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February 21, 2014

RoboCop: (Don’t) Feel the Love

This is usually the part where I make some long and meandering intro only vaguely connected to the main post, but if you read the title, you can probably guess how I can feel about this movie.  And it’s probably the way a lot of other people feel about this movie.  And if you’ve seen it already, then it’s probably the way YOU feel about this movie.

In a shocking turn of events, RoboCop (2014) is an awful movie that only exists because of the original movie, will only get viewers because of the goodwill from that movie, and shouldn’t exist because the original move already exists.  The only reason I suffered through it was because my brother got suckered by said goodwill, and to celebrate his birthday.

For the record, I can’t think of a time when I wanted to punch him in the face more than when he decided we’d see RoboCop.  So let’s talk about why, before I slip into an incompetence-induced coma.  Oh, and SPOILERS, I guess.  But whatever.  I’d hope you don’t intend to watch the movie of your own will.

God, why couldn’t we just go see The Lego Movie?  That’s based on a nostalgic property, too…

All right, let me be perfectly upfront: I’ve never seen the original RoboCop movies.  I know, I know, that’s blasphemy, but it’s as I’ve said before: there are MANY “classic” movies missing from my film experiences, and it’s certainly gotten me into trouble before.  (I still haven’t seen Titanic, which means that there’s still a girl out there eager to pile-drive me through the floor.)  It goes without saying, then, that the only frame of reference for the RoboCanon is hearsay, articles, and a few MovieBob videos.

You would think that that makes me the worst sort of person to judge this new movie -- but I think the opposite is true.  I’d argue that the only justifiable reason for there to be a remake is so that audiences who weren’t alive at the time or haven’t been in a position to hear about RoboCop can experience it for themselves -- and better yet, experience a new and (potentially) better version of what so many others already have.  It’s the same for pretty much every Zelda game, arguably; I may never have played the NES original, but I’ve been blessed to be able to experience Wind Waker, Skyward Sword, and the sublime Majora’s Mask.  So basically, I’m a part of the non-nostalgic target audience.  Because of that, I can judge this remake based on its merits.  Based on its particulars, without drawing comparisons to its older version.

So how’d it go?  Let me put it this way: this movie isn’t rebooting RoboCop.  It’s rebooting Care Bears.

inb4 "disappearing bears" joke

It’s bad enough that this is a toothless, gutless affair, deciding to bank on the mere presence of RoboCop instead of actually doing anything meaningful with him.  But it’s worse when it piles on layer after layer of stupidity, from its script to its understanding of real-world issues.  And yet somehow, it gets even worse when its overriding principle revolves around grown men and women essentially saying with straight faces that RoboCop is changing his program because he has feelings.

The nightmare begins from almost the first minute of the movie.  See, throughout the movie there are cuts to “The Novak Element”, a futuristic Fox News pastiche hosted by Samuel L. Jackson’s Pat Novak.  That’s not so bad, in the sense that they’re the only parts of RoboCop that threaten to be interesting or entertaining -- but as I said, here’s where the problems start showing up.  Novak explains that thanks to OmniCorp, America has been able to put autonomous drones -- many of which are the ED-209 model from the earlier movie -- in every country except America so as to control the peace abroad.  Almost immediately, I felt like I had to raise my hand and ask a question.  “You mean you’ve got drones in every war-torn or third-world country, right?” I wanted to call out.  “You don’t have drones in France and Great Britain, do you?”  The movie’s non-answer is to show a map of the world with every country shown in white -- except for America, doused in red.  “Okay, so I guess even developed countries have American drones.  That totally makes sense and doesn’t violate even a horse’s understanding of global relations.”

The drones are shown stomping through Tehran (and not at all looking like an evil empire’s army), so the implication is that there’s some kind of struggle going on there…but that just raises further questions.  If it’s the future, then haven’t these issues been sorted out by that point?  Have they just been going on for, I don’t know, at least a decade?  Why is there U.S. occupation by that point?  I mean, if they at least gave an explanation then it might offer at least a LITTLE justification, but apparently that’s too much to ask.  Also, how do you approve of drones to police every other country before you approve of them on U.S. soil, especially if you’ve apparently got death machines stomping around Big Ben?  Wouldn’t policing your own damn country come first? 

This movie gave me some major PTSD flashbacks to DmC.  Like the game that must not be named (even if I’m constantly getting forced to name check it), it seems to have an idiot’s understanding of the way the world works.  So for the sake of not having to invoke that black specter of an action game every time this pops up -- and I suspect it will again, if Infamous: Second Son drops the ball -- let me go ahead and say what should be obvious by now.  I don’t know politics.  I don’t know the big issues.  I don’t know about all the controversies in the world, and I definitely don’t have any answers, or even a basic stance on them. 

That said, I don’t mind seeing things like that in fiction, because it can offer a platform for discussion and probing of the subject.  It can present the issues and examine them both fairly, in a way that’s digestible by the audience.  I’d prefer to avoid those subjects entirely because there are many things that can be done beyond them, but adding them isn’t an instant failure state.  What IS an instant failure state is when the story pares down complex social and political issues to an insultingly basic good guy/bad guy scenario.  I would think that the reason we have issues and debates today is precisely because they’re so complex, and because both sides have legitimate points.  When a story makes one side into a cartoonish, oversimplified representation -- a bad guy who does bad things because bad guys do bad things -- then it cripples its case and its mere being.  The thickest dunce in the audience shouldn’t be able to tell when he’s getting told the half-read Wikipedia entry on the subject.

What makes RoboCop truly spectacular in its bumbling is that it manages to make BOTH sides of the argument look like a bunch of ass hats.  On one hand, you’ve got OmniCorp bigwig Sellars who is -- almost literally, in his own words -- in it for the money.  He wants drones, drones, and more drones so his company can make more of the big bucks (though would adding just one more country make that much of a difference?), and he’s willing to lie, cheat, and kill to get what he wants.  On top of that, he specifically wants machines without emotions, and when it comes time for him to try and put a man in a suit, he wants officers who don’t have those pesky feelings or an excess of willpower -- and that’s how you know he’s a baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad man

But when you get down to it, the “good guys” aren’t that squeaky-clean either.   I suspect that the movie tried to make things fair (albeit with a distinct lean toward the “good guys”), but it went about it in the worst possible way; Team No-Machines doesn’t want machines because “they don’t have emotions”, and completely refuse to listen to complaints about how the machines are durable, always deployable, and can act without risking human lives.  It’s like they plugged up their ears and sang as loudly as they could.

The way the movie plays out, they’re both wrong -- and in the context of said movie, the “answer” only exists because of its incompetence.  Like I said, I haven’t seen the original movie, but I’d like to make an assumption.  The Neo Detroit of the original was, presumably, a dirtier, lower-tech place, even if it ostensibly took place in the future.  Whatever technology was produced there was made based on (and with) imperfections, both in-universe and out of it; that is, the machines on display there were based on faulty engineering, not-there-yet prototypes, and emergency operations.  With RoboCop 2014, there’s absolutely no reason for there to be any problems with this technology; the squeaky-clean aesthetic hurts the movie because there’s a dissonance between what’s on-screen and what we expect the machines of the future to do.  To put it simply, the 2014 image of the future is trying to apply the same limitations as the 1987 image -- only with more CG, and significantly less sense.

If OmniCorp’s goal in all of this is just to make more money, all they have to do is outfit America’s police forces with more weapons and better armor, and give them some of the scanning technology their machines have.  That’s it.  There’s absolutely no reason why they have to rely on or push for drones in the U.S., especially given that they have to spend huge amounts of money to market their product and earn public favor, and get an anti-drone act repealed.  But they screw up at pretty much every turn, because everyone in this movie is remarkably dumb. 

Why do they need to put so much effort into winning the U.S. market?  Why invest so much time and energy into making mechanical men if they’re just going to keep using drones abroad anyway?  Why is it absolutely necessary -- and specifically requested by Sellars -- to take the emotion out of their machines, to the point where even prosthetic hands interfere with a guitarist’s playing because he can’t play without emotions?   In a world with holographic projections and transforming war machines, how do you fail at prosthetics?  How do you even miss out on the opportunity to make cyborgs, since that’s also something you could do instead of using drones?  Have I been transported to Crazy Town, Alabama?  I just got back from the last time I saw the Percy Jackson movie!

If it seems like I’m not putting much focus on the title character, then it’s because the movie -- impossible as it may sound -- doesn’t focus on him either.  RoboCop is so intently set on trying to make its unacceptably-warped message clear to the audience that it almost seems to forget it’s a RoboCop movie.  It feels more like everyone around RoboCop gets more time and effort, and even lines, but that’s a problem when it just highlights how much these people are strawmen, caricatures, or idiots. 

The only potential saving grace (i.e. the character that gets the closest to crossing the threshold to being interesting) is Gary Oldman’s Dennett Norton, the scientist that makes RoboCop.  He actually has more of a presence in this movie, even if he spends most of it following stupid orders and being conflicted about it, reciting technobabble, or trying to calm RoboCop down.  I get the feeling that he’s the only character who tries to see things in more than just black and white terms, but it’s too little too late.  Gary Oldman can do a lot, but he can’t save a movie dead-set on blowing itself apart with a rocket launcher.

So what does that mean for the title character himself, and the only reason (poor, unfortunate) people might see the movie?   Setting aside the fact that he’s completely marginalized in his own movie, when he does get a chance to shine he’s as bland as you’d expect.  Sellars and OmniCorp do their best to strip him of his emotions -- programming his brain overwrites because reasons -- but even when he’s Detroit cop Alex Murphy his defining emotions are generic rage and circumstantial angst.  Oh, and he really loves his wife and son, too, because that’s a personality trait, right?  And they show it because he keeps kissing his son in one scene!  And he likes justice!  Whew, can’t believe I almost let that one slip under the radar!

I don’t know why OmniCorp would choose Alex Murphy over all the other candidates, either.  Maybe I’ve just misjudged his character, but Murphy strikes me as someone who’s reckless, impulsive, and -- you guessed it -- lets his emotions get the best of him.  He tries to stamp out a black market deal without proper consent from his superiors, and his actions get his partner shot and nearly killed.  So why is this guy a better candidate than the other injured officers when stronger, smarter, more experienced guys are rejected simply because they show emotions?  Why do they need to take someone in against his will when they can just ask for a volunteer and test/train him?  All valid questions, none of which are answered in the movie.  So it’s just a matter of time; you end up staring at your watch in the theater darkness, counting down the seconds until something goes wrong and RoboCop goes on a rampage.

In a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists, at this stage in the game audiences expect high-quality action.  Yet despite being an action movie, RoboCop completely fails to deliver; there’s an absolute dearth of action, with maybe two or three dedicated scenes.  And they’re not all that exciting, no matter what the booming soundtrack would have you believe; RoboCop runs and jumps really high.  RoboCop shoots robots.  RoboCop drives a motorcycle.  RoboCop shoots guys.  RoboCop shoots more robots.  It’s all just a bunch of noise -- not even good spectacle, because A) our hero is a nigh-invincible shooting machine against a bunch of peons so there’s zero tension -- and B) invincible or not, there’s no dynamism to the action scenes.  Six months from now there’s going to be nothing worth remembering besides a motorcycle jump.  Basically, if you’ve seen the commercials, you’ve seen all you need to see.

What I find really irritating about this movie (besides the fact that I had to watch it -- and that it exists) is that despite its intentions to tell a smart story loaded with context and meaning, it tells a completely different story with a furiously-awful moral.  Viewed on its own merits, RoboCop is nothing more than a bland and stupid revenge fantasy, where the only thing that matters is that the hero gets to kill dudes and beat THE MAN and THE ESTABLISHMENT as loudly as possible.  That context about drones?  The argument about what’s best for the world, how to ensure the safety of the people, and potential commentary on our possible future of transhumanism?  All a bunch of horseshit

RoboCop stops a couple of crimes on-screen, and then a couple of scenes later he’s apparently stopped 80% of Detroit’s crime.  By himself, apparently, even though he’s only taking advantage of surveillance systems that the cops should have access to anyway, and he’s still just one guy.  This movie isn’t concerned with the pursuit of justice, or peace, or any of that.  It’s all just a backdrop.  Background noise, so that RoboCop can look better by way of kinda-sorta being connected to all that stuff we obviously don’t care about.  Hell, in one scene he even stops en route to crimes in progress and turns around so he can see his son, and then decides to try and solve his own murder.  Did those crimes ever get resolved?  I don’t know, and the movie doesn’t care either. 

It’s all about Murphy saving his wife and kid from the people that wronged him…meaning that everything the movie tried to show and teach us earlier was all pointless.  There’s no resolution to any of its threads, with the only thing coming from the events of the movie being the continued existence of the No Drones EVER law -- so basically, the movie ends essentially as it began with nothing to show for it.  I’m not even sure if RoboCop is even going to use his new robo-body to help keep the peace; the last thing I remember is him with his family, disappearing behind a door in silence. 


Now, I will be fair.  It’s very possible that the whole point of the movie was that the problem wouldn’t get tied up in a bow.  One man alone isn’t enough to solve all the world’s problems.  Nor is the death of one obnoxiously-blatant bad guy.  From what I’ve heard, that was part of the intelligence behind the original RoboCop.  And likewise, I would assume that at least on some level, the ’87 model was out to get revenge for the slights against him.  Maybe what’s in this remake is an extension of that -- and maybe complaints made here could apply to the movie that’s actually worth something.

But I doubt it.  Because the execution here makes the revenge fantasy the highlight instead of the undercurrent.

The broad strokes, obtuse, we-don’t-have-to-try approach to everything in this movie means that whatever it wanted to accomplish failed.  If it wanted to do social commentary, it did so with the elegance of a drunken moose.  If it wanted to tell a compelling story about a man-turned-machine, it forgot that it needed to make the man more than just a stand-in for CG shenanigans, and MUCH more than just advocating self-satisfaction over everything else.  If it wanted to do justice to a legacy by repurposing it for a modern-day audience, then it utterly screwed that up by VASTLY underestimating its viewers’ intelligence.  You cannot solve all of the world’s problems just by screaming “HEART!” and “FAMILY!” as loud as you can -- least of all in a world as “mature” as the one in this movie. 

And that’s exactly why I’m giving this movie what it deserves: a very special spot right about HERE on my trusty SmartChart™:

There are plenty of other issues with this movie -- I guarantee you that.  But really, do you even care at this point?  I know it’s bad, you know it’s bad, and going any further would just be pointing out the obvious.  So instead, I want to make three points very quickly.  First: I want to make it clear that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a character showing emotion, and there’s a good plot in there somewhere about using and controlling them.  But the key difference is that showing a full range of emotion is a million times better than being the good guy because you have emotions…and then rewriting the plot because of them.  A good character should succeed because of his strength, skill, wit, and will.  Something earned, instead of something expected just because it exists -- but then again, that’s the story of this movie.

Which brings me to the second point: if you can possibly help it, don’t be an enabler.  If someone tries to drag you along to see it, or if you have some optimism that it might be good, don’t.  Just don’t.  Read a summary online.  Read some reviews.  Go see what the guys over at That Guy with the Glasses have said.  If you absolutely must see it, just wait.  Let it come out on DVD, or Netflix, or even one of the movie channels.  If this movie wasn’t named RoboCop and didn’t have clumsy references to the older movie (hearing someone say “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar” and slip that as clumsily as possible into the dialogue made me sigh out the better half of my soul), it would be absolutely worthless instead of only mostly worthless.  By the time you read this, Hollywood will already have effectively won.  But you can hold on to your dignity.  You can at least ensure that they don’t win even more.

Third: in this movie, RoboCop is treated more like a toy the bad guys are trying to market to American viewers.  They want him to be relatable, personable, and disarm their fears that he’s a threat.  So of course, they say that his starting look -- the one that makes him look like the old RoboCop -- won't do, so they paint him black and make him look like a heartless death machine.

Wait.  Why does this setup sound so familiar to me?

Ah, that explains it.

Excuse me while I go expel this rage-induced vomit.


  1. Oh, Gary Oldman... why are you in so many movies I hate? Why? Why?!

    Though I haven't seen the movie, there's another thing about the drones-in-all-countries-but-us scenario that's stupid. If EVERY single country has theses drones, did North Korea decide to... open up to the world? Aren't they isolated? Don't they have no wish to interact with anyone who is not them? What, when, why, and how did we manage to contact with them at all, especially when even SOUTH KOREA can't get two words out of their northern neighbors?

    Adding more to it, why would sending drones to North Korea be a good idea? Didn't a massive war erupt and involved nuclear weapons? Before we could even have a chance to contact them for any reason, they could flip us off and blow the planet sky-high long before the drone treaty can be printed out. Basically, we wouldn't be ABLE to protect our own self interests in a country that might possibly be as temperamental as a baby with a pistol! And let's not get started if other countries got involved and revolted against the propositions. The Middle East would be an even bigger goddamn nightmare; China would demand us to pay off our debt to them before they consider the transaction; and I doubt the Europeans would appreciate our antagonistic machines stampeding on soil that has seen far more war and combat than ours.

    What I'm saying is, the whole planet looks pretty damn peachy and nonchalant if they're only whining about corporations, the media, and transhumanation. This world's gotta have a fuckton more issues than that, all of which would make pretty interesting stories on their own. Instead, we get another caucasian, gun-toting, reckless man with no personality being a Mary Sue in cop form.

    Just... just... f#$% you, Hollywood. f#$% you.

  2. Every story needs a straight man. If there is nothing but insanity going on, the insanity becomes normal. If that happens, there's no perspective.

    That's the true role of the every man. So as long as that is being accomplished the character themselves can be quirky and unusual. It's all about grounding the reader's expectations and defying them.

    Take Lloyd for example. The average person wouldn't consider him 'normal', but if the story starts from his viewpoint and thus establishes what he thinks as acceptable thought. When someone comes along an defies his way of thinking, the role of the straight man is fulfilled without having a 'average joe'.

  3. Ah, true enough. As always, I can count on you for a more level-headed approach.

    I can see what you mean. Obviously, I'm the type who'd prefer to defy reader expectations from the get-go with the lead (Lloyd is one of many examples, I suspect), but I guess that adding in more normal characters -- and defying his, and the reader's, expectations -- is part of what makes the story what it is. Highs and lows, albeit in a different sense.

    But just for confirmation's sake, we ARE talking about Lloyd Irving from Tales of Symphonia, right? I just thought I'd make sure before I say anything silly.

    Sorry, I couldn't resist. Gotta celebrate the release of the HD edition somehow.

  4. Not to play devil's advocate, but in all fairness Hollywood isn't completely rotten. I know that things have gone wrong many, many, many times before -- and they will again -- but there are people and products that are praiseworthy. The Marvel movies are a good example; they're big-budget affairs, and it's easy to get skeptical of their existence (they're probably less of an art by now and more of an excuse to get ALL OF THE MONEY), but they make up for it by being genuinely smart and genuinely fun. So it's just a matter of giving that creative power to those who deserve it.

    THAT IN MIND, this movie is NOT one of those instances.

    What you've said here is just one of many reasons why sometimes it's best to leave politics out of the story. You have to know -- and know damn well -- what you're talking about, because one opened can of worms opens up ten more simultaneously. It's an uphill battle that's not worth fighting, especially if you're just going to open the can and run.

    And the "minds" behind this movie couldn't have possibly touched on those things. Not just because of the incompetence (though that doesn't help things), but because at its core, RoboCop -- this one, at least -- is more of a personal story. It's supposed to follow behind this guy, however bland, by design. And it couldn't even get that right, because it's trying to feed you some stupid message. Except it doesn't really care about feeding you its stupid message, because it's bending six times over to get back to following behind RoboCop. It's a vicious cycle of dumbassery.

    It's funny, though. Not this movie, of course, because it's dumb and I hate it -- but because I think I might have found a topic for a post sometime in the future. Not the next one, though. I need some positive energy on this blog, and I'm gonna get it.

    Then again, it's hard to be mad when you're listening to Kamen Rider music. The power of a Rider heals all wounds.

  5. A good start would be finding out what defines an everyman. Luke from Star Wars, That Kid from E.T., Hawkins from Treasure Island, Alex Murphy from Robocop, and Archie are a few examples.
    The title of "everyman" suggests a composite of human personalities, an anthropomorphized crystal whose every facet reflects shared likes, dislikes, traits, and interests. While grand in the abstract, such an entity strays into the realm of impossibility, for even though our world harbors wild and diverse types, they are not equally accommodating of each other. A character cannot embody progressive and atavistic values simultaneously; he, she, or it cannot be equal parts multicultural advocate and racist or completely male and completely female. An everyman cannot literally represent all of us or even most of us.
    An everyman can't be devoid of personality or a blank slate: that's working from the narratively untenable position of "no reaction." Many stories admittedly drain characters of personality until they're doing what they're told, but an "everyman" character isn't the same as absence of character. An everyman can keep his agency, at least.
    So how can a character appeal to everyone? By remaining inoffensive, which is not the same as being bland. None of his traits should be charged or odious enough to be classified as anything worse than irritating. Archie's a rabid womanizer, yet he keeps it respectful; Luke's brash, yet respects the authority of his friends and the resistance; Hawkins adventures only after obtaining his mother's permission. An everyman is a collectivist type who never or rarely acts alone and who obeys authority without being slavish. Even when seemingly acting alone, the ground beneath his feet has been tamped down firmly by others: Joel Grumpybuns' villainy is excused because everyone else seems to be in the process of doing it anyway. His behavior is defined by the situational inoffensive dressed up as subversive -- it's why everyone's a bigger asshole than he is. It's an easy means of creating a relatively sympathetic character because you, the writer, typically pick the least disruptive option with short-sighted rewards in a scenario and go with it. Specific character patterns don't matter. It's a dichotomy of mellow versus harsh that's informed largely by the setting.
    In my opinion, the everyman's intensely boring to the point of invisible. A character gains definition when his decisions depart from, not adhere to, my sensibilities. It's about contrast which pays off through repetition in different forms. Bilbo grumbles about his home more often than I would ever dream of; he brings up his doilies and teacups and hearth in circumstances that may seem inappropriate to me. That builds character. He is not cogitating as I would, I muse. And so he isn't because he isn't me.

    A straight man's different from an everyman, I think. A straight man might be straitjacketed by reason, but he isn't trying to represent anyone but himself.
    As for common physical attributes, the brown hair and the white skin, it's an overt attempt to be inoffensive or match demographics. It's a monochrome display masquerading as the everyman's raison d'etre, and that's potentially due to historical reasons. Both the overuse of brown-haired whites and the everyman stem from a move to batten down the hatches against the recession.
    We can say that the entertainment industry is recession-proof, but that's not entirely true. Execs' profits remain steady in such times, but their thinking falls into more conservative patterns.

  6. Why, Disqus? WHY DO YOU RUIN MY POST?!

  7. I was under the impression that Disqus hates you. All things considered, isn't that the only logical explanation?

    But that aside, you've made yet another dazzling post. And obviously, you have a good point: "inoffensive" is probably the best word anyone could use to describe a straight-up everyman. I just never really thought about how he could be inoffensive to others in the story, as well as to the audience. But seeing as how characters gain definition by interacting with each other, there are only so many ways they CAN interact, aren't there? Even Joel Grumpybuns (and I'm so glad to see at least one person co-opting the Grumpybuns name) isn't all that impressive, no matter how many people he kills.

    No matter what others say, he's just not that interesting or different of a character -- though I'll admit I kind of want to see WHY, exactly, people think he's good in the first place. This being the internet, though, it might be something that earns me some severe burns. And a halberd through the skull.

    But I'll set that aside; no point in thinking on that certain magical game for too long.

    In any case, I think you've pretty much got this little discussion all wrapped up. So thanks for that. Although there is one thing that sticks out to me.

    "Archie's a rabid womanizer, yet he keeps it respectful"

    Aw, come on. He's not that...er...well...okay, maybe he is. But he wouldn't be if he'd just pick Betty. Jeez, what a putz.