Robot and Frank: AI & robotics at the movies

This guide forms one of many others that form part of 'Bioethics at the Movies' online resources available on the Care website.


Release Date:     2013  
Certification:    12A
Genre:    Comedy; Crime; Drama  
Length:    89 mins

Key themes

  • Human dignity
  • Robotics
  • Care of the elderly
  • Human relationships

Scripture references

  • Genesis 9:5-6
  • Psalm 71:9
  • Mark 12:30-31
  • Luke 4:18-19; 17:11-14
  • James 3:7-10

The movie is set in the not too distant future and centres on the life of Frank (Frank Langella, an aging ex-convict and thief who lives alone and is experiencing increasingly serious mental deterioration and dementia.  This deterioration in health is of particular concern to Frank's son Hunter (James Marsden). An attorney with a family of his own, he is particularly tried and growing increasingly frustrated at having to make weekly visits to his father's home to check that his father is safe and well. Although reluctant to put his father into fulltime care Hunter acknowledges that he has to do something to help his father so he purchases a robot companion (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Programmed to provide Frank with therapeutic care, the robot companion act as a carer to guide Frank through fixed daily routine and cognitive enhancing activities like gardening.

Frank’s initial response to the robot companion is of extreme disgust, caution and wariness; he cannot see why he needs to be subjected to such a device. Over time though Frank warms to his new companion, particularly when he realizes the robot is not programmed to distinguish between legal recreational activities and criminal ones. Reenergized with a new focus to his life, Frank plots how he and his robot companion can commit a heist in order to win the affection of the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) by stealing an antique copy of Don Quixote from the library. Due to the surge in interest and usage of digital media, there is no longer any need or demand for libraries so the local library is being closed and turned into a community centre.

Frank also has a daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), a free spirit who loves to travel. When she learns of her brother’s attempt to care for her father, she is shocked and decides to return from her travels for a while to care for her father. She tries to convince her dad to get rid of the machine, which she finds ethically objectionable. Defiant and almost indignant of his daughter nor trying to tell him how to live his life, Frank insists on keeping the robot planning to hatch one last heist. This time the focus is on Jake (Jeremy Strong), the rich young developer at the head of the library renovation project and his collection of jewels. The two pull off the heist successfully but owing to Frank’s criminal past he quickly becomes the focus of Jake’s suspicions as being the one behind the break in. The police become involved and begin to question and monitor Frank, who maintains his innocence. In order to get Hunter to visit him, Franks acts as if he is near to dying. Faced with the fact that his robot companion could be his undoing by providing the evidence of the crime, Frank is faced with loosing his ‘friend’ and wiping the robot’s memory even as his own memory rapidly deteriorates.

Frank heads to the library to seek the help and solace of the love of his life, the librarian. As he returns to the library and sees certain cues he discovers that the librarian is actually his divorced wife, whom he had forgotten.  Eventually Frank is then sent to a 'Brain Centre', where he receives full time care, help and support in coping with his dementia.

Questions for discussion

I’m very pleased with your progress, Frank. Planning this burglary was a great idea.’ – Robot ‘

We know when to go in, how to get in and how to get out. It would be a crime not to do it.’ – Frank. 

  1. What would you say is Frank’s basis for making moral decisions? What do you think morality really means?
  2. How does the movie speak to the issue of whether humans are simply machines? Do you agree with the notion that human beings, like robots, are just machines programmed for one over-riding function, yet able to do other things ‘in service of [our] main program’?
  3. The film illustrates the power and influence of human relationships. Contrast Hunter’s response to caring for his father to that of Madison’s.  How do they differ? Is it a case of one showing love and the other not loving or do they show love in different ways?
  4. Frank is clearly suffering from dementia and as a result is loosing his ability to remember things. Frank is faced with having to decide whether or not to erase his robot companion’s memory. How do the two scenarios differ and how are they alike? To what extent do our memories make us who we are?
  5. Although set in the near future, the kind of scenario depicted in the film is being experimented with in Japan where robot companions are being develop to help with care of the elderly. What do you think are the implications of effective simulation of human compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence by artificial intelligence (AIs) for our understanding of human relationships?  If robots are increasingly seen as efficient and effective sources for human-like companionship, love and meaning, what are the implications for human society?