong, silent type, as enigmatic and frightening as the Iron Curtain. Then there’s little R2-D2, who has somehow overcome a body like a Shop-Vac and dialogue confined to bleeps and whirrs to become the best-loved Star Wars character. If he has any rival for our affections, it would be the eponymous hero of Pixar’s WALL-E—that scruffy little bug-eyed trash compactor who falls in love with a glossy dream-bot and woos her with an old videotape of Hello, Dolly!
When robots mimic human behaviour we find them funny and endearing, like children pretending to be adults. But films also encourage us to feel a little smug. We see that, even with superior brains and brawn, robots still fall short of being human. In most movies, when they aren’t engaged in serving us, they’re on a quest to become more like us. The most poignant of these strivers is Haley Joel Osment’s ersatz kid in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, who longs to become a real boy so his adoptive mother will love him. The most persistent is Star Trek’s Data (Brent Spiner), the Tin Man of androids, who finally acquired much-coveted human feelings in Star Trek: Generations.
Most movie robots, however, know their place. With a few exceptions, they function best as secondary characters. Give them too much screen time and you wind up with robot overkill (read: the Transformers franchise). Instead, let them act as heavies or comic relief. Let them stand as a reminder that the human animal is far more complex and elusive than anything we’re able to build out of metal and microchips. That’s why, as Langella triumphantly shows us, the real star of Robot & Frank is Frank. Ultimately, it’s humans, not machines, that matter most.