Frank Langella stars in this science fiction drama, a story which despite featuring advanced robotics has no hint of dystopia or society on the verge of collapse. It's a cosy world, more Star Trek than Blade Runner in that respect. Though the scenes in which Frank's local library books are replaced by a 'virtual community' environment could perhaps be considered a little unsettling, this more of a backdrop to events which provide enough cause for concern on a human level. The technology here is reminiscent of real life developments - the title characters design has similar features to the Honda ASIMO project - but the other elements like phones and less sophisticated machines are added subtly to allow for a realistic feeling to the world. But this is a character piece with the dressing of a near future used as one small aspect of the story.
The real depth in the story comes from the title characters, and yes the robot is always just that, he's never given a name. In spite of this, and despite it stating more than once that it's just a machine and not alive; a lot of the best character moments are between these two. Frank is an aged jewel thief with a growing mental illness which affects his memory and his day to day life, and so against his wishes a helper is left by his son to provide lifestyle improvements like planning hobbies and diet. Frank's distaste for this slowly falls away when he realises that these projects could include lock picking at super fast speed and burglary planning - which the robot allows as this all goes towards aiding his brain power. The dynamic of the grumpy older man and the innocent monotone robot works really well as he slowly becomes attached to his faceless helper, ignoring the fact that any hints of his new friend being subversive or unlawful are all just programming; Frank's health are its only concerns. But of course it's only human that this level of anthropomorphic thinking transfers to the audience, and they make a likeable double act.
All this adds extra layers to a story about someone trying to recapture the past, even if they've never been entirely happy with how being a crook or doing jail time affected their children growing up. Ideas like books being taken away to be replaced with computer displays build on the other aspects of Frank's world when at times he begins to forget how old his family are or even smaller things like how long local restaurants have been closed down. When things are so downbeat it's easy to root for them and get invested as bumps in the road come along to shake up the big heist plans. This kind of sadness also adds to the atmosphere of the movie which balances out the more humourous parts of the script and any which might otherwise become too sickly. As this all comes to a head there are a few developments that feel a little rushed and the conclusion does raise a few questions on first viewing, but this is forgivable.
From one drama to another, albeit one more concerned more tragic story elements; Nebraska follows Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son as they travel across states to collect on what is clearly a phony million dollar sweepstakes prize. David is more concerned with his father's health and seems to be going along with the idea just to spend time with someone he feels distant from - it's clear as they travel and meet even more awkward family members along with people from his past that there's a lot he doesn't know about the man beyond the fact that he has a big alcohol problem and is slowly coming apart at the seams. The stark black and white photography adds a coldness to the proceedings which are already very melancholy, but it's interesting to see how the visuals add to scenes in which regrets and mistakes of the past are discussed. It's also a story which comments on the nature of family and friends, the choices that begin these relationships, and how dark their true colours might be when it comes out that Woody is going to be 'a millionaire'. In spite of this there are moments of warmth here, and it has a bleak comedic element going throughout that makes it a complex and compelling watch.