Who says sci-fi has to involve spaceships, explosions and million-dollar effects? Two warm performances anchor "Robot & Frank," an endearing movie about a human and his mechanical new buddy. One comes from Frank Langella as an aging jewel thief, the other from Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of Frank's robot-caregiver. Together, they accomplish what expensive but hollow spectacles like "John Carter" and "Total Recall" couldn't: They make you care.
Langella is Frank, a former "second-story man" living alone in upstate New York, where his mind is short-circuiting even as his instincts for burglary remain hard-wired. To keep an eye on the old man, Frank's legitimately successful son, Hunter (James Marsden), buys the VCG-60L: a walking, talking home aide that never tires of washing dishes and monitoring blood pressure. Frank, proud and stubborn, is initially horrified, until he realizes this contraption may have other uses.
Sci-fi fans will recognize the building blocks: Sarsgaard channels the passive, amiable voice of Douglas Rain's HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- though he's all goodwill -- while Frank's irrational feelings for a humanoid object recall "The Lonely," one of the better episodes of "The Twilight Zone." But "Robot & Frank" works precisely because of its vintage version of sci-fi. "I know you don't like to hear this, Frank, but I'm not a person," it says at a critical moment. We've grown so attached to the little guy that we don't like to hear it, either.
Director Jake Schreier and writer C.D. Ford, both making their feature-film debuts, have created a real gem here, mixing stock characters (Jeremy Sisto plays a nosy police detective) with cleverly drawn ones (Susan Sarandon is the local librarian who keeps catching Frank's eye). "Robot & Frank" makes a good companion piece to "Safety Not Guaranteed," another recent, low-budget charmer that used sci-fi conceits to illuminate a human story, not the other way around. Is there a trend happening here? Let's hope so.
PLOT In the near future, an aging jewel thief gets an unlikely new partner. RATING PG-13 (language)
PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington; Malverne Cinema; and Manhasset Cinemas
BOTTOM LINE Warm performances and low-tech effects merge nicely in this charming sci-fi gem.