Thursday, March 20, 2014

What Does the New Robocop Tell us About Modern Action Films? by Mike Fatum

This has been a decade of remakes. Hollywood, desperate to make back some of the cash of the good old days, has turned to the 80s, and even 90s, with an eye on bringing back old franchises. If it ever made money, you can guarantee we'll see another version soon. And Robocop is no exception.

The original Robocop was, depending on who you ask, either the epitomy of the ultra-violence of the 80s action flick, or a winking send up of that entire genre. Certainly, the campy performances, excessive use of blood-packets, and mustache-twirling villains lend credence to either theory, but watching it again a few weeks ago made me pretty sure it was a satire. The director, Paul Verhoeven, has a playbook of films that could read this way - Total Recall, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers to name a few.

The new Robocop came out just a few weeks ago, and hasn't exactly lit the world on fire. With a 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and getting crushed by the Lego Movie at the box office (which is, admittedly, a far superior movie), it's probably not being considered as the launching point for a new franchise of Robocop flicks. And, considering how well Robocop 2 and 3 came out last time, that might be for the best. Still, I saw Robocop this past weekend, and I think we can learn a lot about how movies have changed in the past twenty seven years.

We're Just Not That Patient Anymore

If you watch the original Robocop, it takes them a metric age to get the man into his armor. First there's the time setting up the characters, then there's the twenty minutes they spend just on Murphy getting shot, there's all the world building, and then there's a long montage from Murphy's point of view, following by a good minute long silhouette of Robocop before we ever get to see him in all of his armored glory. The build up is as much a part of the story as the pay-off.

Meanwhile, in the new Robocop, less than a minute after Murphy is blown apart, we see him fully in the suit. There's no buildup to the design of the new guy, and nothing showing how they put Murphy into the suit. This makes the transition extremely jarring for the viewer, and seems to be indicative of our current lack of attention span. We want to get to the shooty bits, and we want to get to them now.

More Action! More Action!

The original Robocop doesn't have a lot of what they call "set pieces" in modern day films. I wouldn't say it's a cerebral, character driven piece, but it does allow more time for the characters to talk to one another. The overarching threat of the film is the hulking ED-209, a massive robot that nearly kills Robocop several times before he manages to take it down. ED-209 is built up a threat for the whole film, until defeated in a single action sequence.

The ED-209s in the new Robocop are slightly less boxy looking, and there's a lot more of them. But, because of the inverse law of ninja power, Robocop takes out two of them with his hand gun the first time he fights them. These new EDs look intimidating, but they never actually reach the point of being intimidating. The inherent threat that's built in the first movie is thrown out of the window in favor of having bigger explosions and more high stakes action sequences. Set pieces are the order of the day.

It's Called Acting, My Good Fellow

Michael Keaton. Jackie Earl Haley. Samuel L. Jackson. Gary. Freaking. Oldman. If I listed that cast to you, your last guess would be that I was describing the cast of Robocop. The most famous actor in the original is Red Foreman from that 70s show. Modern blockbusters are a different animal. Chances are being given to auteur directors and spots that might have been filled by character actors before are going to huge, talented names. And it shows.

While the new Robocop may not be high art, the focus on good acting shows through. Compared to the original, the drama in the new Robocop is well acted and actually even a little moving, sometimes. Even with the crunch of less character development time, movies today use it better, creating more three dimensional and interesting characters than the throwaway action films of yesteryear. While Peter Weller barely got a chance to blink, much less emote, in the original Robocop, Joel Kinnaman is given the opportunity to perform a full range of emotions, actually dealing with his condition in a human and understandable way. It's a very different feeling movie because of it. And of course, Gary Freaking Oldman (that's his legal middle name, you know) knocks it out of the park.

Subtlety? What's that?

You can make a case that the original Robocop is a dumb action movie, or a satire of dumb action movies. I think it's a satire, and I think the brilliance of it is that it you don't really see it unless you know what you're looking for. The over the top violence and hammy-ness of the piece could just be a director who's out of control, but the whole thing is done in such a winking way to the audience, that it's impossible to not get a good chuckle out of watching it.

Samuel L. Jackson's character in this year's version of Robocop is the best example of how far we've come from that. We know exactly what he is from the moment he walks on screen - a future version of the 24 hour news cycle talking head. We could call him Black Bill O'Reilly. And his character literally only exists in the movie to make sure you're getting a message that's made perfectly clear everywhere else - the media is manipulating you, don't listen, war bad, war for profit even worse. This message is easy to discern from the actions of the characters throughout the movie, but these segments really make sure it's written on a hammer and bashed into our faces. Audiences are expected to be dumb, these days, and even as we take more chances with acting and directing, we take less chances with story and theme.

In the end, the new Robocop is not a very good movie. But it is a fascinating tale of the way movie-making has changed. We've moved away from schlock, but we've also moved away from pacing and subtlety. The few summer blockbusters that still allow for these sorts of thing (I would argue that Marvel's still doing it) are running away with the box office, but the machine is churning out more Robocops every day. We'll see what the future holds.

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