Friday, June 6, 2014

The Politics Of: Robocop (2014)

RoboCop 2014 is out on pay-per-view and blu-ray--did you see the original? Should you see this one? The first part is a conventional (low-spoiler) movie review. The second part talks politics and assumes you have seen the film.

Robocop 2014

The best remake The Omnivore has ever seen is Peter Jackson's King Kong. While laid up, very sick, a friend brought the black and white original over for The Omnivore to watch and thus, when, a few days later, the remake came out, the source material was fresh in The Omnivore's mind. The genius of the remake was that it took the concept of the original, that a film-crew is shooing a movie and heading out to Monster Island to get footage, and made the 1933 film the movie the 2005 crew was making.

Thus the romantic melodrama of the 1933 original becomes a scene in the 2005 movie-in-a-movie. The quaint island natives of the 1933 original are exchanged for the utterly monstrous natives in 2005 and then re-appear as racial-stereotype black-face actors in the Broadway stage-production of 'King-Kong' when the giant ape is put on display as the 8th Wonder of the World.

The Inception-like genius of that construct showed that Jackson wasn't just 'updating' the original--but reinterpreting it, commenting on it, and trying to, in places, improve on it. In other words, both films still had a reason for existing after the remake was made.

Conversely, RoboCop 2014 takes the 1987 cyber-punk classic and ... provides a kind of TV-version with modern special effects. The concept remains more or less the same: Detroit is a crime-ridden urban dystopia. A mega-corp (OCP in the original, its subsidiary 'Omnicorp,' in the re-make) is trying to sell mechanized policing systems. The attempts to deploy their entirely robotic ED-209 machines is unsuccessful--but the cyborg-based 'RoboCop' project shows some promise.

In the 2014 version, the reason the American populace doesn't want ED-209's patrolling the streets (besides the fact that they are 12-feet tall child-killing warmechs with chainguns for hands) is because the populace in general wants something more 'human' doing its policing (to be completely fair, there are smaller evil-looking dual-sub-machine gun wielding robots they don't want either). We're introduced to these machines by a O'Reilly-esque TV show, the NovakElement, helmed by Sam Jackson.

He's, a right-wing, law-and-order, pro-robot, corporate shill, who takes us to occupied Tehran where we watch the robo-forces lay down the law and execute suicide bombers (which the occupying force and the movie's commitment to bloodless carnage manage to make sympathetic). Jackson provides the social commentary along with a funny news-ticker under his show that, among other things, notes that SETI has made contact but the aliens decided we were unintelligent. The original had darkly humorous, bitingly satirical in-world commercials. Jackson's show is sensational, over-the-top 'patriotic,' and lets us witness an ED-209 gun down an Iranian kid for no good reason (he had a knife).

Still baffled by why America would not want robo-force, Omnicorp (where most of the heavy-hitter actors in the movie are: Michael Keaton is the CEO and Gary Oldman is the head doctor) decides to go with a cyber-cop who will get around the government ban on domestic robotics. They use Joel Kinnaman who is embroiled in a corrupt-cop / crime-lord investigation and becomes a candidate for full-body prosthetics when he's blown up by a car-bomb.

The movie gives him a standard-issue partner, standard-issue wife and kid, and a standard-issue police chief to go with his standard-issue gun and badge. There are a bunch of standard-issue (and nearly entirely bloodless) fire-fights where it is clear no one cares about having anyone, ever change a magazine, and the movie mechanically plods along following a fairly meandering character arc for Kinnaman and the standard-issue evil-CEO notes for Keaton.

RoboCop 2014 is not so much bad as completely unnecessary. It doesn't improve on the original's story and lacks every dimension of the original's teeth: Even it's Detroit is a nicer place to live than 1987's version. While Keaton delivers the goods and Oldman is nothing short of show-stealing, the star of the show has to spend his time being turned on and off (either literally or emotionally) and manages, despite being given more face-time (literally), to be somewhat less sympathetic than the original.

RoboCop 1987 was given an X-rating due to graphic violence (they had to cut down the apocalyptic boardroom execution scene--something the director felt made what was originally supposed blackly comedic more disturbing rather than less). The 2014 version manages to show one instance of blood when it absolutely has to. The movie has a political message rather than a payload of dark, satirical comedy. 

The director allegedly complained that the studio blocked 9 out of 10 ideas he brought to the project and The Omnivore believes this is true. Just like the cyborg police officer, RoboCop 2014 feels like a corporate product--a story with all the rough edges machine-tooled off and a few factory-standard parts used where they don't quite fit.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of RoboCop 2014

The political dimension of RoboCop 2014 is that of the drone war. The movie's occupied Tehran is filled with hulking robots that scan the terrified populace for weapons. Overhead pilot-less jets cruise around looking for targets. Sam Jackson, wearing an angry right-wing persona, tells us straight-faced how the people welcome their peace and security.

When suicide bombers go on a doomed mission against the robots we see the wife and children one leaves behind. When his eldest son goes out with a knife, he is gunned down by a walking tank.

This is Hollywood's portrayal of drones: soulless, indiscriminate, unaccountable, child-killing machines.

The problem with Hollywood's portrayal (and trust The Omnivore, RoboCop 2014 is totally about the drone war) of drones is that it's all wrong. There may be problems with drones--certainly civilians have been killed--but that they are robots, indiscriminate, or routinely target children are not the actual issues.

Drones are actually precision weapons compared to anything else that can be fielded other than infantry. They have better sensors, longer flight-times (more time to look), human operators, and send everything they do back to base for examination by analysts. Their acts are all recorded. 

It turns out there is a growing human rights move to ban actually autonomous armed robots. People actually do worry that literal war machines would lack discrimination--and that there may be a human right not to be killed by a machine. These are not the issues RoboCop wishes to explore--it wants to talk about drones at a what-you-think-you-heard-on-TV level of depth. Does it have anything interesting to say? No: Drones are bad, m'kay?

This is why people say Hollywood is 'left-wing:' the right has ceded the "we care about you" identity to the left* and in politics-without-nuance that makes the caring guys the good-guys. Action-movie politics are always going to take the easy way out and today that means corporate greedy villains, heartless malevolent agencies, and good politicians projecting an "I care" message that comes off as liberal.

The iconography of Sam Jackson's Novak Element (The Omnivore likes that name--it shows they were thinking about why the O'Reilly Factor isn't named The O'Reilly Report) makes it clear it'd be on FOX. When we see Jackson talking up our brave troops (even as they subjugate a country) you have to ask yourself whose branding makes it easier to stand up for a robotic invader force that just killed a kid on TV?

In real life? It could go either way (if that was Obama's robot-army Jackson would be calling for his head--but imagine a less controversial president). If the army is wearing the American flag and the host on TV stands before a massive electronic Old Glory backdrop, which network is that on? Be honest?

Neocons--and conservatives in general--have ceded the caring territory that is, in action-movie-land short-hand for "the good guys." Today if you're against kids being killed by the military? Left-wing. If you're against Big Corporate Money in politics? Left-wing. If you're against waterboarding prisoners of war? Left-wing (RINO at least).

The right likes to complain about how Hollywood and the media are against them--and these complaints have some merit--but that doesn't excuse making it easy for them. Rick Santorum owns a film studio that is making religious movies for a conservative audience: he ought to try making pro-conservative action films for a general audience.

One of two things will happen (if he could make a good one, anyway): the first is that he'd maybe do some actual move-the-dial outreach. The second is that he might find out it's really hard and start to think about why that is.

* This is not to say that the people in Hollywood aren't also pretty explicitly left-wing for the most part. The Omnivore isn't arguing that--but The Omnivore thinks the forces at work that are producing left-wing action heroes today where there were right-wing heroes previously (Rambo, if he voted, would probably vote libertarian--but we all know how Chuck Norris' characters would've voted ... and Eastwood's).


  1. They tried to make a right-wing big sci-fi action movie (Serenity) and it bombed outside of the Firefly fanbase.

    1. Good point, yes. Serenity is more Libertarian than 'generally right-wing,' (Mal is no so-con). But yes, that's a good observation.

      -The Omnivore

  2. OK. Granted it's a miserably inaccurate portrayal of the way US drone-warfare is conducted. And that it plays up on the populism of fear-mongering in order to draw audience and revenue. All pretty damning stuff.

    But... putting those items aside for a moment, it isn't that much different than the dystopian warnings that were shockingly presented by the likes of Orwell's "1984" (other than the latter being an original story, and way better literary quality).

    Argument can be made that this type of extremism in story lines is an important part of the way our open-society processes its way forward. Exploring the bounds, the edges. Excessive psycho-societal(if I'm allowed the term) damage can be caused by films like this. But the same damage was incurred by Orwell's story. In fact probably more - I'm pretty sure the RoboCop remake will not become part of required high school reading. But I expect there are a fair number among the anti-gov-conspiracists who reflect a little on "1984" to justify their anti-government fears.

    1. My problem isn't so much that it's "extreme"--it isn't taking drones to the nth level--it's that it's based on common misconceptions about drones. The problems with drones is that (a) they enable cheap, bloodless (for our side) war--which makes the cost of engagement low, (b) that they conduct a kind of psychological warfare against civilians in the drone-zone by buzzing overhead and delivering 'death-from-nowhere,' and (c) that they symbolize all that [ a lot ] of people hate about America ... thus fanning the flames.

      If the movie had been extreme, it would have been something like--I dunno--virtual projections of soldiers wrapped in glowing American flags slaughtering people in massive war-crimes as they act like they're playing video games ... something like that. I'd watch the *heck* out of that.

      This is just a categoric misrepresentation that, I think, is designed to *feel* insightful without actually having an interesting message.

      -The Omnivore

  3. I would agree with that last part.