Monday, February 24, 2014

Robocop

2014, José Padilha - in theatre

The original Robocop -- a violent, R-rated sci-fi/crime/action feature -- came out when I was 11 years old.  I was certainly not old enough to see the movie in the theatre, but I was old enough to have the movie marketed towards me.  A steel warrior with a fancy gun and a cool voice?  What kid wouldn't be into that.  After the success of the first film, toys, cartoons, Marvel comics, a television series, and two lesser-than sequels (of equally diminishing returns) would follow, all with an eye on captivating children as much, if not moreso than adults.  I was the right demographic to be totally into all of this, and I was insomuch as I knew all about the story of Alex Murphy and I gave all of his differing adventures in different media a shot, but it was more that I felt I needed to, lesser so that I particularly liked any of it.

I've watched the original Robocop a handful of times over the past 25-ish years, even owning a copy of the trilogy on VHS at one point (I only ever watched those sequels one time each though) but it's not something that's ever endeared itself to me.  It's cold and nasty and ever so much a Paul Verhoeven film.  I know there are die-hard fans out there, but I'm not one of them, and even amidst all my many geek circles I don't think I've ever met one.  Still, they're out there.  When the reboot film was announced, and after the first trailer was released, they reared their heads and were quite vocal about everything, from design changes, to casting, to tone of the film.  The BoCos (as I just now thought of to call the character's fans) seemed rather adamant to hate this movie straight out.  I really couldn't have cared less, not until the wildly diverging reviews started popping up.  How could some reviewers be so positive while others were so negative?

I think it comes down to expectations.  Authentic Robocop fans would go into the picture with a preconceived notion of what should be in the film and what they should be getting out of the film... the original was a caustic satire of futuristic culture based on the trends of mid-1980's Reaganomics.  It's played out many elements in a campy or broadly theatrical manner, and its tone was more exploitative than sincere.  I think anyone else looking at a trailer or even just the idea of a Robocop reboot would be thinking its cheap brand exploitation, loaded with explosions and things meant to be "cool" (starting with the new sleek black look).  Being a product of the original's tainted demographic skewering, it's fairly easy to be cynical about it all.

In all cases, this new iteration defies expectations.  Like the original, it's a satire of today, set in the future, only unlike the old film, this isn't meant to be funny.  The lens we view this satire through is a Fox News-style opinion/interview show, the Novak Element, in which Sam Jackson's host character, Pat Novak, uses his influential position to not report and discuss news but attempt to influence the populace for reasons never quite clear (he quite clearly has an agenda, but as we only ever see him as host, we're not privy to what the agenda means to him).  The issue of the moment is that of robot drone soldiers, both bipedal, humanoid-shaped ones and larger, tank-like ones, deployed around the world in "peacekeeping" efforts by America, but a bill has passed keeping them off American soil.

Omnicorp, the company that manufactures the drones, estimates about 6 billion dollars of lost revenue by being unable to tap into their home market.  Looking for a means to skirt the bill, Omnicorp CEO Ray Sellars looks to humanize his robots by, literally, putting humans inside them.  Dr. Dennett Norton is Omnicorp's chief bioresponsive-prosthetics and is tasked with the job of actually designing, building and making the product a success.  The primary consideration is not functional, but promotional, how good does it look.  The inaugural candidate will have to be just right.  Enter Alex Murphy.

Murphy, as a police detective, went undercover with his partner to find the kingpin of the local drug manufacturing and distribution syndicate.  Things went south and Murphy's partner was almost killed.  Murphy suspected corruption within the Detroit police force and was narrowing in when targeted with a car bomb, nearly ending his life.  Dr. Norton convinced Murphy's wife to let him be part of their program, thus saving him, and Robocop was born.

The film progresses through Murphy's emotions as his humanity is slowly stripped away by the politics of Omnicorp's business.  Dr. Norton struggles with the reality of his own actions, under the sway of his boss, and the desire to reach his own goals, bucking against the emotional toll of manipulating another's entire being.

Director Padilha expertly juggles multiple character threads -- the Novak Element's political dancing, the drug lords and police corruption, Murphy's family, Omnicorp's business and ethics, Dr. Norton's personal crisis -- in a manner that plays out more like television's long-form large ensemble storytelling (in the vein of Game of Thrones or Mad Men and the like) less that a stand-alone cinematic production.  What results is a surprisingly rich story with a meaningful cast of characters that, equally surprisingly, doesn't get bogged down by action setpieces.  There are three prominent action sequences in the film and I'd be surprised if any of them lasted more than three minutes.  It's a welcome respite in a genre film, particularly one whose existence seems to be predicated on action.

If Robocop fails its intended audience, it's in this regard, providing far more drama than a conventional blockbuster would ever dream of.  It's curious, given the name recognition factor, that Robocop's release was buried in the middle of February (where typically troubled or lame duck productions are released for a hibernating audience) but in this regard it feels like a smaller film, and more successful for it.  In February, we're not expecting an authentic blockbuster, and Robocop is more interesting and cerebral than that, and that's something I never expected from this reboot.  With drones and murder-by-remote as well as the morality behind it being a hot topic of conversation, this film approaches that conversation in a very literal sense. 

 Much has been said about the redesign of Robocop, based solely upon the trailers, and that, amusingly enough, is addressed head on in the film, a minor plot point in fact.  So much of the advance griping from the BoCos in advance of film seem to have been predicted by the script and its director.  It doesn't necessarily mean the fanboys will like it, but there's an in-story logic to virtually everything that goes on.

I was impressed, highly impressed, with how this film made me feel.  A typical blockuster will generally just leave me with tingles of excitement, but I was quite invested in the journey here and what it meant to the characters involved, not just the main one but most of them.  Once it was over, I wasn't clamoring for a sequel but instead digesting what was already presented to me.  Design wise everything is modernized, but the story and the storytelling here is leaps and bounds beyond the original in maturity.  It obviously doesn't have the same camp flair, and for some it'll be worse off for it, but I do believe a better film has been made.