ROBOCOP (2014) – A Soul in the Machine

The original RoboCop is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I was a weary of a remake, despite the possibilities with today’s special effects. However, I like when a new team of filmmakers put their own spin on a classic story (in most cases). It keeps things interesting.

Though it shares the name, characters, and similar premise, this is a different film than the 1987 original, and it’s better for it. The new RoboCop is fun, interesting and gets a little deeper into themes about technology and humanity that its predecessor merely touched upon in favor of biting political satire and over-the-top, cartoony violence.

It was a much more serious movie, but it was also somewhat confused as to what it was. This film tries way too hard to tie itself to the original’s political legacy, making for a very schizophrenic tone.

Going more in depth…SPOILERS AHEAD

The Good

A movie like this needs a protagonist who is believable in the role, or it could be just a guy in a rubber suit. Joel Kinnaman did a great job, and it is because of Kinnaman that I hope a sequel is produced (though judging by the box office numbers, that probably won’t happen). He was charming, warm, and could still be believed to be a hard-nosed cop that grew up on the streets of Detroit.

There was enough breathing room in the story to establish who Murphy really was before his transformation, which is a slight improvement over the 1987 film (Murphy’s graphic, brutal murder was enough to quickly garner sympathy from the audience in the original). The audience was able to see him both spend time with his family and see him in action as a cop. The family was much more fleshed out, and lent more emotional weight to the story – even making his wife, Clara Murphy, the emotional catalyst that Alex uses to get his humanity back. The relationship with his partner Lewis is also much more solid. It’s a different and interesting dynamic than the original (Lewis is now played by a man instead of a woman).

Kinnaman nailed the robotic movement and voice characterization. I can’t really say that Kinnaman was better or worse than Peter Weller in the original RoboCop; it would be an unfair comparison. Weller’s performance was as a heavy duty tank, moving methodically and slowly, which worked to great effect for the time (computers were larger then), lending itself to the satirical take on corporate America (a GM-designed robot). Since technology is more compact and sleek today (think Apple products), the times called for a RoboCop who moved faster, but still just as methodical.

The other actors in the film were a great supporting cast, and continued a great Hollywood tradition of surrounding the virtually unknown lead. Great veterans like Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and Jackie Earle Haley gave the movie a sense of legitimacy, and I like how seriously these actors took the material – no ham acting or scenery-chewing. Well, maybe a little from Keaton.

I especially liked how seriously director Jose Padilha and his crew took the material. The look and feel of the movie reminded me of a lot of great sci-fi movies of the past few years, like District 9. It was a fantastical premise, but the place, time and visuals made it seem plausible and real. There was what felt like real danger and stakes involved. The sequence in Tehran was particularly well done, and very intense.

The visual effects, notably concerning the robots, were a welcome improvement – no offense to Phil Tippett. The robots were all amazing, and realistically rendered. I was happy to see the return of ED-209, and the awesome upgrade it received, though it’s just as hilariously impractical.

Padilha used the visual effects to bring more depth to the story, which is what they should do. One of the most emotional sequence in the whole film was accomplished with some amazing special effects. When Murphy woke up in the RoboCop suit for the first time, the audience got inside his head, and sees him torn away from his former life in a dream – trading touching and dancing with his wife for the sterile environment of a lab.

Another powerful scene was Dr. Norton’s demonstration of  just how much of Murphy’s body was left after his transformation, and there wasn’t much. It is horrifying, uncomfortable, shocking, sad and amazing all at once. Murphy seemingly couldn’t handle it and asked Norton to kill him. We, as the audience, felt with Alex as he looked at himself. The sequence was brilliantly staged for maximum emotional impact.

The Not-So-Good

I was not crazy about the black costume. In fact, it was stupid. RoboCop looked like an insect crossed with a Power Ranger, with a little bit of Batman thrown in. The prototype “training” suit looked much cooler, and was a nice homage to the original 1987 design by Rob Bottin. I was glad to see that Murphy was back in the black-and-metal training suit by the end of the movie. It makes me want to see a sequel that much more.

Murphy still had his flesh-and-blood right hand after his transformation, and it was weird. There was no need for him to keep it. If anything, that should have driven him insane because he could feel things, but couldn’t do anything about it. How horrible is that?

Some of the sequences were a too artsy and could have been handled in a more visually coherent way. Padilha seems to be very fond of the ever-present shaky-cam that it seems every director is using nowadays. The characters get lost in the scenes because the director thinks that the picture looks cool.

One particularly bad scene was RoboCop shooting his way through the crime boss Vallon and his thugs in the dark. The only way the audience saw the gun battle was either through the muzzle-flashes of the firearms or RoboCop’s and the bad guys’ infrared night-vision. While that might sound cool, it didn’t work. I couldn’t tell what was going on. The quick cuts that jumped from one point-of-view to another made things worse.

I usually get a geeky grin whenever a remake utilizes musical themes from the original film. However, in this case, Basil Poledouris’ 80s-tastic theme was used very inappropriately and was awkward. It’s almost as if the filmmakers just patched it in there just to say, “See? It really is RoboCop! We even have the music!” The rest of the score is very modern and electronic – perfect for the style of this film. The 1987 theme stands out like a sore thumb. There were also particularly poor song choices during both Murphy’s training sequence with the security robots and the end credits. It made the former sequence seem comical, and the latter left me with a strange feeling at the end, especially after all I had seen just before.

The problems with the music exemplified my main problem I had with RoboCop. It’s a confused movie tonally. Aside from the strange music, the filmmakers attempted to place some semi-comical, politically-charged satire in the film (the Samuel L. Jackson O’Reilly Factor-esque segments) – not as heavily caricatured as the original’s, but still meant to be darkly humorous. They fell completely flat, and took me out of the movie (there was a lot of eye-rolling going on).

This is a different film in tone and style – and heavy, tongue-in-cheek satire doesn’t fit well with this film’s more serious take on the material. Yet, I do think the newscast segments are a clever way to explain this particular world and set up the story. It would have been better to have just a straight newscast take care of that, instead of a commentary show. More on the politics later.

The evil capitalist villain is a really tired cliché that is unfortunately played out far too much, even today. The look of OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars was a step in the right direction. He looked like a modern, casual, Steve Jobs-type visionary. However, the character’s motivations and demeanor still went back to the stock, two-dimensional corporate jerk bad guy.

If a big, scary corporation must be the bad guy, then today’s version of OmniCorp should have been less of a General Motors and more of a Google-type company. The potential for corruption with Google’s technological advancements and information gathering could have made a much more interesting, and culturally relevant, plot. I can imagine what a Google RoboCop would look like, and it makes me chuckle.

Themes and Thoughts

The biggest difference between this RoboCop and the previous version was the focus of the films’ themes. The 1987 film was more of a political statement. The 2014 film is more intellectual and realistic, and far less political. It went deeper into the concepts of a man integrating with a machine and reliance on technology for law enforcement – and the ethics and consequences of such ideas.

The film depicted the good points about technology, with new life given to people who have lost their limbs (or more) through an injury or disease. The scene with a guitarist re-learning to play his instrument with robotic arms was truly extraordinary and emotional.

While things like artificial limbs are a nice concept, there are severe ramifications for something like a total body prothesis, which is what Murphy underwent. I saw this as a situation akin to a spouse being a paraplegic. It would be something to adapt to and live with, if the marriage is strong enough to endure it. Murphy’s process was properly depicted as the pseudo-tragedy it probably would be. Murphy’s son, David, doesn’t know what to make of it initially. Normal life would be difficult, but not impossible. Murphy’s wife seemed open to the idea that she and her husband could still live life together, telling him that they would “make it work.”

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6

Both spouses must lean on God for strength, one day at a time. They must also understand the unconditional love that comes with a serving heart, just as Christ loves us (Ephesians 5:22-30). I have known many couples who have dealt with tragic circumstances, like an illness or an injury, and it’s always inspiring to hear either the husband or wife (or both) talk about their faith in God, their unconditional love for each other, and their complete and total confidence in Him.

The larger theme of RoboCop dealt with what it means to be human, and where that comes from. This thought was personified not in Alex Murphy per se, but in Dr. Norton and his character’s emotional arc.

In stark contrast to the original film, Murphy knows who he is when he started his journey as RoboCop, which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed and was intrigued by the new film. He didn’t spend the whole film winning back his humanity. Murphy’s struggle was with the system that attempted to enslave him.

It was Norton who, during the course of the film’s events, realized that there is more to life than flesh and bone.

The body itself is an incredible machine, with complex systems inside of complex systems. Human ingenuity has been able to understand it only so far. It takes a humanoid robot decades of research and gads of information to do something as simple as walking in a straight line. Even the most advanced camera lens cannot duplicate the subtle intricacy of the human eye.

With all this complexity, and the fact that we humans have been unable to successfully replicate it, it still amazes me that some people believe it was all a cosmic accident. A machine as refined and dynamic as our own body speaks to an intelligent mind, who created us with purpose. We are all uniquely fashioned by our God.

For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Psalm 139:13-16

When the story began, Norton assumed that the human part of us is just a series of electrical impulses and chemical balances in the brain – nothing special. Despite his reservations, and under pressure from Sellars, Norton tried to take the human element out, first by “tricking” Alex’s brain. Norton programmed Murphy to think he is making decisions, when in fact it’s the suit that is reacting – giving the illusion of free will and theoretically pacifying his human emotions. However, Alex’s memories caused him to reject the programming.

Norton, again pressured by Sellars and OmniCorp to make their “product” less hesitant in combat, next attempted control by changing the chemical makeup of Murphy’s brain, and making him an emotionless robot…literally. Murphy’s humanity, again, fought the system and came back, with help from Clara. Each time Murphy’s humanity comes through and overcomes the system, Dr. Norton becomes increasingly convinced that there is more to Murphy, and man generally, than science can explain.

“You wanted a man inside a machine, and that’s what you’ve got. But the human element will always be present. Fear, bias, compassion – they will always interfere with the system!”

Human emotions, though they can be a liability, can also be a person’s greatest asset, when internally restrained. Everyone, especially those put into positions of authority, must keep emotion in check and lean on God for temperance and strength:

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.” 2 Peter 1:5-9

There is a reason why this plot device works for audiences: they instinctively believe, or want to believe, that there is more to us than our bodies. Human beings are the only species on the planet with the ability to grasp eternity. That is because we have something within us that is eternal – a spirit, a soul. We were made for eternity by our God, uniquely made in His image. Murphy was still Murphy, even though he is only a head and assorted organs. His mind is still intact, as is his soul. Murphy eventually triumphs over the system by shooting Sellars in spite of his programming.

Our flesh will eventually give out, be it by old age or some other means. However, our spirit is meant to live on forever into eternity. People living today with broken bodies will be fully restored in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:4-5), provided they have faith in the God that will set them free from their sin.

Though the original RoboCop was written as a political satire on the conservative ideas of the Reagan era, the hyperbole and over-the-top violence enabled me to look past the wrongheadedness of the film’s politics, and not take it seriously enough to be offended.

It’s a shame that the new movie’s writers attempted to continue the story’s left-leaning roots, especially since few ideas touched on or warned about in the 1987 film came to fruition. Detroit’s current state and real reason for its decline (over half a century of labor union and Democratic Party control) are never addressed, and should have been a theme of the film, tipping off the purported need for robot cops. The OmniCorp building itself was placed next to GM headquarters. OmniCorp should have taken over the GM building, signifying their new future for Detroit, and that it was now going to make robots instead of cars. It would have been a very interesting allusion to Detroit’s situation.

The idea that a “conservative” news personality would be advocating the use of humanoid robots as domestic law enforcement (or even for overseas operations) is really hard to swallow. I have a feeling that most conservatives would be on the side of Senator Dreyfus, and advocating the continued use of live police officers and soldiers. While we do employ drones, they are a far cry from having actual autonomous robots on the ground, in combat. Drones are still piloted remotely by humans.

While automation of industry definitely makes things easier and more affordable for everyone (not to mention more profitable for business), there are certain areas of life where it would be foolish to automate, especially those areas that require life and death choices.

In fact, during the hearing with Raymond Sellars early in the film, Senator Dreyfus, author of the eponymous law banning robotic law enforcement in America, nicely framed this ethical and political debate:

“I don’t care how sophisticated these machines are, Mr. Sellars. A machine doesn’t know what it feels like to be human. It can’t understand the value of human life. Why should it be allowed to take one? To legislate over life and death, we need people who understand right from wrong…”

I can see, however, a more progressive/leftist support for law enforcement and combat automation. The claim may be that it will save the lives of soldiers and policemen, and the force would be more controllable – free from fatigue and bias, as Sellars countered to Senator Dreyfus’ ethical argument. The idea may be tempting in today’s world, where there is a relentless tide of opposition toward the police, claiming excessive force (which is sometimes warranted).

Conclusion

This new RoboCop is different enough from the original that it has its own identity. It is a good film. Not great, but good. It surpasses the original in terms of deeper themes and drama, opening up some great thoughts and ideas on the ethics of technology, man melding with machine, and what even makes a human being – doing what all good science-fiction should do and give us a little insight into who we are. However, the movie has trouble determining what it is (straight film or satire) because of its predecessor’s political legacy.

RoboCop (2014)
MGM / Columbia Pictures
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish,
Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle,
Jay Baruchel and Samuel L. Jackson
Written by Joshua Zetumer and Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner
Based on characters created by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner
Directed by Jose Padilha

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