Robocop: Villains Are People Too

We interrupt our regular Scalzi-related review to bring you this important news bulletin: we have seen Robocop, and we have found it Good.

I went in having only seen a few trailers and otherwise knowing nothing about the movie.  I’d expected to see a poor reboot of the original; I’d thought it would be a bad action movie that would try and fail to recapture the fun that I’d had before.  What I got instead was a deeply critical commentary on the perils of the militarized police state and the inadequacy of force when it comes to establishing peace, with additional treatises on the dehumanizing influence of unrestrained and unethical corporate practices.  Also, Samuel L. Jackson as an O’Reilly-esque opinion-show host.

I am very satisfied with this.

The short version without spoilers?  It’s great, go watch the movie.  If you want more, keep reading.

I think my comments above hinted at this, but let me state it clearly: Robocop is not actually a glorious action movie.  It does have some action sequences, some elements of which are good (gunfights in the dark) and some elements of which are bad (shaky cam).  But the focus of the movie isn’t on the action.  Instead, this movie is about what Robocop represents and how people react to that.  It’s also about the people who made Robocop and what their thoughts were as they went through the process of making him and seeing him grow and change.

Speaking of which, this movie is exceptionally good at making characters who are both very real and whom we love to hate (I’m looking at you, young demographics man).  The various corporate reps all seem like normal people who are doing their best to help their company in, as far as they’re concerned, perfectly reasonable ways.  The scientists are pretty awesome, and aren’t immune to the allure of poor choices that seem acceptable at the time.  In fact, all the people who are supposed to be villains come across as being simply human, which is awesome as far as I’m concerned.  If anything, the weakest characters are the protagonist and his family, because they don’t have any time to be more than two-dimensional.

The protagonist’s wife and son are both something of a blank slate, being fairly reasonable human beings without exceptional character qualities who are stuck in poor situations.  Neither of them is as interesting as either the villain or the roboticist Dr. Norton, but they also aren’t given much time or space in which to become more than supporting background characters.  Our protagonist Alex Murphy almost falls into the same trap, but that’s mostly due to the fact that he has to spend a great deal of the movie brooding while supposedly chemically lobotomized.

And while I didn’t like his character, I deeply appreciated Samuel L. Jackson’s straight-faced appearance as Bill O’Reilly-esque opinion-show host Pat Novak.  He offers a fabulous mode of engaging with the story, both opening and closing the film and helping us to relate to the film’s message by responding to the view he offers through his purposefully warped lens.  The opening of the film is heart-wrenching, and seeing Novak’s response helped to cement my own opinions on the matter.  It also makes clear just how much the film will be a commentary rather than a straight up action flick.

And now it’s time for the…

*SPOILERS*

I didn’t quite give Murphy his due, earlier.  I was certainly effected by seeing his despondency upon realizing that he is almost entirely a machine, and seeing how much he wants to die.  The “factory surrounded by rice paddies” was weird, but having Murphy fall down in them upon shut down left us with an excellent image, so I’m willing to forgive them that truly bizarre choice.  All in all, I’m very happy with the way that the film was constructed and edited together despite my occasional gripes.

Speaking of of gripes, the climactic villain scene is fascinating; it follows perfectly on all of the background elements which the story has established, but feels like it breaks my expectations for an otherwise very reasonable villain.  Why on earth would the villain threaten Murphy’s family?  Up until that point he was simply a mostly amoral corporate chieftain who was strongly motivated by profit.  While I can see why he had to threaten them in order to trigger the ’emotional overload’ that the movie had been talking about from the beginning, I don’t see why it made any sense for the character to do that rather than, say, pushing Murphy off the top of the skyscraper or something.

I’m happy that they didn’t just go with removing the ‘friendly’ bracelet, since that would have been perilously close to the ending of the original movie (Omnicorp wins the award for Most Lethal Severance Package).  But I think it’s too bad that they went with the an approach that doesn’t feel as appropriate for the villain; having the villain make it clear that Murphy was his property (which is also established early on) might have been more interesting and would certainly have been more in character, though I don’t know that it would have hit the necessary established emotional buttons.

*END SPOILERS*

Anyway, I really liked this movie.  It’s good enough that I’ll probably want to see it again, and I certainly recommend that you watch it.  It’s totally worthwhile.

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