Robocop, Robocop & the Politics of Emancipation

The 2014 Robocop remake has arrived! Revamping, updating and down-camping the 1987 original for the viewing pleasure of the global mass market! Boo corporations, post-90s technology, human emotion and/or error… Yay Robocop!

While the new story has been adapted accordingly for our newer, shinier and digital-er time, the influence of the original Verhoeven film is evident throughout, with direct references to OCP (now “the parent company of Omnicorp”) and lines such as “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar…” Eyyy! See what they did?! They WOULDN’T buy it for a dollar, AND there were zero gratuitous boobs. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Robocop 2.0 (Robocop 2 already happened) marks the point at which Hollywood has officially surpassed adolescence. Robocop 2.0 is subverting 1987’s surprisingly Reaganite narrative, which, according to Steven Best “neatly coalesces with rightwing fantasies of social subversion” and becomes “a front for increased surveillance and the rollback of constitutional rights”. Ha! Reagan.

I can accept that Paul Verhoeven was an unwitting accomplice to the cultural landscape that produced an acceptance of Ronald Reagan, and later Arnold Schwartzenegger, as the actual political leaders of genuine geographical places, but it is slightly harder to accept of director José Padilha. It interests me to understand the dynamics and effects of, and between, these two films that both appear to satirize and criticize corporate corruption, right-wing media bias and the military industrial complex. Robocop 2.0 certainly tries to break with the pantomimic sci-fi camp of the original, to situate itself within a contemporary political landscape where melding man with machine is not only possible, but something you can pay to have done for a laugh. So what are the issues and limits remaining in 2.0?

Robo2.0 is destined to be filed, as with the majority of films I see at multiplexes, under ‘Films I Sort of Enjoyed at a Surface Level and Made Me Well Up at Times, Containing the Obvious, Ubiquitous Tropes I’m Tired Of’, cross referenced with ‘Completely Lacking Subtlety and Self-Awareness’. The problem with Robocop 2.0 is painfully obvious. It’s a film produced by MGM & Columbia, distributed by Columbia, Sony, Universal, Disney and 20th Century Fox, that attempts to critique corporate culture. What more can it do than have a slapdash chew on the hand that feeds it? The original touched on Evil Corporatism only to the extent that it needed to to drive the plot (it is unable “to locate the real sources of alienation and reification. At no moment does Robocop suggest that the numerous serious social issues it raises — from nuclear disaster to monopoly control — are inherent in or fundamentally related to the corporate system it critiques.” – Best)

2.0 critiques the use of unmanned drone warfare and the corporate media industry, while avoiding any critique of the nature of human-perpetrated, emotionally-assessed violence i.e. ‘normal’ warfare, or its own lacking of diverse female characters or people of colour who weren’t always in possession of a gun, for example.

José Padilha is a filmmaker who genuinely wants to discuss the ethical issues raised in 2.0. Also a documentary filmmaker, he made the fantastic Bus 174, a documentary about Sandro do Nascimento, a young homeless man who took a bus full of commuters hostage in Rio. Bus 174 has genuine layers of complexity and consideration, examining not only the incompetence of the police officers who caused far more harm than Sandro, but also the conditions of poverty which led Sandro to crime, the media’s involvement, and the context behind the police’s inability to function optimally. While Padilha clearly, far too clearly, wants to discuss the sensationalism and breakdown of journalistic practices, the disingenuousness of the PR and marketing industries, and the ethical questions and contemporary dynamics of nature and technology in a runaway corporate environment, all of these are necessarily packaged and glossed to inhabit the well-worn structure designed to shut down the need for any questioning and action above that which RoBroCop can give us with his slick, gunny badassery and unavoidable murder of All The Bad People.

I still appreciated 2.0 for its employment and update of the original premise. I enjoyed Gary Oldman’s Dr. Dennet Norton, the film’s protagonist, who contains the ethical storyline within the film. I have my suspicions that the part of Norton was actually written not so well, but that Gary Oldman Gary Oldman’d it to the extent where it’s impossible to focus on anything except his pure, sweet unraveling of Gary Oldmanity. The Omnicorp team were very well played, but undeveloped past the point of multi-antagonist, evil-Richard-Bransons. The tension between humanity, emotion and the industrial rejection of them was the theme most successfully communicated, and was given at least thirty seconds of subtlety (before the guitar player informs us “…without emotion, I can’t play”, after being unable to play because of his emotions.)

The reflection on what creates extreme emotion in humans, and the subsequent effects of the refusal and suppression of those emotions by ourselves and numerous branches of society, was the only topic that wasn’t distractingly and messily spoon-fed. Murphy’s manipulation and co-option by corporations for profit, his alienation from his humanity, personality, purpose and family, and his seemingly doomed resistance to all these things can be read as a legitimate reflection of contemporary capitalist power dynamics at work, and certainly reminded me of the near-fatal series of events which led to my own transformation into a dead-eyed, soul-crushed automaton.

 

Ultimately, the film takes itself just a bit too seriously whilst treading just a bit too lightly to function as a decisive political comment. To go back to Best’s examination of Robocop 1.0: “While Robocop is an action spectacle, a romance, a comedy, and a revenge fantasy” and “a complex, subversive, and even utopian text which addresses the problem of human alienation within a techno-capitalist society […] it teaches the lesson that good always wins. It tells us that social order is possible only through the imposition and acceptance of external authority and that, most importantly, a moribund capitalism is more desirable than any alternative world which might emerge from its destruction.” He continues that some “will be mesmerized by the sheer spectacle of the film and come away only with a remembrance of its surface pleasures. For still others, the film will sharpen — or awaken — their skepticism toward media, capitalism, and technology.” But due to the industry-standard structure of narrative film (which works, and I have followed myself when writing), and the form(ula) by which films will be accepted into the mainstream market, “we see the usual contradiction between progressive textual encodings and traditional narrative form. […] It climactically completes the metaphysics of closure, resolution, and redemption that structures the film.” For all the improvements 2.0 makes on Verhoeven’s Robocop, it still fails in making the radical challenges it purports to be. The character of Murphy/Robocop himself is an ambiguous, and dangerous, figure of justice.

 

At radical or political film screenings, the question ‘so what next?’ is almost always raised, and a frequent criticism of political films is that they highlight problems but pose no solutions. This is the wrong approach to political films – films are a communication, a discussion. They are a point from which to discuss, act and reflect; a call to several different types of arms rather than a hermetically sealed doctrine. Films that tell you exactly what is, rather than helping us to understand processes, should be handled carefully and with even more discussion and reflection than those which leave the audience with questions and ambiguous endings. Films are very good at transmitting feelings and ideas. In that way, they function best as non-dogmatic, temporary guidebooks. Every film, and every type of cultural act, is a political one. Romantic comedies and animated children’s films are political films; they all tell us something about how to govern ourselves and our lives, and what they choose not to include are often the most politically charged areas. Best to consistently examine what you consume and how you consume it, because the corporate media industry, like any other, is pretty warped; full of contradictory information and power hungry assholes. Robocop told me so, twice. Seems legit.

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