ROBOCOP: Let’s Do This, Tin Man

RoboCop 2014RoboCop (2014) – Directed by José Padilha – Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Aimee Garcia, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Zach Grenier.

SPOILERS AHEAD – SPOILERS AHEAD – SPOILERS AHEAD – SPOILERS AHEAD

Dear Hollywood,

STOP GIVING US FUCKING ORIGIN STORIES. If you can explain your concept in three sentences or less, we DO NOT NEED you to waste an hour of our lives walking the obvious path to get to the Good Stuff. You know, the stuff that makes your film unique.

Thanks Not Thanks (Because You’re Not Going to Listen),

Everyone

The first half of ROBOCOP is so damn obvious and dull I was seriously regretting spending my $13.25 on seeing the film in IMAX, even though it was at a new theater that was giving away free medium popcorn and Coke. It’s 2014. A new superhero movie has been coming out every flipping other week for a decade. (And ROBOCOP is effectively a superhero movie, even if it’s not technically a superhero movie.) Who isn’t going to understand a five-minute, in-credit summation of how we get to RoboCop? No one is going to care that we don’t get to see Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) actually speak to his partner, Jack (Michael K. Williams), or some obviously corrupt cops, or the Chief of Police (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), or his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan).

But no, Hollywood obviously thinks we’re all mental morons, because they make us sit through all of that and other obvious hits: the profit-obsessed businessman Rayond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the conflicted scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), the human who has become a cyborg and thus begs said scientist to kill him (insert wank motion and fart noise here), the crying wife … zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Thankfully, the film blesses us with a very strong set of supporting actors: Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackie Earle Haley. If it wasn’t for these four guys turning in solid performances, the first half of the story would have been nearly unwatchable. It’s not that the three Alex Murphy plots (the Cop, the Husband, the Cyborg) are badly written or acted because they’re not. They’re all perfectly serviceable and perfectly obvious. If you’re going to give us “serviceable,” then at least give us an original idea or execution of said idea. Don’t walk us down a path we’ve already experienced in 537 other movies this decade.

The other main subplot of the film’s first half is OmniCorp’s efforts to get Congress to approve the use of their robot soldiers inside the United States. Basically, they’ve been sending robot-only RoboCops and heavier walking tanks to patrol danger zones. It is an effective set-up, although it loses something when we find out that the United States is the only nation in the world that doesn’t allow robots to be used inside their borders.

Right. What is this, universal healthcare?

It would actually be believable if this No Robot policy was being manufactured by this nation’s copious gun nuts and delusional paranoids, who would be worried about weapons like this being in the employ of the government without being able to buy them for their private protection.

Wanting to get in on the lucrative US market, Sellars listens to what his Congressional enemies are saying, that they’re worried about eliminating the human element (ugh – selling a “they’re taking our jobs” angle would be more effective, I think), and decides what they need is to merge man and machine.

Luckily, Alex Murphy is about to be blown up, so once Dr. Norton gets Alex’s wife to sign on the dotted line, he can take Alex’s body to China, where he gets rid of every last part of him except for his head, throat, and gross upper organs. (Which is a really great visual.) Up until now, ROBOCOP has been dull. For the next little bit, it’s still dull but slightly less predictable. One interesting element that gets added is the complexity of Norton’s character. At the start of the film, he works on developing non-military uses for his robotic devices, helping regular humans walk and play the guitar, but he’s seduced over to building RoboCop by Sellars’ assertion that this will save lives. Norton first treats Alex as a human, but after he foolishly decides to download too much info into Alex’s mechanically-enhanced brain just before his grand unveiling (the stupidity of this decision took me out of the next ten minutes of film), he artificially drops Alex’s dopamine levels in order to suppress his human emotions.

This is when ROBOCOP really starts to work.

I’ve been dogging the first-half of the movie for just about 700 words now, so let me assure you that I really liked the second-half of the movie. Once we get past all that origin regurgitation and get to the part of the movie that makes ROBOCOP unique (well, mostly unique, Dredd is still a better version of RoboCop than any RoboCop story), the film starts to really work. And yes, mixed with the awesomeness of the second half is the lament that if the filmmakers had simply started here and extended this story, we would have had something truly special, but it’s rare that a film is able to find itself halfway through and doggedly become something better than the opinion your mind has held for nearly an hour.

Without Alex’s emotions, RoboCop is little more than a robot fulfilling its programming. My guess is that someone thought we needed all that origin stuff to make this section work, but it’s nonsense. Maybe if this was the only superhero story someone ever watched, we’d need it, but we don’t need it anymore. Show me a guy hugging his wife and kid and I’ll be on board with everything we see in ROBOCOP’s second half. If you’re going to give us an origin, make sure it’s unique, not ordinary.

RoboCop becomes a highly effective cop. Unburdened by emotions, he goes about solving cases the Detroit Police Department haven’t solved. I really like the cold efficiency going on here. ROBOCOP wants to be a movie about how human emotions are something we must cherish, but it’s a bit hard to think that way when emotionless RoboCop is solving case after case. After his wife confronts him outside of the DPD (Alex has been kept from her by OmniCorp once he went all cold and emotionless), Alex decides to look into his own unsolved case, which in turn leads to the uncovering and takedown of a bunch of crooked Detroit cops who had a hand in getting him all blowed up.

But while all of that is good for Alex the Person, the movie doesn’t effectively demonstrate that this is good for Alex the Cop or, more importantly, the city of Detroit. Yes, a robot will do what it’s programmed to do, and thus it’s susceptible to corruption, but humans are just as susceptible to corruption. The film does a better job enforcing that latter point, than the former.

So am I supposed to care that Alex regains his humanity? Okay, as a dude sitting in the movie theater, I do care about him, but if I’m a resident of Detroit, I want a few more RoboCops on the beat and a few less Alex Murphys.

The determined switch from RoboCop back to Alex is where ROBOCOP shines the brightest. Now, all of the action sequences have a real, emotional purpose to them. This isn’t just destruction or cold precision, it’s vengeance, and it’s really well delivered.

The real star of the film for me, though, is Jackie Earle Haley. He plays a private human soldier in OmniCorps army of robots, and he delivers dismissive line after dismissive line towards Alex/RoboCop, and that dismissiveness is built on the fact that Mattox believes Alex doesn’t measure up as a human and RoboCop doesn’t measure up as a robot. This is the heart of the film for me. All of the political stuff the film tries to get across does little but reveal the filmmakers as being not particularly insightful of the American public. (Though I greatly appreciate their effort.) But Mattox’s ability to look down his nose at the hybrid balances off both Norton’s daddy complex and Alex’s struggle to accept what’s happened to him.

Samuel L. Jackson plays television host Pat Novak, who is basically the future’s version of Bill O’Reilly. It’s not a bad performance, but it is an odd character. The character of Novak attempts to work in a similar manner to Roger Allam’s Prothero in V for Vendetta, but there’s too much O’Reilly/Hannity cartoon to the performance for me to take it seriously. The inclusion of Novak, however, does the best job of pointing out how ROBOCOP works against itself on far too many occasions. Novak is pro-robot and pro-RoboCop, but he’s clearly a slick, empty-souled self-promoter. So to get RoboCop, we need to agree with him, but he’s a scumbag. It’s only at the end of the film, when he turns against a now sympathetic Dr. Norton that the audience’s sympathies ally somewhat with Novak, but by then I don’t want to be on the same side of any issue with him.

Maybe that moral complexity is what director José Padilha is going for, but while I appreciate his effort, the execution doesn’t rise to a high-enough level for me. I haven’t seen the original ROBOCOP in years so I don’t want this to come off as damning this movie because it’s not that movie, but what the original had going for it was director Paul Verhoeven’s insanity. Whatever one think of Verhoeven, he’s a director that has a definite vision he’s trying to get across. Two of Verhoeven’s most beloved films have been recently remade, and both the new ROBOCOP and Total Recall could use a bit of the Dutchman’s passion, vision, and nuttiness.

ROBOCOP wants to us to take away something about the power of the human soul, but it’s a film largely lacking a soul of its own.

At least until the end. I was disappointed by the all-black look of the RoboCop armor once they started appearing in the commercials, but the film makes this outfit change work. Originally, Alex is in the silver suit, but then they change it to black because Sellars thinks it’s a more marketable look. When the story is over and Alex has regained his emotions, Dr. Norton puts him back in a silver suit, and it becomes a clear symbol of Alex the cyborg instead of Alex the robot. The film took a long and winding (and often dull and sometimes confusing) road to get there, but there at the end of the movie, I was on board. This is the rare case where I’m looking forward to a sequel even though I was a bit disappointed in the first movie.

Based on the latter-half of the movie, I’d be excited to see Padilha got another crack at this character.

__________

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Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches (cosmic pulp)
Dreamer’s Syndrome: Into the New World (urban fantasy)
Rise of the First Woman: A Dreamer’s Syndrome Anthology (urban fantasy)
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