Monday, February 17, 2014

The Cinema File #316: "Robocop" Review

What is there left to say about yet another substandard remake of a classic film that hasn't already been said a thousand times about a thousand other substandard remakes? The refrain is the same every time: No, it's not better than the original, and no, it never could have been, because the philosophy of remakes is so counter intuitive that they only go after the best movies to bring back, instead of the worst ones that can actually be improved upon. And honestly, how to do you improve upon Robocop? Its pretty much the perfect action movie, smart, sophisticated, satirical, gory, insanely exciting, and thought provoking all at the same time. Our current model of shallow brainless mainstream film making is ill-equipped to understand what made the original film so great in the first place, let alone replicate it. So, we got another one, and here we go again.

In addition to being practically perfect in general, the original Robocop was also perfect as an artifact of its time, a comment on the disillusionment of the Reagan era brought to life by the greatest sci-fi satirist of his or any generation in Paul Verhoven, from a script by Frank Miller written at a time when his bat shit insanity was still being used for good. Verhoven famously intended his Robocop to be a modern day gun toting American cyborg Jesus, and he sprang off from that inspired premise to build a truly unique world the way only he could. To say that the new film takes the Christ out of Robocop might be a little on the nose, but its hard to escape from the fact that something is definitely missing from this modern incarnation. This new Robocop feels a lot more down to Earth, which is to say a lot less fun, trying to place this bizarre character in a context not too far removed from our own experience, and the result is that you somehow made a guy named Robocop boring, which is almost more mind blowing than when you first heard he was supposed to be Jesus.

To the film's credit, it at least does more than the last Verhoven remake of Total Recall did, which settled on telling the same story over again with new and mostly ugly CGI action sequences. The producers of this new Robocop at least understand that the social commentary of the original film is outdated, and go to great lengths to shift to the closest current political issue that fits the story, in this case the controversy surrounding the use of drones for anti-terrorism and police action. The problem is, the way the issue is handled is somehow both too slight and too heavy handed all at the same time. We get the idea that drones represent a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope towards some corporate-sponsored Orwellian nightmare, but once the movie gets going, that point seems to get lost in all the gunfire and explosions.

The movie dances around the real issue, the changing landscape of moral culpability under a regime of automated warfare, but somehow forgets how much its main character is able to say about that subject and fails to utilize the nature of who and what Robocop is to expand upon the movie's main theme. They spend a great deal of time on Officer Murphy's transition from man to machine and the psychological trauma that entails, maybe even more so than the original in fact, but it never takes that next necessary step of addressing what it means for the man to conquer the impulses of the machine and reassert his humanity. At some point along the way, his cybernetic attachments and computerized mind cease being an obstacle he must overcome to remain the man he wants to be, and just become nifty new gadgets to look cool in the inevitable toy line.

And now that I think about it, is the original movie's satire all that outdated, or is it more relevant than ever? The squalor of New Detroit was born out of rising inequality brought about by an insatiable and unchecked Capitalist impulse. It was the slum that Reaganomics built, and if anything, that situation is worse today than it was then. This isn't to say that the drone issue isn't an important one or that it doesn't make sense to address it in the context of a modern Robocop movie, but in doing so it almost takes away from what the character should represent. The villain of the movie is desperately trying to get authorization to start selling his robotic enforcers on U.S. soil, and instead of being an instigator of the corrupting forces plaguing Robocop's city, he actually ends up benefiting from that corruption being routed out, as it only goes to justifying his product. By making the problem bigger than the city, it ultimately makes it bigger than the hero.

We live in a time where the technology of film making allows us to do so much more than we could ever do before, and yet we lack the creative drive and financial incentive to actually care about doing anything with it. Go back to that moment in the original Robocop when ED-209 was revealed for the first time, and how impossibly threatening it was in simple stop motion. Now we can have dozens of them, and hundreds of human sized robots for Robocop to destroy in between shooting non-lethal taser bullets at his human foes to keep that PG 13 rating, and none of it means anything. What's more, the nerds have complained so often and so vehemently about this sort of thing that more often than not a backlash results. Don't take it personal, they say. You still have the old one and this doesn't take that away. And no, it doesn't, but that doesn't make it less of an insult to the thing we love. Its not just a bad movie. When the next generation thinks Robocop and this is the thing in their heads, a cultural crime will have been committed, and we should all be a little more mad about that than we seem to be.

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