Science fiction need not be daunting, it need not be bleak, it need not even have a vast budget to tell a touching and charming story of how technology changes the lives of those who come into contact with it, and in this, the sun dappled debut feature from Jake Schreier, from a script by his former classmate Christopher D Ford, the unnamed robot does not wish to evolve or rebel in the manner of a Nexus 6 or a U-87 Cybernetic Lifeform Node. Capable of a range of behaviours, from maid to butler to home care and therapist, but despite the initial resistance of elderly divorcee Frank, the primary role is that of friend.
Set in the near future in Cold Harbour, New York, siblings Hunter and Madison can no longer provide the care it is apparent that their father needs; Hunter has his own young children and Madison works abroad, and while their love and concern is genuine, they simply cannot be there for Frank, wilful and cantankerous and obviously suffering from a gradual mental decline. They cannot be with him, but he cannot be left alone, and a compromise is forced upon him, a top of the range metal companion to keep an eye on him and engage his mind.
The only regular human contact Frank enjoys is with Jennifer, director of the local library, itself under threat from automation following a takeover from a non-profit organisation who wish to “reimagine the library experience,” taking the books off the shelves, scanning them and recycling them, a sacrilege Frank sees as akin to Nazi Germany.
And this is where his robot becomes useful to him, for it is programmed to engage Frank in activities that will stimulate him mentally and physically, so when he asks it to assist him in a resumption of his former occupation of cat burglar, liberating the valuable books before they are shipped out, the robot conditionally agrees.
As performed by dancer Rachael Ma and voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, the VGC-60L unit is as unobtrusive as the ambient soundtrack performed by Francis and the Lights, and the film hangs entirely on Frank Langella, seen in almost every frame, James Marsden and Liv Tyler being confined to extended cameos, held distant in Frank’s compartmentalised life, but it is with the warmth of Susan Sarandon as Jennifer that the film is alive, her affection for Frank tempered with her weary tolerance of his quirks.
Credulity is occasionally stretched by the incompetence of the local police, who seem not to have a forensics unit, but not unreasonably so, and this is not a harsh police procedural or an analysis on the impact of technology on humanity in a hard science fiction setting; rather it is a pleasing and gentle look through the failing eyes of a generation who have seen more change in the world in their lives than most can comprehend, and ultimately seeing the very best of the possibilities that have come out of that change.