Film Junk Take Two: Chappie and Robot & Frank


Take Two is a new feature where we arbitrarily choose two movies and compare them. Then we call out the smart moves, the epic misses, and leave you with a takeaway. Assuming there is one. Let the comments begin.

As a warm up for the release of Ex Machina, our third Take Two compares two movies that would seem to be the same. They both take a well worn SF subject: robots and their relations with humans. But their treatments are both stylistically and emotionally quite different. Chappie is about a robot trying to become human. Robot and Frank is about a robot that knows he is a robot. And doesn’t care about becoming human. And then in a coincidence of cosmic proportions, both movies take different directions to arrive at a single emotional moment that is identical right down to the blocking and camera angle. Only on Film Junk will you get this kind of stuff.

Warning: Light spoilers ahead. However, if you haven’t seen these movies by now, you’re probably in the wrong seat.


Robot & Frank

Our Story So Far

You’re Gonna Need a Plot App
Deep in this unwieldy mashup of story lines, Chappie is about a robot becoming human. What’s in doubt is whether he will choose a white hat or black. This familiar struggle has the potential for rich characterization and playfulness but it’s never fully realized. Unfortunately, the plot also skitters between classic robot tropes, video game action, and comic book morality. It falls to the audience to manage the distractions and keep track of the loose ends (or not).
It’s Not Complicated
Robot & Frank brings us a retired burglar living alone and struggling with dementia. The movie opens with Frank prowling a darkened house looking for valuables. It soon becomes apparent he is robbing his own home. Both human and non-human caregivers provide support as Frank struggles to maintain his equilibrium…and pull one more job. In this affectingly told story, the humans shine but the robot casts the most light.

Performance Anxiety

By the Numbers Except…
Blomkamp’s touch for his actors (e.g. Sharlto Copley) seems to have gone cold. Almost. The AI geek Deon (Dev Patel), the corporation President (Sigourney Weaver), and the rival roboticist (Hugh Jackman) are all stars acting by the numbers. But Blomkamp hits his groove just in time with Yolandi and Ninja, a real life SA musical duo who energize the screen with their intensity and credibility. Whether guiding the default adoptee Chappie to the dark side or feeding his creative potential, they bring a much needed authenticity to the movie.
In the Moment
These actors know that their job is all about being. With Frank Langella as the titular character, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, and Susan Sarandon bring a superb real-life feel respectively to the exchanges between a declining father and his son, then his daughter, and then his hinted-at girl friend. And surprisingly, Robot – marvelously voiced by Peter Sarsgaard – brings a singularly human touch to all the proceedings. Mix in an unreliable narrator (see: Gone Girl) and you have a wistful mix of vitality and decline told with sharp humour and consummate grace.

Directorial Chops

Worth Waiting for…
As you might guess with a damn-the-torpedoes plot, the movie’s elements are going to be basic, linear, and hypersonic. If only the latter is important to you, this is a must see. Blomkamp once again proves he is a virtuoso of chaos whether crooks confront robots, robots raid a gang, or all the interested parties pile on in one great mosh pit of violence. His cutting between long, medium, and close up shots is faultless. In these sequences, he shows he can deliver on simple and clear storytelling. Visceral and gritty, you can’t help but recall your first viewing of The Road Warrior.
Deft Strokes
Schreier beautifully understates his setting with glowing images of ordinary surroundings, populated with typical humans and one above-average robot. His movie succeeds because he orchestrates the small human details with a masterful touch: the look on Frank’s face when Robot gives him his first home-cooked meal is priceless; some boys harass Robot and his response is a line every kid knows: “Self-destruct sequence initialized.” They scatter. Telling moments orchestrated into a most satisfying whole.

Oh the Humanity!

Missed Opportunities
For a movie that takes itself a little too seriously, Chappie’s socialization is an opportunity for some much needed humour. Ninja, Chappie’s erstwhile father, challenges him with target practice (he excels of course), and diction lessons in ghetto slang. Ninja then finds a way to leverage Chappie’s unhappiness with Deon into a criminal career stealing cars and hijacking armored trucks. These sequences help humanize Chappie but, lacking any real playfulness, feel too mechanical.
The Algorithm will See You Now
Robot is a caregiving robot programmed to help Frank with his dementia. In a droll bit of dialog, Frank intuits that Robot has no problem with illegal activities as long as he gets better. With a brilliant analog hack of a neighbor’s hi-tech security system, Robot becomes the best partner in crime Frank ever had. Health care and crime – hand in hand for a better world. And for a brief time, Frank is as good as he ever was.

Celluloidic Coincidence

Believe It…
It’s amazing to see both movies – in style and treatment so dissimilar – literally intersect in almost identical shots. As Chappie shares his confusion about his maker Deon’s motives and his struggles to achieve human maturity, Yolandi comforts him as every mother does – a big hug and encouraging words. Yolandi’s wistful face is in close up over Chappie’s right shoulder. It’s one of the film’s few authentic human moments.
…Then See It
Although the robbery was a success, Robot and Frank realize their criminal partnership can’t last. In a touching exchange, Robot convinces Frank to wipe his memory removing the digital evidence of their crime. In other words, this is roboticide. In an ingenious reverse on all robot tropes, Robot tells Frank not to worry. He says “I’m not human. I’m a robot.” As Frank moves in to erase the chip, his despondency is shown in close up over Robot’s right shoulder. It’s a bittersweet moment for Frank and the audience.

What’s That All About?

As the Moose prepares to blast our heroes, Chappie in a hail mary of sorts, finds a trigger lying in the dirt. He squeezes it and Moose detonates. It’s probably my latent ADD but where did that come from? I was able to follow most of the technical doodahs but that one eluded me. (The runner up for the Hunh? Award was programming Chappie’s sentience in a single night session fueled by Red Bull. It’s a subject for a whole movie (see: Ex Machina), not two minutes of screen time).
The Circle Motif? Hints of an Infinite Loop?
As a way to provide structure, Robot encourages Frank to take up gardening. Although not enthusiastic, Frank eventually incorporates the garden into his new and healthy “lifestyle”. The garden is circular. Robot’s first meal for Frank looks delicious. The presentation on the plate is exquisite and circular – very circular. Any comments?

The Take Away?

Surely You’re Kidding?
That’s the ending? From a story about a single robot growing into sentience, we end up with a plethora (see: Three Amigos) of newly-minted (or should I say forged) sentient beings living happily ever after. It smells like the results of a creative session held two days before the final cut was due. See it to believe it.
Are We There Yet?
The line between software and consciousness gets finer every day. Robot & Frank, thanks to Schreier and a fine cast, suggests we are closer to the singularity than we think. If you want to be updated on how close, check out Karen, a free life coach app. So close.

  • frankw35

    Good column and I mostly agree. The “reveal” in Frank seemed a little bit of an improbable cheat but it is the far better movie and the ending is far harder on the idea of AI actually being sentient than other recent films like “Her” (which is a great movie) and “Chappie” (which is not).

  • ECONOMYpolitica

    Please no takeaway. It’s just going to sit in my fridge until I throw it out. CHAPPIE ROCKS!