Sunday, June 13, 2021

40 Years Ago: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.

But if adventure movies could have three names, they would be Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) remains one of the most brilliantly-crafted action blockbusters of the last several decades, and is a testament to the collaborative efforts of those talents name-checked above. As Richard Schickel noted in his original Time Magazine review: “The simple craftsmanship evident throughout [the film], the attention to detail, which, as the special-effects people like to say, "sells the shot," puts the viewer in mind of an almost vanished habit of meticulous movie-making.”

Like Star Wars (1977) before it, Raiders of the Lost Ark is more than a simple adventure film, however. It is also a pastiche, a descriptor meaning that the film meaningfully draws its inspiration from other, historical works of art.  

In this case, Lucas and Spielberg knowingly style their 1981 adventure film after the serials or chapter-plays of the 1930s and early 1940s.  Nearly every aspect of the picture -- including character “types,” contextual backdrop, and even choice of wardrobe -- emerges from the movie serials of this span.  

But intriguingly, such elements are re-purposed for modern audiences as symbols or signifiers of “innocence” during an epoch of what could fairly be described as cynical, technological movie-making.  

Legendarily, Raiders of the Lost Ark was devised by an exhausted and depleted George Lucas following the difficult production of Star Wars.  The project also appealed to a post-Jaws (1975) and post-1941 (1979) Steven Spielberg on the basis that it would prove a deliberate step-away from -- and rebuke of -- the “mechanical” effects and challenges of those pictures; the worlds of matte-paintings, blue-screens, motion-control cameras, and other cutting edge hardware.

Yet Raiders of the Lost Ark serves as more than mere romantic response to modern, technological filmmaking. It also shares a crucial creative element or conceit with such 1930s films as King Kong (1933).  

In particular, the film serves as both a critique of  a morally rudderless, secular Modernity and as an invitation for contemporary movie audiences to imagine a “larger” world outside the confines of “The West” or “Western Thought.”  

Thus, Raiders of the Lost Ark escorts viewers to a world where not every mystery is resolved, where not every miracle is quantified, and where not every problem is diagnosable.  It showcases a world, quite simply, where you can still believe in magic…and still feel wonder -- and yes, fear -- at facets of life beyond the boundaries of human understanding.

Raiders of the Lost Ark also explicitly concerns the First World’s whole-sale plundering of the Third World for its treasures.  And this plundering -- particularly for golden artifacts -- is no doubt a metaphor for the oil trade, and also for western imperialism or colonialism in general terms. 

But intriguingly, the Lucas/Spielberg film also acknowledges that in “excavating” the resource-rich Third World, some heretofore dismissed mystical or mythological aspect of those cultures may find new relevance or meaning in the glittering and advanced -- but ultimately spirit-sapped -- Age of Reason.  

In other words, in the process of strip-mining Africa, the Far East, Peru, or the Middle East for its treasures, the denizens of the First World also discover some lost connection to their own history, or even their diminished sense of spirituality and humanity.  

Beyond the “fortune and glory” of avaricious, individual aspiration stands the possibility of renewing one’s faith, and buttressing lost or faltering belief.  This very notion is the thematic undercurrent not only for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for all the Indiana Jones films. A world-weary and at times dissolute man of Modernity finds in buried or forgotten Antiquity the magic that is lacking in his life, and in his "new age" of science.  Indiana Jones may claim that Archaeology is the search for facts, not "truth" (the purview of Philosophy, he states), but in terms of the films, this is not strictly the case.

This overriding theme of rediscovered faith in re-discovered articles of Antiquity is powerfully visualized in Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially in regards to the unearthly, dreadful power of the Ark.  The film is rife with literal “Wrath of God”-type visuals which suggest a power outside human comprehension. This unseen, gathering force grows in strength (and anger…) as Nazis and Indiana Jones himself threaten to “disturb” the Ark from it sanctuary and long slumber.

The discovery of this priceless religious artifact in Raiders of the Lost Ark by two figures who have “fallen from faith” -- Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) -- also pulsates at the heart of the picture. 

Both men unexpectedly see their lapsed faith renewed -- though in drastically differing fashions -- during the film’s explosive denouement.  Importantly, however, this new-found sense of faith or belief arises from their reckoning with an ancient Holy Object, one totally outside their respective allegiances during the technological but inhumane World War II era.

To depict a hero who has lost faith and then finds it again, Spielberg frequently crafts visuals (with DP Douglas Slocombe) that diagram remarkable depth and detail, ones heavy on dark and light.  These are the film’s compositions of “shadow,” and they pinpoint a morally uncertain Indiana Jones perched half-way between good and evil.  

He could, it seems, go either way at this juncture, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is his story of, finally, of redemption…of emergence from the shadows of doubt, guilt, and existential angst.

Girded with thrill-a-minute fight sequences and exhilarating chases, Raiders of the Lost Ark thrives even today not only because it is jaunty, good-humored nature, but because it seeks to excavate in its audience a well-spring of authentic wonder, a belief that those things that seem buried in our past --whether a holy relic, the tradition of the 1930s movie serial, or even an individual sense of spirituality -- can find relevance and new meaning in an age of cynicism and calculation.

“Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations.”
After returning empty-handed from a hazardous trip to Peru, archaeologist and professor Indiana Jones (Ford) is contacted at his university by two officers from U.S. Army Intelligence.
These officers inform Indy that Adolf Hitler is “obsessed with the occult” and that he has sent his armies across the globe to recover any relics or treasures relating to it.  Within Hitler’s reach now is the Ark of the Covenant, the mysterious container which is believed to have once housed the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  
Mankind has searched for the Ark for three thousand years, and now Hitler wants it because it can “level mountains” and render any army which carries it “invincible.”
During their world-wide hunt for the Ark, the Nazis have also revealed an unusual interest in Abner Ravenwood, Indy’s American mentor, with whom he had a falling out some time ago. Ravenwood possesses the head-piece of the “Staff of Ra,” a ceremonial object that can locate the precise location of the Ark inside the long-buried city of Tanis.  
Army Intelligence wants Jones to acquire the head-piece first, and also recover the Ark before the Nazis can do so.
Indy’s first stop on this journey is Nepal.  There, he learns that Ravenwood is dead, and that Marion (Karen Allen), Abner’s beautiful daughter, is in possession of the head-piece.  Marion is also Indy’s former lover -- and a spurned one at that -- and is reluctant to part with the jeweled head-piece because of the bad blood between them.  
When Nazi agents, led by the sinister Toht (Ronald Lacey), burn down Marion’s bar in pursuit of the same artifact, however, she agrees to partner with Jones on his quest.
Indy and Marion head to Cairo next, where they work with Indy’s old friend and an expert digger, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) to locate the Tanis Map Room.   Sallah reports that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place, and that there is still time to excavate and recover the Ark from the Well of Souls.
After several hazardous brushes with the Nazis and his French rival, Belloq (Freeman), Indy and Marion finally retrieve the Ark...and then once more lose the prized artifact to them.
In the end, Indiana Jones and Marion must stand witness to the mysterious and fearsome powers of the Ark of the Covenant, as Belloq does the unthinkable, and opens it…

The Ark…it is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this Earth.” 
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood studios such as Republic, Universal, Mascot, and Columbia succeeded at the box office by producing a steady diet of serials, or chapter plays.  These adventure films highlighted weekly cliff-hangers and stories of derring-do.  Audiences watched these chapter-plays (usually about twenty-minutes in duration per segment…) and then returned to the theater the following ten weeks or so to see how their heroes fared following apparently-impossible-to-escape perils. 

These 1930s-1940s serials arrived in a variety of modes or genres, but can nonetheless be organized by four categories, broadly-speaking.  There were space-based serials (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers), superhero serials (Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel), western serials (The Lone Ranger) and, last but not least, “adventure” serials often featuring a larger-than-life hero engaged in a dangerous quest (usually in a jungle or other "uncivilized" territory by Modernity's standards).  

Indeed, “the adventurer” in the fourth sub-type of serial would often travel to some lost kingdom, country, island, or village (Darkest Africa [1936], The Secret of Treasure Island [1938], The Valley of the Vanishing Men [1942], Raiders of Ghost City [1944]) in search of lost treasure.  The adventurer/hero was sometimes an agent for the U.S. government too, and might end up battling forces of the Axis Powers -- Germany and Japan -- in efforts such as Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (1943), The Adventures of Smiling Jack (1943), and Secret Service in Darkest Africa (1943).  

Virtually all of the 1930s-1940s serials featured a hero with a memorable name, such as Ace Drummond, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Frank Merriwell, Kit Carson, Don Winslow, Red Barry, or Red Ryder.  And many of these protagonists frequently wore a hat so that it was easy to stunt-double the lead actor during fight scenes.  

Clearly, Indiana Jones fits easily into this serial tradition, right down to his trademark fedora. The cliffhangers are present in the 1981 film too, and Raiders’ boasts an episodic structure that hinges on extreme danger, and then sudden resolution of that danger. 

The conventional serial format imitated by Raiders also often features a sidekick of a comic nature, a role that Sallah happily conforms to in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Short Round plays in Temple of Doom, and Marcus Brody fills in The Last Crusade.  These characters not only back-up the protagonist and provide levity to alleviate tension, they provide someone for the hero to rescue so more derring-do is possible.

The backdrop for such tales, as noted above, is often explicitly World War II, and involves evil foreign agents, with names like “The Scorpion.” These agents often infiltrate non-aligned countries so as to procure their resources and/or loyalties in the conflict.  The villains generally fall into the comic-book general villain/soldier-villain dichotomy, which again one can detect clearly in terms of Belloq and Toht in Raiders. Belloq is the brains and cunning, whereas Toht is the muscle or enforcer.

Straight-forward and patriotic, the 1930s-1940s movie serials mostly eschewed nuance or subtlety in storytelling, and succeeded as pure entertainment; as roller-coaster or thrill ride. They were literally “black and white" in format and theme.   

Raiders knowingly absorbs all the creative ingredients of such serials, as noted above, but the game it plays is a bit more complex.  The film harks back to a more innocent time not only in terms of movie narratives, but in terms of movie-making itself; what Spielberg described as a “James Bond movie without hardware” in an interview with Janet Maslin.  The black-and-white aesthetic remains virtually intact, only updated for color cinema. Visually-speaking, the film's black-and-white presentation actually involve shades of light and dark, and menacing, obfuscating shadows.

Upon re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for this review, I was reminded how beautiful and textured the cinematography remains.  Spielberg conveys a great deal of information about character and plot through visual means, and via compositions that stress shadows, or the interplay of light and dark.  

In particular, Indiana Jones himself is often visualized as being half-in and half-out of the shadows.  When he is acting as a “grave-robber” in Peru for instance, at the commencement of the film, we see him emerge from the shadows, but not completely.  The shadows still cloak and obscure parts of his visage, in part because he is an unknown quantity to the audience.  Is he a mercenary, a grave-robber, an historian or a scientist?  It's not entirely clear at this juncture.

Similarly, when Indy attempts to procure from Marion the head-piece to the Staff of Ra -- and not entirely honestly at that -- even darker shadows fall across his face.  We see nothing of Indy's face save for his furtive, cunning eyes, and the imagery suggests that he is hiding much.  Here, Indy seems truly in danger of becoming like Belloq...a man without faith, and more than that, without goodness.

When Marion first spies Indy in the film, in her saloon in Nepal, he is visualized by Spielberg entirely as a shadow on the wall, at least at first.  Again, consider the details of their personal relationship. Indy romanced Marion when she was very young (and likely made love to her…), and then went about his way, with hardly a look back.  Marion has never forgiven or forgotten him, and this memory of a failed romance has driven her to the ends of the Earth, literally.  

Indiana Jones is thus, literally, a colossal shadow looming over Marion's life, and her decisions.  When she first sees him again, after all these years, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, that’s precisely as Indy appears in the frame, as an over-sized shadow dwarfing her body.  He is as large and imposing as she has made him in her memory.

Finally, another trenchant example: when Belloq speaks to a heart-broken Indy at a Cairo restaurant, Indy is seen in the foreground of the frame, under a cloak of shadows that echoes his cloak of mourning (at Marion’s apparent demise). But there’s more going on in this scene than meets the eye.  It is here that Belloq refers to Indy as his “mirror,” and he discusses with him how they are both men without faith, and thus very much alike.  

Indy slips into shadow in this composition because he very much fears that Belloq's words are accurate.  His obsession -- his desire to reclaim various treasures of Antiquity for fortune and glory --  has caused him to cut corners, and to endanger those whom he loves. Indy believes Marion is dead, and that, furthermore he caused her death.  All we need to understand this state-of-mind is the prominent image of his face beneath the shroud of shadows. He is a man whose soul is in a precarious condition.

Man of Shadows: Grave robber or archaelogist?

Motives: Pure or shadowy?

The Shadow that looms over Marion's li fe.

The Shadows of Guilt is like a shroud over Indy.

If light and dark, shadow and light, play a crucial role in the visual aspects of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film features another significant visual leitmotif: the wrath of God as a tangible force in the real world; though one unnoticed…until it is too late.  

Several times through-out the film, an “ill-wind” blows -- without apparent “rational” or scientific cause -- and this wind is the unseen breath of God, gaining in power as both Indiana Jones and the Nazis grow closer to recovering the Ark of the Covenant.  

The old wise man who translates the head-piece of the Staff of Ra reads a warning to Indy not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant, and that ultimatum is the key to this “ill-wind” motif.  Brody similarly warns Indy about the dangers of the Ark, and the fact that it holds secrets "no man can know." 

But meanwhile, Belloq is not afraid of this possibility, and contextualizes the Ark as something “not of this Earth.”  He calls it  “a transmitter…a radio for speaking to God,” but is so vain and arrogant that he does not fear trespass against the Divine (or, perhaps, the alien...).

The strange, unnatural -- or supernatural? -- ill-wind blows for the first time in Raiders of the Lost Ark immediately before the fight scene in Nepal.  Marion sits alone in her bar, before a single candle, and the flame flutters in the wind suddenly as she regards the head-piece of the Staff of Ra, and determines to be Jones’ partner in the recovery of the Ark.  

The wind does not blow because Indiana Jones has left the saloon and let in the freezing air, or because Toht has entered the building, mind you.  The wind -- for no Earthly reason -- threatens the candle’s life, and the flame quivers uncertainly.   This is the first warning, the first exhale of God's wrath, perhaps.

The next time the Wrath of God is suggested in terms of visuals, the wind is much stronger, perhaps because the end of the quest is nearer, and the Ark is that much closer to excavation.  The old man in Cairo reads the warning on the head-piece to Indy, and suddenly the hanging lamps in the old man’s home begin to sway, and a cloud of dust gusts up from the floor.  Again, the wind seems to have come from nowhere. The Wrath of God is nearer.

This ill-wind next becomes a storm, when, by night, Sallah and Indy crack the seal of the Well of Souls, and access to the Ark is revealed at last. Overhead, in the impenetrable night, a strange, unearthly storm gathers, thunder roars, and lightning crackles. This atmospheric disturbance represents the most significant warning yet not to trespass in God’s domain, not to attempt to possess that which man is not yet meant to “know.”

After the Ark is recovered and stored in a Nazi crate, the most indisputable sign yet of God’s anger is seen. A rat near the crate starts to go crazy -- as if hearing or processing some kind of unearthly signal -- and the Nazi symbol on the crate’s side burns up…as if Evil cannot stand firm, or even exist at all, in the face of Pure Good.

Finally, of course, when the Ark is opened, all Hell breaks loose.  

The ill-wind finally manifests…first as blue-tinged wind (like the blue sky of the thunder storm over Tanis..), and then as vengeful, flying angels.  The wind becomes fire (and remember the flickering of the candle in Marion’s saloon…), and it immediately melts and destroys the Nazis.  Then, a supernatural windstorm of shocking ferocity blows through the temple, and back up to Heaven, as the sky opens up to receive it.  

The Wrath of God -- hinted at and warned about throughout Raiders of the Lost Ark -- has delivered its final judgment.  

It starts with a candle's flicker...

Then a wind from nowhere shakes the hanging lamps (in the background)...

When the Ark is found, the sky opens up, and storm clouds roll in.

Sacrilege is punished.

And punished....

...and punished.

The candle flicker is now an all-consuming fire.

And the Heavens open up at last, to receive the Power of God.

There is much more to Raiders of the Lost Ark than these subtle and meaningful visual leitmotifs, but taken together they tell a story about modern man and his arrogance...and his spiritual emptiness.  One "obtainer of rare antiquities" in the film pursues fame and fortune -- or perhaps self-glorification -- and dies.  The other re-discovers faith, and survives, his belief in wonder restored.

There are so many other great and downright remarkable aspects to this film, but in passing, I must also mention the desert truck chase, which remains a model of dazzling stunt-work and rapid editing.  This stunning set-piece moves with certainty, confidence and momentum, and never lets up, even for a second.  It must certainly qualify as one of the top five action sequences in the modern cinema.

I also appreciate and admire Harrison Ford's performance as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He is never afraid to reveal vulnerability, or the fact that Indiana Jones is a a bit of an unscrupulous scoundrel. This character, unlike the revised Han Solo, shoots first (against the Cairo Swordsman), is likely an alcoholic, and is an unrepentant womanizer. 

Later films in the Indiana Jones cycle (namely Last Crusade and Crystal Kingdom) attempt to lionize and sterilize the character, and ret-con him into a stolid, "it belongs in a museum!" fuddy-duddy, but for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is a real man, with real desires, and real foibles.  In my opinion, that makes him seem all the more heroic.

Finally, I love the film's last sequence.  It's the perfect capper visually to the narrative, and also in terms of the film's thematic material.  The Ark -- a symbol of a wondrous, lost age, and powers behind human comprehension -- is sealed up, locked away, and forgotten.  Humdrum Modernity can't parse, categorize or understand it, and so it relegates the Ark to a warehouse of "mysteries," all forgotten...perhaps to be excavated once more in another three thousand years.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Thundarr The Barbarian in "Island of the Body Snatchers"

Thundarr and his friends attempt to rescue an imperiled ship at sea in “The Mystery Zone” -- think the Bermuda Triangle -- and run across the evil witch Circe, and her minions.

Circe has been living under a curse for 500 years. She must remain forever on the island (in the ruins of London, England…) or turn to stone.  

But now, Circe hopes to switch her consciousness into Ariel’s young body, and outsmart her captors.  She lures Thundarr and the others into the trap, and makes the soul transfer in secret.

Now trapped in a hideous, aging body, Ariel must convince Thundarr that she is not a witch, but his dear friend…

With Ariel’s beauty, vitality and very soul on the line, “Island of the Body Snatchers” feels a little more urgent or suspenseful than some episodes of Thundarr the Barbarian.

Specifically, Ariel sees her beautiful visage stolen by the witch Circe, while she is left a hideous old hag.  

And worse, Thundarr doesn’t believe her story of soul transfer. In fact, he laughs at her.

There’s a nice paranoid aspect to this tale, as well as a little social commentary about how Thundarr’s society (and perhaps our society too…) views the old and the ugly.  

Regardless of the precise details, it is nice to get away from the “save the human village of the week” routine and into something a bit different.  

In this case,”Island of the Body Snatchers” also seems inspired by several elements of Greek Myth.

There, Circe was known as a goddess or witch of magic, the daughter of Helios and Perse.  Like the mythological Circe, the witch on Thundarr can transform men into animal minions resembling pig or swine. 

Also like Greek myth, the Circe in “Island of the Body Snatchers” was exiled to an island and forced to remain there.  Specifically, Circe appeared in Homer’s Odyssey, which also featured an interlude with sirens, and “Island of the Body Snatchers” also concerns ships lost at sea, buffeted by rocky, turbulent waters, like that legend.

Once more, the visuals of a Thundarr the Barbarian episode prove incredibly appealing and resonant.  

In particular, much of the action here takes place around a ruined Big Ben, and Circe’s escape route is via a helicopter on an off-shore oil rig. These connections to our world make the story all the more intriguing and colorful, and in toto this is one of the best, most rip-roaring exciting episodes of the series thus far. 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

RoboCop (2014)

RoboCop (2014) is a top-of-the-line science fiction movie for our time. It features a remarkable cast, strong visual effects and it ponders, with intelligence, some important issues of this epoch.

And yet the reboot -- while never an embarrassment to the long-standing franchise -- is absolutely, categorically, humorless.  

As you may recall, a vital aspect of the 1987 Verhoeven film was its comical skewering of right wing, pro-business policies in a fictional future U.S.A. The ED-209 didn’t just malfunction, for example, he turned an OCP board-member to a bloody pulp.

Meanwhile, the movie’s TV commercials for products such as the board game Nuke ‘Em revealed how the world had become a blood-thirsty, dog-eat-dog world due to rule, essentially, by unregulated corporations.

The new RoboCop finds no humorous corollary for any of these moments, and this, I fear, is a symptom of our times too.

For some reason, horror and science fiction films these days are afraid to be funny, to crack a joke here and there. They are deadly serious, instead, and that level of unremitting “grittiness” can be exhausting. 

I suspect it’s the Dark Knight (2008) effect, honestly. 

Now, post-Nolan, every genre pic has to be deadly serious and set (largely) at night, so we think it is “authentic” or “real.” It’s funny to contemplate, but Adam West’s Batman (1966 – 1968) cast a pall over superhero productions for a generation by presenting the hero as campy.  It now looks as though the Nolan trilogy has had just as deleterious effects on our age today, taking the genre to such dour, humorless heights that people forget how much fun a good, thoughtful sci-fi picture -- like RoboCop (1987) -- ought to be.

Why do I miss the humor in this RoboCop so much?  

Well, in Verhoeven’s film, the humor made a valuable point about the society as a whole, but it did so without turning the movie into a preachy left-wing diatribe. The commercials and moments of humor leavened the whole thing. 

It’s the same reason you want a spoonful of sugar with your medicine, right?

In the original RoboCop, the points about out-of-control right-wing economic politics were still scored -- viciously so, in some circumstances -- but the movie was free to be an action movie, and not a sermon. We could look at all the pieces of the social critique, recognize them, and then laugh at our recognition of them. We could still have a good time, even while nodding in agreement about the nature of the exaggerated, fictional world. 

Sometimes, the world really feels this way…

The new RoboCop proceeds from a point of far greater seriousness, and yet its point -- that people aren’t the property of corporations -- doesn’t transmit nearly as effectively as similar messages did in RoboCop, or even the gonzo-bonkers sequel, RoboCop 2 (1990).

This doesn’t mean the new film isn’t intelligent. It’s a smart and earnest movie. I liked it. But I didn’t admire it in the way I still do the original film.

The new RoboCop can be credited, absolutely, with rethinking the details of Alex Murphy’s story for our times. This version of the tale focuses on American military engagements in the Middle East, the plight of veterans who return home less than whole, and the use of drones or otherwise automated hardware against our citizenry. 

It’s an intriguing angle for certain, and yet, again, the film somehow doesn’t feel as visceral or as moving as the original RoboCop did, even when it takes the time to explore aspects of the character’s personal life that the original didn’t touch…like the plight of Murphy’s wife and son.

Again, RoboCop is no embarrassment. It’s not a terrible, unthinking, or slapdash “re-boot.” But in the final analysis, it doesn’t carry the ball any further down the field than the original did. Objectively, it’s just not as good as the original was -- even though the argument could be made that the film is quite well-done -- and so its very purpose must be called into question.

Do we need a RoboCop reboot that doesn’t improve on Verhoeven’s original vision?  If so, why?  

It seems to me that this is the most important question that needs answering here.  All the solid work of the admittedly impressive cast and director Jose Padhila, doesn’t quite validate the existence of a film that feels, at times, so mechanical.

“A machine does not understand how it feels to be human.”

In an America of the near future, the corporation OCP wants more than anything to sell its robotic sentinels -- ED-209 and ED-208 -- to crime-infested cities. But CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) can’t open this market because of the settled law of the land.  The Dreyfus Act forbids robotic hardware to be in a position where it can police the American people.

Sellars suspects he can get around this edict by putting a man into such a machine, and marketing that man and his “conscience” to the American people.  

When Detroit cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is grievously injured in a bombing, Sellars has his candidate for that job.  He goes to a well-respected doctor, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) and tells him to build…a Robocop.

When Murphy awakes, he discovers he is not quite the man he used to be.  Only one hand, his brain, his face, his lungs and his throat survived the bombing and the ensuing surgery.  Now he is more machine than man, housed in a complex robot body.  At the very least, however, he will still get to see his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish) and his son, David.

When RoboCop hits the streets of Detroit and proves a success at stopping crime, the U.S. Senate holds a vote to repeal the Dreyfus Act.  

But with that repeal, RoboCop is now obsolete.  He has outlived his value to Sellars…

“It’s great to see American machines helping to promote peace and freedom abroad.”

The new RoboCop could almost be titled RoboSoldier because its primary concern is the post-Iraq War world. The film’s events occur during an American occupation of Iran (and Tehran, specifically), as ED-209s and humanoid ED-208s patrol the streets, enforcing the peace at gunpoint.  

Meanwhile, veterans come home to America physically broken, and scientists like the sympathetic Doctor Norton (Oldman), attempt to make them whole again with robotic limbs. There's a remarkable scene in the film of a man learning to use his robot hands to play the guitar. It's hopeful and sad at the same time.

Although technically not a soldier, Murphy comes home broken too, and must -- with all the changes inside him, and all the horror he has seen -- re-integrate into his family unit and his former life.  But of course, he is a changed man, literally, and again, this is the precise story that many soldiers face upon returning stateside, and to their homes.  

They are not who they once were.They are changed, even altered psychologically, by their war experiences. And Murphy faces this problem too. He undergoes a kind of robotic version of PTSD and doctors reduce his Dopamine level so that he acts, with his family, like a "zombie." He hardly seems to recognize his loved ones.

At the same time, on the home front, right-wing voices of “law and order” on TV demand that the American street be pacified too, using the same machines patrolling Tehran. 

But a liberal senator, Dreyfus, created a bill (and then a law) which prevents the use of such military equipment in American cities.  

Again, this dramatic scenario is ripped straight out of current events. In 2015, more and more police units in metropolitan areas are gearing up with military hardware, and more and more Americans are growing afraid that they could be the target of drones, or other machines of war, during moments of civil disobedience. Are police our protectors, or occupiers of our cities?  Very many, that line seems to be blurred.

The new RoboCop handles this paradigm well, and quite intelligently.  The commentary is smart, and often ironic, but it is never sharp enough, or funny enough, to leave a significant impact. Samuel L. Jackson plays a right-wing TV pundit/bloviator Pat Novak who complains about “robo-phobic” America and stands in front of giant screens of the American flag, draping himself in patriotism that is more aptly fascism.  This isn't satire though. This is an accurate depiction of certain personalities in the current media.

Novak calls the Tehran occupation a peaceful one, and notes -- immediately prior to a boy’s death by ED-209 -- that for the first time Iranian people can raise their children in safety and security.

The point is made ironically, of course. Novak spouts propaganda; and we see for our own eyes that it isn’t the truth. There’s no safety and security here, only an invading force occupying the city.

But the moment isn’t funny, because the new RoboCop doesn’t get the idea that was transmitted so clearly in the original.  

If you want to make a really memorable point about something, then you take reality and exaggerate it. You take it one step further than reality.

Go out of bounds with it a little.  

Instead, the reboot speculates, in dead serious fashion, about the use of military technology in other lands, and here at home. We get serious war scenes, with a youthful casualty. But this footage seems like it could be real, and from today, with just a few exceptions.

Paul Verhoeven, I suspect, would have treated the moment very differently. He would killed that Iranian kid in the most grievous, bloody, over-the-top, politically incorrect fashion, and then, for punctuation, have had Pat Novak label him a terrorist.  

We all would have gasped. 

And then we would have heard some nervous titters or giggles from fellow audience members at the bad taste of the whole thing…and yet the point would have been made irrevocably.  

Our words, ideals, and our actions not only fail to line up, that scene would have expressed, they actually have no relation to one another.  

This was the essence of many Media Break moments in the original franchise. Remember in RoboCop 2 how Leeza Gibbons griped about environmentalists who complained about a nuclear meltdown in the Amazon Rain Forest.   

Those pesky environmentalists! They’re always complaining about something!

In the reboot, the ironic event (the death of a child during a “peaceful” robot patrol) is noted, but it just kind of hangs there on the screen, flat. The moment is played dead straight, and so the opportunity to expose Novak’s hypocrisy and propaganda is lost, at least to some significant degree.

To reiterate, I believe it is commendable that RoboCop attempts to tackle a serious subject: American military equipment exported to places where it is neither desired, nor helpful, by corporations who want to open big markets and make money. But the movie has no really illuminating or memorable viewpoint to note about the subject.

It's text vs. subtext, I guess, at least in some ways.

Also, it is commendable, I believe that this iteration of RoboCop expends the time and energy to showcase what Clara (Abbie Cornish), Murphy’s wife, goes through, following his injury and resurrection.  

She goes through Hell, and it’s the same Hell that so many military families go through in real life. A soldier is catastrophically-wounded, on the verge of death. How do you help him or her? How much do you consider quality of life for the injured vets? How much can technology help?

These are serious questions, and I appreciate that this RoboCop goes further than the original (and its sequels) did in charting this aspect of Murphy’s life.

The performances are all very good, too. Gary Oldman projects decency and humanity as the doctor who tries to make things better, but realizes he has gone too far. Michael Keaton is appropriately asshole-ish as OCP CEO Raymond Sellars, a man used to getting his way, and willing to use the media and the government to get what he wants.  

Joel Kinnaman is fine as Murphy/RoboCop too, but the role still belongs to Peter Weller. With Weller, you got a sense of Alex’s kind of gentle goofiness. Remember him trying to twirl his gun to impress his son? Or racing Lewis to the car, and driving it, his first day on the job, over her objections? 

It’s difficult to put this into words, but even though the new RoboCop gives the character more interaction with his family, and a deeper character arc, it is Weller’s Murphy who somehow seems more truly, legitimately human.  The new Murphy wants to solve cases, and bring people to justice. He’s like a cliché movie cop, dedicated, even as a robot, to bringing in a perp.  The old RoboCop wanted to impress his son, fit in on the job, and be a good cop.  

There’s a measure of difference there that’s worth noting. 

The new film also fails to make an important connection, one that was so vital to the original work of art.  In Verhoeven’s film, Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker were two sides of the same coin: board room thugs, and street thugs. Here, the plot involving the gun-runner Antoine Vallon, doesn’t really connect meaningfully with Sellars and his machinations. The plots are separate, and the Vallon plot doesn’t really go anywhere.

The new RoboCop also seems to have a lot less action in it too. 

One on hand, people could say it is a more mature film than the original was, since it attempts to focus on emotions and character arcs.  

On the other hand, the old film had action and satire -- it was exciting and smart -- so it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t a more fully realized work of art. This RoboCop takes itself very seriously, yet doesn’t  make its commentary stick in anything approaching a memorable or striking way.  

Again, I don’t wish to present the impression that the remake is terrible, or even bad. I’ve watched the film twice now. Once last year, and then again two nights ago, after finishing up the other RoboCop films.  

Clearly, the 2014 film is much better than RoboCop 3 (1993) was. No one in their right mind would argue otherwise. But by eliminating the humor and satirical angle of the series, this RoboCop film feels just as flat as that film did, at least at certain points. 

The story, the performances, the visual effects are all superior, for certain, but this is, no doubt the “Tin Man” version of RoboCop.  

All head. No heart. And certainly no funny bone.

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