Thursday, October 27, 2005

Day 27: Robocop 2

So, the thing about Robocop, as portrayed in the original movie, is that he’s a symbol for the power of humanity over the cold, heartless mechanisms of technology and corporate enterprise. Robocop tells us that a corporation works much like a machine, treating the human elements as cogs within the machine and that eventually, due to the capacity for emotion in the human brain, these cogs will fail to function as they’re intended and will eventually take down the inhumanity of the machine by appealing to things like loyalty and compassion, or at least have the audacity to question what the machine is doing. Further, the movie Robocop depicts an iconic police hero while simultaneously deconstructing said police hero by creating the perfect cop who, like Dirty Harry, is remorseless, unstoppable, and driven by a sense of duty that overwhelms every other aspect of his life and also happens to be as robotic as these traits imply. But, ironically, where the robotic cop’s perfection fails is in a conflict of identity: Robocop is swayed by fleeting memories of a life lived in which stopping crime was not the only thing that motivated him, a life where he felt things that he is no longer able to. Robocop shirks his duty as he seeks answers to the inevitable questions, “Who am I? Where do I come from?”--the answers to said questions being two-fold: that he is first a product of corporate manufacturing and, second, a being with a name (Murphy) and sentience and, thus, an identity beyond his technological components or programming. So, when Robocop shoots Dick Jones at the end of the first movie and is asked by the leader of the heartless corporation what his name is and Robocop replies “Murphy,” it’s a symbolic victory of the power of human identity, no matter how tenuous, to override whatever programming may be inflicted on us by life and/or genetics. The movie also states that free will is an integral part of being human, one that will overcome all programming and that this is preferable, even at the great risk it entails, to the alternative (witness the failure of the purely robotic [and thus, anti-human] ED-209 due to its inability to take in
new information and Robocop’s persistence to get around his own robotic limitations).

Additionally, Robocop was a sly, though not subtle, critique of Reagan-era policies, realistically projecting the effects of favoring pure capitalism as the means to solve the problems of society to the point that the police department is privatized and ineffectively managed by Omni Consumer Products (OCP), causing the police to strike. There are quick digs at a society based on “cowboy-style” militarism (a family board game depicted in the film is called Nuke ‘Em) and the Star Wars missile defense system (which, when it malfunctions, only adds to the robotic/human crisis in the movie). Robocop also pokes fun at the very idea that corporations can effectively provide social services, since Robocop is prevented by his programming from arresting any members of OCP, at least one of whom is involved in illegal activities, particularly with the notorious criminal Clarence Boddicker (the man who happens to have killed “Murphy,” thereby providing the opportunity for Robocop to exist at all). The equating of crime and corporatism, technological failure and inhumanity provides a rich subtext over which a conventional Western (the cowboy kind) revenge story plays (reminiscent of the plot featured in the movie Hang ‘em High) as the noble sheriff relentlessly seeks closure to a crime that personally affected him.

To take it even further, the story of Robocop is a reinterpretation of the Christian myth (something I never thought of until I heard the film’s director, Paul Verhoeven [by all accounts, a madman] mention it on the Criterion Collection’s DVD commentary track), depicting Murphy as spiritually pure (he arrives in the tempestuous city from the beatific suburbs), tortured to death, and resurrected to administer judgment on the crimes of humanity, this time in a very literal sense. The movie wisely casts the members of the OCP corporation as members of the heavenly arena, working above the common folk of Detroit in lofty towers, led by Dan O’Herlihy’s benevolent “Old Man” character, designing a new, utopian paradise called New Detroit, something that would be rather simple for them to build were it not for this pesky problem of misused free will (i.e. crime) among the human population. When tasked with ridding Detroit of this problem, the #2 guy at OCP, Dick Jones or, if you will, Lucifer, comes up with ED-209, a purely robotic solution that hilariously malfunctions at a board meeting, causing the Old Man, or if you will again, God, to come up with a new solution, one that can make decisions based on the experience of having lived in the shoes of a man and thus, Robocop or, if you will one more time, Jesus.

In fact, the ending of Robocop encapsulates the thesis of both The Passion of the Christ (that the sacrifice of Jesus is instrumental in containing the devil in hell) and The Last Temptation of Christ (that Jesus’ sacrifice was the act of a superhuman making a conscious decision to create a better world for mortal mankind) as Robocop eliminates the Lucifer character (the Old Man’s favored staff member) from heaven. Dick Jones is even, funnily enough, depicted as falling out of the heavenly towers, plummeting to the earth, cast out of Heaven and sent to hell. Heaven is therefore purified of a corrosive, jealous element and Robocop has found a way to combine both his human-like free will and his robotic super powers (which carry the limitations of programming) by taking on the mantle of the people’s protector.

I fucking love this movie!These are half-assed, undeveloped, sophomoric reads on the film, each one of which can be elaborated on, all of which are firmly supported by the film, all of which play with and against one another simultaneously in the film, and there are probably a great many more reads one could apply to the movie. The movie is a superb example of how a surface-level, stupid, simplistic and commercial idea (PART MAN, PART MACHINE, ALL COP!) can be developed into something far beyond its facade by taking a plot chock full of conventions and clich├ęs and using it as a framework on which to hang something that says much, much more than the simplistic narrative would. Robocop, the character, is taken from human, to robotic, to a synthesis of the two that is compelling, exciting, and, like a Shakespeare play, appeals to every aspect of my psyche, from the groundling desire for Old Testament-style revenge to the high-minded desire to see society and humanity seriously and effectively examined. I mean, I like to see men mutated by toxic waste and smooshed by cars and to see the bad people in the world get what’s coming to them as much as anyone, but at the same time I want to think about why I feel that way and what it means to be a “bad guy” and where “get what they have coming to them” comes from. Robocop is a movie that provides all of this and it’s funny too. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

So what the fuck happened with Robocop 2? There’s a scene about halfway through the movie where OCP needs to reprogram Robocop and they take the opportunity to make him “friendlier,” to have him shoot less and solve conflicts in a more non-violent fashion. The result is something that should be a funny comment on design by committee, but is not (I’ll explain why in a second), as Robocop consequently walks around smiling, teaching hoodlum kids lessons about hygiene or saying to a man whose shooting at him, “we should talk this out.” This isn’t funny in the movie because prior to this scene in the movie, the script has already neutered Robocop into being the lamest, squarest Joe fucking Friday by-the-book cop you’ve ever seen! He’s got these lame one-liners as he offs baddies, like Robocop has watched a bunch of cop shows or, hell, even the original Robocop (where the one-liners like “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” originate from the Murphy character in a naturalistic way [by that I mean, Murphy actually means “dead or alive you’re coming with me” when he says it, even though Murphy’s personality is also informed by watching a show called T.J. Laser {the key to, perhaps, a further read of the original Robocop}] so, when Robocop says these things, it’s depicted as nothing more than a distorted reflection indicating that some of Murphy’s memory has been retained and furthers the movie’s robotic/human questioning) and Robocop 2 emphasizes Robocop’s disdain for those who break the law to such a point that whatever nuance and humanity he learned (or remembered) during the events in the first film have, apparently, been tossed out the window. For God’s sake, before they reprogram and defang Robocop, he’s already admonishing children in an arcade to go back to school, he’s already defanged by, for some reason, not being able to assault a child who menaces him with a gun (Robocop’s three prime directives are “Serve the public trust”, “Protect the innocent”, and “Uphold the law,” which means that in the eyes of this movie, children are alwaysinnocent, even when they’re clearly not, a perspective that’s furthered by the tenderness with which the menacing child’s death scene is depicted [a scene so unintentionally schmaltzy, I wanted to throw my TV out the window] and a perspective which would seem to defy all logic in face of the fact that the movie is constantly depicting children breaking the law and hurting others [and one wonders at which age Robocop is suddenly allowed to hurt someone... is it 18?]!), so this “funny” bit where he’s a “by the book” socially mannered nice cyborg is painfully boring, as Robocop has already been depicted as someone with a robotic “users are losers” or “crime doesn’t pay” attitude, despite his ascension from one who rigidly follows the code of law to someone who learns how to negotiate subtleties within the law in the first film.

Additionally, gone is the sly critique of the Reagan-era policies; instead we have the most strident endorsement of them since Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” educational videos. Robocop encounters a cache of a futuristic drug called “Nuke,” sighs and shakes his head ruefully, and then says “Nuke” in a mournful tone. He might as well say, “Those kids today, when will they learn?” Additionally, though the police force is on strike again (in both cases I’m reminded of the air traffic controller strike that happened during Reagan’s term) Robocop is quite content to be a scab, one of the only cops working. Later, Robocop even indirectly inspires his fellow police officers to break their strike in order to fight the evil force that is soon to
plague the streets. Take that, you pinkos!

I think the problem with this movie is that someone, somewhere in the production took the whole concept of Robocop seriously. Verhoeven’s film was parodying itself while it played, constantly poking fun at its own moral code and asking the question of whether or not a robotic enforcement of the law would be such a good thing. This movie doesn’t get the joke and treats Robocop as seriously and with as much reverence (and as unsuccessfully) as The Passion of the Christ depicts Jesus. Yes, the movie says, Robocop is a good cop, particularly when he’s obeying his prime directives. The movie apes the original in style, but never what was going on underneath the style. To wit: the commercials and newscasts in the first film were satirical and brilliantly expositional, projecting a world where violence and technology were more commonplace than the time the movie was made. Here, they’re just silly, Saturday Night Live parodies of television commercials and newscasts exaggerated to the point that they’re completely unbelievable (though they are funny), nowhere near as smart as what was going on in the original film. The same thing goes for the corporate stuff: it’s all so arch, it’s as if it was made for kids. Strike that: it’s as if it was made by kids. The movie ends with Robocop stating, “we’re only human,” referring to the question of whether Robocop is a human or a machine. But this is one question Verhoeven’s film did answer. It concludes that he was both, but he got to choose how he saw himself, and I think it also suggested that this is true for all of us. It makes me angry because the sequel ignores this. I’m also angry because the original Robocop asked a lot of other interesting questions, and Robocop 2 either ignores them or answers them as if they weren’t tough questions to begin with. In fact, the sequel acts as if there are no tough questions at all as long as you’ve got a tough cop to gun them down.I fucking hate this movie.

The bastards

It's been a long time since a movie has made me as angry as Robocop 2. I have such vitriol and hatred for that movie, I cannot even begin to describe it, though it will probably be readily apparent in the "review" I will be posting later, a review that I had to start writing while the movie was playing because my feelings about what I was seeing were so strong. So, in response to yesterday's post about feeling like I'm on the cusp of something, I think I've fully embraced whatever it was I was bordering on since I have been unable to think of anything outside of Robocop 2 today. I think every single cell in my body is now magnetically attuned to my television screen at home, such that when I'm not in front of it, everything feels "off" somehow. It may be that I'm beginning to live in that cave Plato talked about, the electric shadows on my tv becoming my reality.

In other news, we carved a pumpkin last night. God I hate Robocop 2.