Wednesday, February 12, 2014

New Model, Old Parts: ROBOCOP

The remake of RoboCop is a solid science fiction entertainment. It’s packed with sleek, modern special effects, moves swiftly through pertinent and provocative questions of technology and its military-industrial applications, and is filled up with welcome performances from dependable character actors. It’s the best RoboCop film since the first, working through its themes of the nature of free will in tech-human hybrids and devious corporate influence in matters of public interest. It has a sturdy competence that’s thrilling and nicely controlled. And yet the differences between the 2014 model and the sui generis 1987 original – a masterpiece, in my estimation – tell us at least as much about the difference between then and now in the entertainment industry as it does our tech corporations. Now, in a Hollywood landscape where a man who dresses as a bat to fight crime is only ever glowering or brooding, and where our newest Superman movie has no time for bumbling Clark Kent, the idea of a robot cop has to be taken very seriously indeed.

Paul Verhoeven’s ’87 RoboCop wasn’t afraid of embracing the inherent silliness of the concept that finds a wounded cop turned into a crime-fighting machine, while recognizing that making the concept fun and funny need not take away its power or its savage satiric sarcasm. It all takes place in a future Detroit so crime-ridden and cash-strapped it allows a corporation to test new robot officers, the better to privatize the police force with. It’s a serious subject still achingly relevant today – poverty, crime, corporate influence pushing for increased profit by taking over public sector institutions that should be working only for the greater good – but is attacked with such bloody vicious humor, expressing its Reagan-era futurist capitalism ad absurdum through hugely entertaining action and sly playfulness. There’s no scene in 2014’s RoboCop to match the hilariously cold logic that finds a board member shot dead by a prototype during a test that goes all too well.

Instead, Brazilian director José Padilha makes a RoboCop that treats itself only seriously, not allowing the concept’s potentially bitingly funny political and technological arguments free reign to run the tone. It’s more somber, neater, and composed. It deals with big ideas right up front, and throughout, mostly contained in a ranting TV show hosted by a swaggering pundit played with excited anger by Samuel L. Jackson. He tells us how the United States has used ever-evolving drones to police foreign conflicts in which we’ve embroiled ourselves. Some might call it bullying overreach, but he calls it patriotic duty, keeping our soldiers safe by letting robots fight our wars. Why can’t we use these robots to patrol American streets? He blames robo-phobic attitudes. This is satire Colbert Report style, Jackson angrily inhabiting the opposite of the film’s sometimes hard-to-parse political leanings as he badgers the American public and politicians to let OmniCorp privatize police work and keep the streets safe through superior surveillance and strategic outbursts of techno-violence.

The head of OmniCorp (Michael Keaton) decides to up his profits and slip around an anti-domestic drone law by asking his top doctor (Gary Oldman) to help him put a man inside a humanoid law-enforcement machine. The law says no robots, but there’s a cyborg-shaped loophole ripe for the exploiting. They’re in luck Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) recently ran afoul of a local crime syndicate and fell victim to a car bomb. He’s lying injured, in need of immediate drastic treatment if he’ll ever be able to return to work, let alone live. Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish) signs off on the procedure, so the doctors – as well as a corporate suit (Jennifer Ehle), a marketing guy (Jay Baruchel), and a weapons’ expert (Jackie Earle Haley) – swoop in and fit the mortally wounded police officer with the best tech billions can buy. He’s part publicity stunt, part supersoldier, all under the control of OmniCorp with his belief in his free will a hardwired fantasy. Where the original slammed Murphy into the suit right away and expected the audience to go along, this new version takes its time trying to make us buy it. We get training sequences and scenes of scheming committees. We get a scene in which we see the poor RoboCop without his suit, a pathetic and gross sight as he’s represented as essentially a jar of pulsing pink goop with a face.

By the time RoboCop goes into action, we’ve sat with the character, watched his agonizingly human face, seen the reactions of the kindhearted doctor and the coldhearted C.E.O., as well as the tearful responses of his wife and child (John Paul Ruttan), and the wariness of his old partner (Michael K. Williams) as his refurbished friend whirs back into the office. The screenplay by Joshua Zetumer soon quickens into a fast-paced actioner with wall-to-wall gun violence and frantic machinations of corporate, media, and political interests. The action is crisp, competent, and smoothly presented. But because we’ve lingered on the pain of the procedure and ruthlessness of the suit and tie villains, it’s no simple kick. The original found great power in characters and plot painted in bold archetypes and sharp satire. Padilha, who directed cop thrillers like Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within in his home country, makes his RoboCop a glum and serious affair, trying for some shading while rattling with periodic outbursts of numbing rat-a-tat gunfire.

It largely works. I’ll take a derivative genre picture tangling seriously (even if, in this case, sometimes clumsily or unemphatically) with big ideas over a slickly competent film without a thought in its head any day. It’s entertaining, teasing out fun concepts and appealing sci-fi imagery, even though they’re borrowed from a better film. Some of its new ideas - an early scene of a man with new robo-hands learning to play the guitar, say - are fast, fascinating, and add a fine touch of humanity to this otherwise bloodless trigger-happy PG-13 approach. And the concept is smartly updated in some ways, incorporating modern-day drone anxieties and surveillance state concerns. (Plus, this time around RoboCop is assembled in China.) The ensemble is well cast, filled with performances that find fun in thin roles, and the leads lend some weight to a token emphasis on familial reunion and tech ethics. Even if in the end it’s not quite as effective or jolting, and certainly not as darkly hilarious, the filmmakers wisely don’t even try to copy Verhoeven’s tone or style. They find a distinctly 2014 approach that’s enjoyable enough, though not possessed with as idiosyncratic a personality or power as lasting. Let me put it this way: it’s effective, but it’s not the kind of movie that will inspire people to erect a statue twenty years from now.

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