RoboConvo


Once upon a time, Magnetic Monkey (MM) and Elephant Robot (ER) went to a theater and watched RoboCop.  Then they talked about it.  A lot, in fact.  What follows is that conversation.


Magnetic Monkey:  I think one of the interesting things that the new RoboCop movie tackled that the original did not is the idea of embodied humanity.  There's a question of like, "what is it to be human?"  Is a human just the brain impulses?  Is a human also there body?

So the gnostics of the first century very much believed that the body was a sensory illusion, that the real human was the mind beneath it.  The gnostics were the ones who were famous for claiming that Jesus the son of God wore Jesus the carpenter son like a flesh suit, then left the flesh suit behind when he was crucified.

So you have this idea of "what is it to be human?"  Is a human both their body and their mind?  Is it body, heart, and soul?  You have this thing that people have... are we dualists?  That's kind of the question.  Are both parts necessary to identify us as humans.

So I thought the new film tackled that.  And there was the line "it's a machine that thinks it's Alex Murphy."  In the original movie, there's nothing of Murphy left except for some ideas and his face.  There's no fleshy parts left.  So in that one he's flat out dead.  In this one he never dies.  So the question of the soul, where is it housed, where is it cased, this new movie tackles some of those questions, or at least leaves you to consider them.

Elephant Robot:  There's that cheeky moment when one of the marketing people says flippantly, "Oh, what do you mean, his soul?"  It's one of those moments that was sort of... I don't know, I didn't dislike it?  But it was a bit on the nose, as far as what you're talking about.

MM:  Yeah, certainly more so than other things.  But they hit that beat and then dropped it and left it aside.  They didn't labor on the point.

ER:  Yeah.

MM:  And they never really came back to it.  The discussion points they dwelled on were definitely the drones.  That was the bigger issue they were talking about.

ER:  Okay, so going back to this "dualist" thing, body versus mind.  What do you think the film says about that?  Or do you think it just asks questions without  making a conclusion?

MM:  You know, weirdly enough it makes me think of Star Trek:  First Contact when
Data has the fleshy arm for a bit.

ER:  Just a piece of it.

MM:  Yeah, just a weird piece of his arm, where they didn't put makeup on Brent Spiner that day.

ER:  And his face too.

MM:  Yeah, which Gotye used the design of for his video.

ER:  I liked that the shape on his face was exactly that of the Star Trek logo.

MM:  "See what we did there?"

ER:  Right.

MM:  Well anyway, in that one the Borg Queen tells him to just tear it off like it's a broken sensor.  Tear it off like it's nothing.  And Data can't because he loves it.  It's part of him.

ER:  Yes.

MM:  And I think there's the part for Murphy where he's struggling to understand himself in terms of his identity without a body.  He says "there's nothing left."  He wants to die.  You know, able bodied people don't really have to consider that on a regular basis, "what is our life like without our physicality?"  I thought about it with Roger Ebert.  He lost his jaw and his ability to speak, this basic human component of conveying information.  And how did he continue to communicate?  And continue to be human?  His computer allowed him to do that.

ER:  He became RoboCritic.

MM:  Right.

ER:  So you think this movie asks the basic question "what is it to be human."

MM:  Yes.  And I don't think the original did that.  I think this movie is asking can Murphy still be Murphy without body parts.

ER:  Well, we've certainly picked a heavy place to start, haven't we?

MM:  Haha.  Yes.



ER:  Okay.  So I was thinking about amputees.

MM:  Keeping it light.

ER:  Right.  With amputees, people are familiar with phantom limb syndrome.  But less familiar with the idea that people go into mourning for their body parts that are now gone.  The thing that's interesting about the human body is that we think about ourselves as a single entity, when we really are a corporate structure.  Billions of cells that all come together, and there's no one cell that's you.  Even your mind isn't a single thing.  So that's interesting - when you've dismantled, as they did in RoboCop, all the cells except for a few parts of living anatomy, what does that do?

MM:  Yeah.

Original shot of C3PO's dismantling in Empire Strikes Back
ER:  Well, we sort of jumped right in here.  But let's back it up a bit and ask, what was to be gained from telling this story again?  Why did we need a RoboRemake?

MM:  I think I have an answer for that.

ER:  I'm sure you do.

MM:  But I'm going to hold onto it.

ER:  Clever girl.

MM:  So you first.

ER:  Why do I think we needed a remake?
What's this from?
Option 1: "Heeeeey yooooou guuuuys!"
Option 2: outtake from The Toxic Avenger
Option 3: The original RoboCop because…reasons.

MM:  It was your question.

ER:  Yeah, well I don't want to answer it.  What I do want to speak to is something I liked about this remake, which is that it tried consciously to be something different.  And that started with tone.  The first RoboCop was camp.  At it's blissful, splashiest, unapologetic best, it was pure camp.  But unlike, say, the Adam West Batman, that camp was coupled with this over-the-top violence.

MM:  Which is really cartoony.

ER:  It absolutely is.  And those two elements, camp plus gore, that's really the Verhoeven hallmark.

MM:  Yes.

ER:  And with this movie, I think the thing Jose Padilha set out to do was to take this campy idea and this campy movie, and somehow make it all grounded in a plausible reality.  And that was accomplished not just with the action sequences, but with the characterization.

MM:  And the tone.  The original is much more comedic, but it has to be because it's a very pessimistic film.

I wish this was an outtake from
Newsies 2: Brooklyn Takes Manhattan
ER:  I agree.  And it's interesting that you say that, because a lot of people said RoboCop 2 was this horrible leap where all of a sudden everything became pessimistic and bleak.  Roger Ebert (before he was RoboCritic) very famously decried that the movie had a kid who was a killer.  And this of course was about a decade before Columbine and the subsequent school shootings, so the film was very prescient in that regard.  But there was just as much twisted humanity in the first film, which as you say was pessimistic.

MM:  Hugely pessimistic.

ER:  But entertainly so.

Terminator? Cylon? Robo-fodder?
MM:  Yes.  It was sarcasm, which is the disbelief in the genuineness of something.  But the remake distinctly wants a world free from... well, it's almost like its merging a couple things.  The drone component is identifying that humans are programming computers, and then trying to masquerade that as being free of bias.  But they've been programmed by a human that had a bias in the first place.

ER:  Right.

MM:  So drone warfare is, in one sense, dismantling the humanity of killing.  And on the flip side, they're saying the machines are better to administer justice because they have no bias.  But that's not true, because they're programmed by people with bias.

ER:  It is true.



ER:  Let's jump back to a really basic question we skipped over.  Did you enjoy the movie?

MM:  I did enjoy the movie.  I didn't think the third act gave me what I wanted, because there wasn't a central villain.  The original movie has a stronger third act, because it's him getting revenge on the guys who killed him.  There's two layers of it.  There's the gang boss who kills him.

ER:  The dad from That 70's Show!

MM:  Yes.  And then there's the gang boss' boss.  In the remake, he kills the gang boss in Act 2, so that's diffused before the climax.  In the remake, there's a disconnect between the Michael Keaton character and the movie feeling buttoned up.

ER:  Because he's not going after him for making him RoboCop, but because he tried to kill him 15 minutes earlier.

MM:  Right.

ER:  This takes us back to some of the conscious changes Jose Padilha made with the tone.  One of the things he wanted was for the robots to be functional.  In the original there's that joke where he can't go up the stairs, and they just don't work well.  And in the original movie, the reason they want to put a man in the machine is to make the machine work better.  It's a practical reason.  So that's something in updating it, he said "No, no - the machines work, and they work just dandy."

MM:  Probably in those exact words.

ER:  That's right.  The other choice is that Murphy maintains his personality.

MM:  He never dies.

ER:  Yes.  Which really allows a horror element that's not present in the original movie.  I mean, there's that scene where they are building him up, and the Miguel Ferrera character tells them to cut off his arm, but we're not getting the sense of a man being amputated, as much as a vague consciousness being born.

So those two changes, and the structure of the original movie, the original movie pulls very much from Isaac Asimov.

MM:  Robotic laws.

ER:  Yes.  And Murphy is trying to rewire these basic commandments.  And at the end of the film, the climax is that he finds a Clintonian way around them.  The baddie gets fired, so he can shoot him.

In this new movie, I think they struggled with their final button moment.  And instead of coming up with something new, they tried to make that moment fit in with the red wrist band things.

MM:  Which, weren't you expecting somebody's hand to get ripped off at some point?

ER:  Definitely.  That gun never fired.

MM:  I agree with that.  And I think that the movie wanted to condemn Keaton's character for stealing Keaton's humanity.  He's the one who didn't let him just die, but insisted he be reborn this way.  But Gary Oldman's character is complicit in making that happen, and he's the one that actually does it.  And there's no sense of critique in the film for Oldman's character.  He addresses that he thinks he made a mistake and went too far, but the movie doesn't condemn him for it.

ER:  Yeah... and do they say Murphy is paralyzed from the neck down or the waist down?

MM:  Waist.

ER:  Aha.  So that's something that's never addressed in this movie.  Why he had to lose his torso and that one working arm.

MM:  I just found it interesting that the movie had no criticism for Gary Oldman's character.  I mean, ultimately the Michael Keaton character chose to pull the plug on him.  But that's what Murphy wanted in the first place, he wanted to be able to die.

And the Oldman character actually monkeyed with Murphy's brain.  He actually turned him into a slave to programming.

ER:  Well, hopefully our readers have become a slave to this conversation.

MM:  Hopefully.



ER:  Let’s talk about technology.

MM:  Let’s.


ER:  When the original RoboCop came out, nobody had cell phones.  Most people didn't have home computers.  The internet didn't exist - not how it does today.  There was that Ray Kurzweil article you were telling me about that said we are already cyborgs.  Just because the computers aren't inside us, doesn't mean there isn't already this symbiotic relationship between people and their iPhones, their GPS devices, their televisions.

So I was thinking about how we, as a culture
re, are all so... not just reliant but in love with our technology.  So it's hard to present the RoboCop story today as a techno-nightmare.  There's the body horror, yes.  But apart from that, viewers might watch this and say, "oh, those are some nice short cuts he has to his technology.

MM:  The part that particularly kind of hard for me was when they were downloading the case files into his brain, and then all the CCTV feeds, and all of a sudden he's like "I just solved 600 cases."  But that technology already exists, to synthesize those two sources.

ER:  Well, yes and no.  I think that's one of those interesting cases where you see what the symbiosis is between man and machine.  Because computers are stupid.  And you could take a computer and it can store all of that data – how Murphy did – and have access to all those CCTV feeds – like Murphy did, but the computer doesn't know how to manipulate that information creatively.  To connect the dots and draw the conclusions to solve crimes.

At the same time, a human brain is much slower than the processing speed of a computer.  So a person couldn't sit down at that machine and solve 600 cases how Murphy did either.

To me, that was actually a small but interesting moment that presented something that challenges the audience with, "well, wouldn't this actually be nice?  What could you do with an augmented brain?"

MM:  Yeah.  I want to jump back to the third act.

ER:  Do it.

MM:  I do think one of the central problems with the third act of the film is that it's not sure what it's critiquing Michael Keaton for having done in the first place.  What was the great evil he perpetrated?  The big thing that he did was take Murphy of life support.  Which, in the film, was one of the lesser things someone did to mess with him.

ER:  You know, in making the film plausible and not camp, the antagonist can't be twirling a mustache with a hobby of killing puppies.  The Michael Keaton instead is an intelligent man.  Thoughtful, charismatic, empathetic –

MM:  So why is he your villain?  Why is he your "big bad?"  I thought the Jackie Earle Haley character would have made a better opponent for the third act confrontation.

ER:  Well, he was.

MM:  But he wasn't the final hurdle.

ER:  To me, the failure of the third act isn't that the Michael Keaton character wasn't a "sufficiently evil" villain.  But rather that if this was a real world situation... you know, the evil we see in the real world is never intentionally evil.

MM:  No one wakes up and thinks "I'm a villain."

ER:  Right.  So the Michael Keaton character is making money, and making choices to make more money.  And yes there are ethical missteps –

MM:  Or an absence of ethical foresteps.

ER:  Perhaps.

MM:  But from an emotional payoff situation, you want the Quantum Leap thing.  You want them to make right what once went wrong.  You want something avenged in a morality play.

ER:  Well, and that's the thing in the original movie.  In the end, even though he says "Call me Murphy," the character is still for all intents and purposes lobotomized.

MM:  Absolutely.

ER:  So there's no potential in that movie for him to be anything more than that.  This film made the choice to allow him to maintain his memories and his personality and his sense of humor –

MM:  Which to my mind?  That makes Gary Oldman the villain of the movie. Because he's the one that took his emotions and his feelings and his humor away from him.

ER:  Although that made his life easier for a brief time.  That's when he's happiest in the movie.  One could argue.

(Laughter)

MM:  The moral of RoboCop:  prozac is good for you.



MM:  It would have been interesting if they had done the RoboCop piece with the first candidates, who were just missing limbs or paralyzed.  It would have been interesting if they had tried it with them, and the robotics don't take... they can't accept the programming... whatever.  And that's when they decide, "you know, we just need his brain.  That's all we need."


ER:  Yeah.  You know, I read that Padilha had a number of ideas he couldn't get into the film because of studio involvement.  He said something like "for every 10 ideas, I have to scrap 9," or something like that.  And it would have been interesting to see how dark and twisted it would have been if he could have gone all out with those ideas.  Though I think it is a testament to him as a film maker that, for all those constraints, he made a pretty darn fun and interesting movie.

MM:  Yeah.  Well, in the Paul Verhoeven era, it was before everything was supposed to be a tentpole to hold everything up.  RoboCop, the original, is a small unassuming movie.  Small budget, low expectations, and it became this sleeper hit.  Well, this new movie comes out, and Padilha  doesn't have the freedom if it had been made independently simply because the studio had sunk all this money into it, and expected a franchise back.

ER:  Yeah.  The studio is thinking of longevity.  "if you do THIS, that precludes a sequel."

MM:  Yep.  Got to have the kid in it.  Got to keep him in there.  It's a deal with the devil, when you're making studio films that way.  It only makes me appreciate The Avengers more, because Whedon was able to make a film that satisfied both the studios and the Geeks.

To a certain extent, people who like this kind of material do need to vote with their dollar and go see these kinds of movies.  Because when they don't do well, the studios think it was because they didn't control it enough, not that it wasn't given freedom enough.

ER:  But at the same token, with remakes geekdom thinks "Oh, you're going to ruin the original movie."  Like people who think the prequels ruined the original Star Wars movie.  But that's simply not the case.

MM:  Yeah.

The world super needs a Gilgamesh movie
ER:  Well, I think we should wrap this up.  Which means it's time to circle around back to the question: why did this movie need to be made in the first place?  I didn't want to answer that, but you said you did.

MM:  Yes.  In each generation, as you move away from an original story, the next generation has to retell the story for itself.  So if you don't retell Beowulf, or Grendel, or Gilgamesh, the story is no longer in your cultural repertoire.

For all the crap people give Disney about retelling Snow White, Cinderella... in the absence of those re-tellings?  Those stories would be gone.  We wouldn't have references to the Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm stories.

So why do you have to remake RoboCop?  Because if you don't, we won't remember it, and what the story has to tell us is lost.

I don't think there's anything wrong retelling a story for each generation.  Hopalong Cassidy is gone, the Lone Ranger is still here.  If you don't retell the story, eventually the story will go away.

Here's hoping that the RoboCop remake in 2040 
 features Christian Bale as RoboCop's maker
So I hope they wait 20 or 30 years to retell another RoboCop story.  Give things a little bit more time to breathe.  Batman is getting rebooted too frequently, with the new one.  Whereas the difference between the Keaton Batman and the Bale Batman was perfect.

So I think you do need the space between stories to let each one stand as a separate iteration.  So each generation will retell the story of Hercules, and retell the story of Thor, and impart their own morality to their own children.  That's the point of stories.

ER:  A point of stories.

MM:  The. Only. One.  No, you're obviously totally right.  But that is one of the main reasons we tell stories.

ER:  So basically, this movie is responsible for the continuing existence of not just western drama, but also western civilization.

MM:  Basically, yes. RoboCop will ensure life as we know it continues.

ER:  All right.  Well, there you have it.  If you don't go see RoboCop, our cities will burn.

Don't let our cities burn!

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