Small Sci Fi Gems

I’ve said before that I’m kind of bored with the high-calorie low-nutrition CGI spectacles Hollywood cranks out. Some of that is on me; I was into movies long before all that started, so very much a case of ‘been there, seen that, bought the DVDs.’

I’m just weary of the same old thing, which is all many bigger movies are. They cost so much to make and have to earn that back, so producers stay with formulas and formats they know. It tends to turn movies into commodities, like burgers or pizzas.

Which is fine, but I find I really prefer the smaller, non-mainstream, artisan-oriented movies. Today, for Sci-Fi Saturday, I want to tell you about two very tasty treats.

The first, Robot & Frank, especially charmed and delighted me. I highly recommend it — it’s a great, touching story.

It has a pretty high-power cast, starring the wonderful Frank Langella in a role that reflects his acting past (as, so often, a villain) but presents him in a sympathetic starring role. It was wonderful to watch.

As always, you’ll want to be careful reading the Wiki entry if you care about spoilers, not that there’s all that much to spoil in this one. There are outcomes you might want to experience only as they happen in story, but no major cliffhanger plot points.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to spill any beans, so no spoiler warnings for this one (the next one is a different story).

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Basically, Frank (it seems so right they used the actor’s name here) is a former “second story man” — a retired cat burglar.

When we first meet him, in the near future, he lives alone, cherishing his autonomy, while clearly sinking into dementia (Alzheimer’s). He amuses himself with petty thefts. He flirts with the local librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the last human working in an all but unused library Frank loves.

Then his son, Hunter (James Marsden, whom many will recognize as Teddy Flood from Westworld on HBO), brings him a domestic robot as a caretaker, because dad clearly needs help and Hunter can’t keep driving out all the time.

Frank resists this object of modern technology, but Hunter threatens to put him in a care facility if he doesn’t accept the robot. Valuing his independence above all, Frank relents.

The robot “butler” immediately begins to improve the quality of Frank’s life, which Frank grudgingly accepts (and in some regards comes to like).

Then, slowly, Frank comes to realize the robot doesn’t have the innate social moral sense most humans have programmed into them by society. Rather, the robot’s main goal is to make Frank happy.

And what would make Frank really happy? Restarting his career as an expert thief!

Best of all, there is a ready-made target, the young modern, Jake (Jeremy Strong), who intends to “modernize” the library: Scan in all the books, recycle them as waste, and turn the building into a “social library experience.”

Jennifer seems resigned to this step forward, even having embraced her robot co-worker (essentially a book cart with AI). Frank is appalled, views Jake as sinister with ulterior motives, and determines to rob Jake and his rich wife (with the robot’s help).

That’s as much as I’m going to tell you about the plot.

I’ll just say that where the story goes feels very human and right. It ends the way it ought to have ended, I think. It feels right.

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One thing that stood out is that Frank’s failing memory is a key aspect of the character. There is an important plot point involving the robot’s memory and Frank’s potential ability to erase it.

While that would remove any evidence against him, it would also destroy what Frank has come to see as a friend. To add to the poignancy, the robot is quite clear it feels nothing about the loss of its memories. It urges Frank to reformat it for Frank’s own good.

Anyone who has ever lost someone to Alzheimer’s knows how the person you knew slowly slips away leaving a stranger in a familiar body. The movie expresses that well in a slight surprise I won’t reveal.

The last thing I’ll say is that, for me, this is the kind of movie that pays for all the rest. I’d sift through a hundred Marvel movies to find a little gem like this one.

This one gets an unqualified Wow! rating. (Rotten Tomatoes: 86% (75%)!)

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Today’s other little gem, Anti Matter, is much more of an SF niche film.

If you seen (and enjoyed) Primer, you will (I think) very much enjoy this one. The styles are somewhat similar, but Anti Matter has much higher production values (and actors that can act and a plot line that isn’t nearly so convoluted).

[This one is either so small or so new that it doesn’t have a Wiki page, nor do any of its actors or the director (Keir Burrows). Rotten Tomatoes gives it an 85% (78% audience score). I give it a strong Ah!]

Primer involves two guys who invent a time machine (and then a bunch of messed up stuff happens).

Anti Matter (which, despite the title, has no anti-matter) is about a scientist, Ana (Yaiza Figueroa) who accidentally invents a teleportation device (and then a bunch of messed up stuff happens).

She has two helpers, Nate (Tom Barber-Duffy) and Liv (Philippa Carson), and there are clearly some unspoken past relationships in play.

Ultimately, they have to test the device on a living person, and (of course) that has to be Ana. It’s her invention; it’s her risk.

The test appears to work. Ana is transported a dozen feet within their lab.

Celebration!

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The movie cuts then to Ana waking up confused and disoriented. (So are we!)

Now both Nate and Liv are acting really weird, and there’s a door that was never locked before that’s locked and she can’t seem to get the key.

There are holes in her memory. Nate and Liv seem very concerned, but keep acting so evasive and slippery. As viewers we see Nate and Liv, out of Ana’s sight, clearly acting as though something is up. We even see signs of outright deception practiced against Ana.

Taking this any further would spoil the plot. Suffice to say there are Reasons for everything, and the story does end up explaining them.

That said, the science here is questionable. I don’t mean the transportation device — that’s a gimme. I’m talking about the explanation of what’s going on. I think some may find it a little unsatisfying.

In all honesty, I kinda did. Not enough to ruin the film, though.

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I put off watching this because the cover art was so lurid and because I wasn’t very inspired by the blurb:

Anti Matter is science fiction noir. Ana, an Oxford PhD student, finds herself unable to build new memories following an experiment to generate and travel through a wormhole. The story follows her increasingly desperate efforts to understand what happened, and to find out who – or what – is behind the rising horror in her life.

Somehow, combined with the cover art, it didn’t sound that appealing, but it turned out to be exactly the sort of small SF gem I enjoy.

I won’t recommend this one as highly as Robot & Frank, which I think anyone would thoroughly enjoy. This one, as I said, is more a niche film a real SF fan would enjoy.

I do give it a lot of points for being a fairly fresh story. Definitely recommended to any SF fan.

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In closing: Robot stories often fall under the rubrics of robots-as-menace or robots-as-pathos.

As the idea of robots becomes ever more realistic, robots increasingly fill niches previously held by humans. Now we have robots-as-friends and, generally, robots-as-everyday. Robots have become mainstream!

BTW: Be sure to watch the closing credits in Robot & Frank. It contains clips of real robots doing some pretty amazing real robot things.

I think they need finer fingers, though.

Stay robotic, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

2 responses to “Small Sci Fi Gems

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Both sound interesting. I’ll keep them in mind.

    The Anti Matter one, based on the blurb, reminds me of Patient HM, Henry Molaison, who after having his hippocampi removed, was unable to make new memories. It’s probably too much to ask that brain anatomy plays any plot role, but the similarity is interesting.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “It’s probably too much to ask that brain anatomy plays any plot role, but the similarity is interesting.”

      It’s possible the writer had cases like that in mind, but brain damage (as you suspect) plays no role in the explanation. In fact, when I wrote, “I’m talking about the explanation of what’s going on. I think some may find it a little unsatisfying,” I kind of had you in mind.

      I think you’ll enjoy the film, but I think you’ll shake your head a bit at the explanation. (I did, but still recommend the film.)

      OTOH, Robot & Frank I recommend without qualification. In that one, I think you’ll appreciate the AI nuances. (There’s a really cute scene in which Frank suggests his robot converse with Jennifer the librarian’s bookcart AI. Both AIs find the request… a challenge. 🙂 )

      It’s a heart-warming feel-good movie that’s genuine and honest (and not over-blown) and filled with really good actors. All thumbs up.

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