Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind

Summary:  Today we have another guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim, reviewing the new Robocop film. He shows how it provides a mirror into which we can see ourselves, 21st C America in all its glory. It discusses our view of heroism, our love of violence, and the shift of films from politically challenging to safe mindlessness. Post your comments about the film — and this review!

Robocop (2014)

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Shut the Robo-whining: The Remake Has Something on its Mind

By Locke Peterseim

Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly
17 February 2014
Reposted here with his generous permission

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There was no compelling reason to remake Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop. And there’s no great reason anyone has to go see José Padilha’s 2014 remake. A healthy, happy, culturally fulfilled life can be easily led without it. Even those jonesing for a mid-winter hit of PG-13 sci-fi action violence can probably find suitable sustenance elsewhere.

And yet, if you must see the Brazilian director’s remake (itself work-for-hire in the service of Sony’s perpetual franchise machine), there’s enough going on both in front of and behind the camera in the familiar Frankenstein tale of cyborg vs. crime and humanity vs. security to make it tolerably engaging and almost not a waste of your winter doldrums time.

A mid-February week that saw the wide release of not one, not two, but three ‘80s remakes (updated versions of About Last Night and Endless Love also oozed into the Cineplexes) naturally sent the film geeks a chattering about Hollywood running out of ideas and how remakes are never as good as the originals. Of course none of this has anything to do with “Hollywood running out of ideas.” Director John Landis put it very clearly in his angry truth-to-power speech last fall at an Argentinian film fest. Listen up, because the auteur behind Animal House, The Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London, and Three Amigos is spot on:

“There are no original ideas. What … no one understands is that it is never about the idea, it is about the execution of the idea… The film studios are all now subdivisions of huge multinational corporations … It really has to do with desperation, because they don’t know how to get people into the theaters, so they bring back 3D and make all this kind of shit … It’s very common now to spend more money selling a movie than making a movie. So the reason they make remakes and sequels is because they’re brands, like Coca Cola. They remake movies because they have presold titles.”

Robocop: Joel Kinnaman & Abbie Cornish
Joel Kinnaman & Abbie Cornish

“Hollywood” didn’t put out three ‘80s remakes in one woe begotten Valentine’s Day weekend because there are no good new ideas out there, it put them out because the titles — along with recent releases like The LEGO Movie, Vampire Academy, Jack Ryan, The Hunger Games, and The Hobbit — have built-in “poster awareness” thanks to franchises, boxes of old VHS tapes, popular books, and classic toys.

I hate to be the one to crap in your morning bowl of fiber, Generation X, but we’re the new Baby Boomers. We’re old. Studios don’t care what we want or how much youthful nostalgic geek-glaze we’ve covered 25-year-old films like the original RoboCop in. They want to sell tickets to the only people still reliably wandering into theaters on Friday nights in hopes of copping a feel over a bucket of popcorn: teenagers and Millennials who don’t know Peter Weller from Paul Weller.

That said, good films are good films, bad films are bad films, and passable films are passable films, whatever their hellish marketing-driven, spreadsheet bottom-line origins. And the new RoboCop is a solidly passable film.

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Aimee Garcia: OCP Scientist
Aimee Garcia: OCP Scientist

Sure, like any remake, in the eyes of the whining class, it’s damned whatever it does: Stick too close to Verhoeven’s original and the geek chorus will cry out that it has no new ideas, no reason for being. Stray into said new ideas and approaches, and the very same nerd patrol will shriek (as they did last week) that it’s too different, lacking everything that made the original so great.

In the case of Robo-2014, the most common complaints are the remake’s PG-13 lack of ultra-violence and over-cooked scenery-chewing villains, and the absence of Verhoeven’s anti-authoritarian satire (delivered with such heavy-handed misanthropy in the original that, like many anti-fascism screeds, it comes off a wee bit fascist). Others complained that the new film wastes too much time humanizing its title character by giving him a fully-fleshed out family life—time that could have been spent showing Robo blowing away bad guys.

Other than them both being proven foreign directors who used RoboCop movies as their entry into Hollywood filmmaking, Padilha and Verhoeven are very different filmmakers with very different agendas. Padilha made his mark in Brazil with the 2002 documentary Bus 174 and then the controversial cops-and-criminals hit Elite Squad (2007) and its 2010 sequel.

The Elite Squad films were obviously the director’s ticket into helming a big-budget American action film: Semi-fictionally following Rio’s SWAT-like BOPE team as its morally conflicted members beat, torture, and shoot their way Dirty Harry-style toward establishing order in the drug-crime-ridden Rio favela slums, the movies are high-octane orgies of hard-hitting gunfire and police brutality.

So much so that their immense popularity has led to much leftwing hand wringing over the films’ supposed glamorization of authoritarian law-and-order civil-rights violations. This is the guy you want making a movie about a morally pre-programmed cyborg cop, right?

Except that cheap take away is not who Padilha is or what his Elite Squad films are about. In fact, Bus 174 presents the exact opposite view of Rio’s crime problem, examining in great, heart-breaking detail the slum conditions and street inequality that led a violent young man to hijack a Rio bus in 2000 and hold several hostages. Bus 174 is so vividly packed with portraits of the desperate life of Rio’s many street children that in its context, it’s nearly impossible to see the Elite Squad fictional films as anything but dark condemnations of authoritative, morally-corrupt overkill among professional cops driven by their own fears and desperation.

The problem with Padilha’s Elite Squad movies and their massive popularity among those who see them as championing merciless, lawless crime-fighting techniques is exactly what makes his RoboCop much more interesting than it has a right to be: the pre-programmed idea of the “movie hero.”

Jackie Earle Haley
Jackie Earle Haley as Rick Mattox

Here in the States, we’ve gone through similar pop-culture conundrums with characters like Eastwood’s aforementioned Dirty Harry Calahan, where the engrained notion of a movie hero outweighs whatever thematic irony or subtle complexities the film itself might be trying to sneak into the action-movie template.

As popular entertainment consumers, we have a tendency to assume that an action film’s Main Character is “the Hero,” a good guy whose gun ultimately shoots the bad guys in the name of Right and Justice. That perception is usually fueled by wish-fulfillment action scenes that adrenally juice the audience in favor of the Guys Who Win the Gun Battles. Padilha actively subverted that expectation in his Elite Squad movies, and he brings the same undermining nuance to RoboCop.

Granted, Padilha doesn’t have much room to wiggle in subversion in the new RoboCop, working from a screenplay by newcomer Joshua Zetumer (based on the original 1987 story by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner), and within the PG-13 teen-baiting confines of what Sony wants from a re-baked, crowd-pleasing sci-fi action franchise.

But still the new film kicks things off with O’Reilly-sized self-righteous bombast from Samuel L. Jackson as a tough-on-crime, America-first TV populist and an extremely pointed jab at American nation-building through a rifle  barrel with scenes of fully automated, ground-based robo-drones “keeping the peace” and winning “hearts and minds” of Iranians, even in the face of insurgent suicide bombers. (One of whom advises his doomed companions to “try to die on television.”) Draped in terms like “peace and freedom” and “safety and security,” the Predator Drone analogy is as obvious as it is likely to be missed by the movie’s target demo.

Robocop & Wife

From there, the story relocates to near-future Detroit and refocuses on RoboCop-to-be, Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). (Where the ’87 original accurately predicted a future Motor City fallen into lawless dysfunction, the new film shows it a decade from now, on its way back up via gleaming new skyscrapers. That both films neatly circumvent the very real Detroit of today is unfortunate.)

Blowed up by the corrupt cops he and his partner (Micheal K. Williams) are closing in on, Murphy’s near-dead body falls into the hands of the ominous Omnicorp, makers of the robo-security drones used overseas but banned on U.S. soil.

To describe a massive corporation like OmniCorp and its CEO-founder Raymond Sellars (an effectively creepy-smarmy Micheal Keaton) as amorally profit-driven would be a redundancy — like any good player in the military industrial complex, they’re looking for a way to move more expensive hardware Stateside. (The always-delightful Jay Baruchel plays an OmniCorp marketing maven whose goofy comic relief neatly masks the deadly accuracy of his speeches about “branding a hero” and selling security over civil rights.)

In addition to those sorts of too-heady-for-February-action-flick themes, RoboCop ’14 also dips its metallic toes into ideas about the human mind and consciousness, not to mention free will and conscience. Murphy’s robo-rebuilder is a morally conflicted cybernetics and neuroscientist named Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman with his usual world-weary decency) — the Christian name should give the game away. Unlike Peter Weller in the original, Kinnaman gets to play Murphy as a human being throughout most of the film — he’s not just a brain running a crime-fighting operating system, he’s a man struggling with what he’s become.

Robocop (2014)

When characters talk to one another in Padilha’s film, whether it’s Murphy and Norton or Norton and Sellars, it doesn’t feel like action-movie stereotypes spouting catchphrases or laying out simplistic exposition — it feels like real people having real conversations about real issues.

In fact, the film’s most affecting scene isn’t RoboCop shooting up bad guys with video-game detachment, but instead a heart-rending and harrowing scene in which Dr. Norton removes all the robo-attachments and shows Murphy just how little is left of his original flesh: a brain, a face that’s mostly for show, and heart and lungs neatly encased in super-Tupperware.

The image of a head and organs hanging in space like an empty suit is terrifying in its harsh accuracy: This brain on a stick is not just all Murphy is, it’s all any of us are inside our less shiny and much less bulletproof meat suits.

And when Norton begins tinkering with Murphy’s brain wiring and chemistry in order to achieve the more efficient, less-human crime-fighting results the OmniCorp marketing department demands, the film dives into our deepest fears about who we are and why we are, for better or worse, the way we are. Paging Dr. Dennett, indeed.

Having proven his naturalistic acting chops for playing complicated, conflicted, sketchy-and-stumbling antiheroes in TV’s The Killing, Swedish-born Kinnaman gives us a Robo-Murphy who’s much more introspective, interesting, and disturbing than the Man-in-a-Can role might suggest. To the film’s credit, RoboCop’s heavy-handed crime fighting never quite feels heroic or triumphant, the requisite gunplay doesn’t feel quite as obscenely joyful as is usually the case in mass-consumption action flicks. In fact, there’s a sad resignation to Kinnaman’s depiction of Murphy’s existential pain that doesn’t let it play as cheap pathos.

robocop-joel-kinnaman-abbie-cornish

It makes us a little more uncertain about whether RoboCop’s really a Good Guy in the classic action-movie sense (or as molded by OmniCorp’s branding efforts), or if he’s just a human being forced, like the BOPE members in Elite Squad, into complicated ethical situations that strip him of his ability to know if he’s acting on notions or right and wrong or just obeying his programming, be it personal or systematic.

Padilha has somewhat sneakily made an action film that asks its audience to to question the behavior of its action hero. (Whether that audience actually does, or if they just take their Robo-hero at face-plate value gets into the same murky intent-vs-effect waters as did Elite Squad.)

All of that surface-area smartness and all those dime-store philosophical ideas ultimately get short-shrifted in the service of the Cineplex Action Film, and none of them add up to enough to raise this new RoboCop above its basic genre roots — at heart, it’s still just a futuristic shoot-em-up (albeit a very well-constructed one) that can easily be ignored.

But like its protagonist, there’s also a head at work in Padilha’s movie — sometimes seemingly separated from its own actions, but present and pushy enough to make things a little more complicated, a little more interesting than they could have been.

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(2) About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe
  2. The Hunger Games: How a Real Film Emerged from the Deadly Arena of Young-Adult Movie Franchises
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – You Say You Want a Revolution?
  4. Transformers 4 is the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America
  5. 300: Rise of an Empire: The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street: What’s So Funny About Greed, Ludes, and Unchecked Capitalism?

(3)  For More Information

(a)  See other posts about Robocop:

  1. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011.

(b)  See all posts about:

  1. Book and film reviews
  2. Art, myth, and literature

(c)  Posts about heroes:

  1. A philosophical basis for the Batman saga, 23 July 2008
  2. Sources of inspiration for America’s renewal, 23 April 2009 – The Law of Equivalent Exchange
  3. The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes, 12 November 2010
  4. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
  5. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
  6. Our choice of heroes reveals much about America, 2 June 2013
  7. Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
  8. The Lone Ranger tells us about America, 6 July 2013
  9. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?, 28 October 2013
  10. Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep, 14 April 2014

(4)  The Trailer

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(5) Another perspective on Robocop

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6 thoughts on “Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind

  1. One thing I’ve noticed is some of our biggest brains end up doing film criticism. What is that about? Going back to when I would read my wife’s copy of Entertsinment Weekly this same kind of very intellectually challenging content would crop up. It’s like the super intelligent among us have opted out of commerce, politics , science, philosophy, medicine, and so on to embrace the final activity of chronicling our decline as a civilization. Fun to read but disquieting too.

    1. Peter, congratulations, you’ve struck right at the raw nerve that keeps ME up most nights, wondering why I’m writing 2000 words about giant robots. I’m not being facetious or ironic. About the only way I get myself back to sleep is by convincing myself that I’m coming at the world’s problems and gnawing issues of life and existence the only way I feel qualified to: through our modern popular culture.

      But thank you for your kind words, sting included!

      Locke Peterseim

    2. (Needless to say, these days I find myself much more interested in politics , science, philosophy than giant robot movies… but to speak authoritatively and accurately on those things requires stuff like going back to school for decades. As opposed to watching movies and TV all day.)

    3. Locke,

      I lack your knowledge and skill at these things, but believe that Pacific Rim provides a fictional example of the kind of collective action we (humanity) needs, but appears incapable of today. It’s inspirational, if only we would see it as such.

      The Robbers Cave experiments found two ways to unify warring tribes. Pac Rim shows the first, unification against a common enemy. The second involves manipulation (by all-powerful leaders, internal or external) into participation into activities with a common goal. I wonder which is more likely.

      Tjere was a third outcome found, perhaps the modt interesting of all. I will be writing about this soon.

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