When I was in college I took a class on creative nonfiction writing. It only took me two or three classes to regret signing up. In theory, “creative nonfiction” is an endlessly broad category. which includes memoir, personal essays, cultural essays, movie reviews, sports writing, straight journalism – you name it. But week after week we got the same thing over and over: it was an endless parade of “this one time in summer camp, I....” stories. All of my classmates were interested in a very specific type of writing to the exclusion of everything else.
In large part science fiction movies fall into that same trap. The term “science fiction” could be applied to a wide variety of stories, but for the most part Hollywood’s idea of science fiction involves a lot of explosions – basically, it’s an action movie where the guns fire laser beams instead of bullets. But every now and then a film like Robot and Frank will get released, and it will feel like a breath of fresh air.
The titular robot is fairly self explanatory: he's a gleaming white machine who has been sent to help Frank out as he enters his old age. Frank is a more complicated character. He used to be a competent thief, but he reformed after a ten year sentence for tax evasion. Now he's an old man who lives by himself and his life would be pretty easy... if he wasn't going senile.
When Frank's son drops the robot off Frank refuses to have anything to do with it. Partly this is due to stubbornness - Frank refuses to believe he needs help - but it is also because the robot's idea of helping is kind of invasive. It tries to put Frank on a rigid schedule on the theory that a structured day will help orient Frank, but Frank feels that he’s earned the right to sleep in during his old age. However, once Frank accidentally discovers that the robot's programming doesn't forbid it from stealing he's suddenly a lot more interested in having his helper stick around. He starts to plan a few jobs where the robot's steady hands will do the work he can no longer do himself.
Robot and Frank is a great example of a character driven science fiction story. It's a story that has to be science fiction to work - a human being would know better than to help Frank steal, so his caretaker has to be a robot, because a robot's peculiar approach to logic could be fooled by Frank's bogus arguments. (He justifies his caper planning by saying that they are good for his mind.) But unlike a lot of science fiction movies, there isn't a lot of time wasted on drooling over technology, or on creating a big spectacle. No, the story spends most of it's time showing us who Frank is, making us understand his life, and asking us to care about his mental deterioration. It's a combination that's really winning - futuristic enough to be more interesting than your average character study of a doddering old man, but more grounded than your average robot-centric story.
A lot of people who want to craft science fiction stories seem to get trapped by the idea of creating an entirely new world. An immersive experience can be good, but sometimes it isn't worth it. Robot and Frank's technology is so plausible, so instantly recognizable, that it doesn't require a lot of exposition before we get it. The robot just comes out of the trunk of a car, gets turned on, and boom, we're rolling. That approach isn't just practical, it also deepens the movies mood. By contrasting the robot with Frank the film contrasts a near future world with our current world - the world of continuous improvement versus continuous decay. It gives the film a beating heart to go with it's shiny-white exterior.
Of course, not all science fiction movies should set out to be like Robot and Frank. Frank’s struggles with aging, with his distant children, with his absent ex-wife – those are age old problems, and while I enjoyed them in this context, sometimes a future-looking movie should be about future-problems. My point is that variety is nice; I like the way that Robot and Frank is very different from (say) Guardians of the Galaxy even though both share some of the same genre-trappings. Hell, who knows - I might even like a story about this one time at summer camp that something crazy happened (as long as it also had a robot or an alien in it.)