Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: RoboCop 2 (1990)

Any viewing of RoboCop 2 (1990) in 2015 is bound to raise one significant question.  

Is this sequel a step further than the original 1987 science fiction film in terms of its embedded social critique, or, quite simply, is it a step too far?

That is the terrain of debate concerning the film and its legacy, and, I must confess, I have been on both sides of the issue over the years.

When I first screened this sequel in theaters when I was twenty or so, I felt that the filmmakers had gone too far with the overt physical violence and gore. The film unsettled and disturbed me, and in my callow youth, that meant I didn’t like it; that something felt wrong about the movie.

On recent re-watch, however, I feel quite the opposite: that RoboCop 2 has actually achieved the near-impossible.

It is a sequel that absolutely honors the anarchic spirit of the original Verhoeven film while delving meaningfully into both the main character’s (Murphy) psychology and the nature of his exaggeratedly pro-business world.

Scenes that once seemed alarmingly graphic and crafted with the intent only to debauch, now stand up as carefully-measured statements about the excesses of a world where money is everything, and decency is on steep decline.

In terms of fidelity to the original film, RoboCop 2 recreates, explicitly, the street crime/board room criminal dynamic and comparison we saw so carefully crafted in Verhoeven’s production. As you may recall, murderer Boddicker and VP Jones in the first film both quipped about “good business” being where you find it. 

This one line of dialogue explicitly connected street level criminals to the untouchable crooks inhabiting corporate offices. They were the same animal. They just wore different clothes, and drew their power from different sources.

RoboCop 2 has a line like that too. It is spoken by both Cain (Tom Noonan), an ambitious and wacko drug dealer, and The Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), CEO of the incredibly powerful OCP.

That line? 

Made in America. We’re going to make that mean something again.”

Accordingly, RoboCop 2 keeps raising the bar in terms of its social commentary. It tackles the supposed crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the rising tide of political correctness from the same era. And it ven makes a final, scorching commentary (and moral conclusion) about the direction of a world run for businessmen by businessmen.

In short, RoboCop 2 is a worthy sequel, and a valid, daring work of art...perhaps more so than most critics -- this one included -- have acknowledged.

“I am a machine, nothing more.”

In Old Detroit, the police are striking again for higher wages, and OCP (Omni Consumer Products) nears the launch of its gentrification project: Delta City.

While the scourge of a new narcotic called “nuke” decimates the poor of Detroit, OCP’s Old Man (O’Herlihy) plots to create a new and updated RoboCop model to patrol the streets, and clean them up. An ambitious executive, Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer) spearheads the search for a new candidate.

Murphy (Peter Weller), meanwhile, has been experiencing old memories of his human life. He has even gone to the home of his former wife and child, attempting to understand from them what he is. Naturally, they are upset to see him, and threaten to sue OCP. 

When confronted by his wife, finally, Murphy is forced (by OCP) to acknowledge that he “just a machine,” not a man. He is property, a product...nothing more.

As Detroit is forced into bankruptcy by OCP, a drug dealer Cain (Noonan) and his youthful associate, Hob (Gabriel Damon) continue to sell their illegal product and make a killing.  RoboCop makes it his mission to stop Cain, but is scuttled by Dr. Faxx, who forces the cyborg obey a new set of directives that serve only to muddy his sense of dedication to law and order.

After Cain is arrested and mortally wounded, the psychotic criminal becomes Dr. Faxx’s candidate for the RoboCop 2 project.

An addict himself, the new cyborg will run on a fuel consisting of nuke.  

And on the day of his unveiling, Cain and RoboCop go to war for the future of Detroit.

“If businessmen can buy our rights, like stock….we don’t realize what we’re losing…”

Directed by Irvin Kershner (1923 – 201), RoboCop 2 intentionally and often amusingly pushes the world-view of RoboCop a step or two further. 

Thus the trappings of OCP here begin to resemble something even more nefarious than big business run amok. Indeed, they begin to resemble famous, historical Nazi symbols; representations of militant fascism on the march.  

Corporatism, of course, is a key element of fascism. In a fascist state, wealthy, private business owners or “job creators” hold all the power while workers are disenfranchised and dis-empowered. They lose the right to collectively bargain and serve at the whim of employers who can do whatever they please, often with the blessing of the state.

Here, specifically, the fearsome new RoboCop 2 dons a head-piece that overtly resembles a Nazi soldier’s helmet, and the Old Man is depicted standing before a giant, wall-sized tapestry of scarlet coloring, like a flag from a Nazi Rally in Berlin.

But instead of featuring a swastika in the middle of that sea of crimson, OCP’s corporate logo is present instead on the tapestry. One ideology of fascism has replaced another. But we recognize this evil by its alternate face, don't we?

As I like to note frequently, designs don’t happen by accident in a film of this size, budget and imagination. Everything you see and detect, down to the last color, down to the last decoration, is present by intent.  So it is safe to establish that RoboCop 2 imagines a world in which right wing extremism takes hold, and, over time, transitions into overt fascism. That slope itself -- being pro-business to fascist -- is part of the film’s debate. 

The Old Man goes from sitting behind a desk that features a photograph of him with a figure who very much resembles President Reagan, to standing before the very Nazi-like tapestry or flag of OCP. 

And no, I am not calling President Reagan a Nazi in any way, shape or form, only noting that one quality of good science fiction involves gazing at the present, and extrapolating from that present a possible (imaginary) future.  

Plenty of science fiction films imagine over-bearing Statism for example (Z.P.G. [1973] is one), but the makers of this franchise considered the eighties and imagined how the policies of Reagan’s America might spin out into this “future” world not of free enterprise, but reckless, out-of-control enterprise. Reagan and his America are thus the starting point for that extrapolation in the RoboCop franchise, and the fascism featured in the sequel is the end point. There’s a line or progression there, and reality is one thing, and RoboCop 2’s imaginings a cautionary tale.

Beyond drawing the connection between laissez-faire economic policy, big business, and a fascist state, this sequel also gets exactly right the anti-science, anti-environment aspect of such a world view. 

In particular, these aspects of the culture emerge in the film's funny TV commercials. This too is a direct hold-over from Verhoeven’s vision: the idea that a corporate controlled media can and will say anything as “happy” news (and as advertisements) so long as the rich stay rich and the poor remain poor.

Here, the anti-environment angle comes out in a story reported on Media Break. There’s been a nuclear disaster in the Amazon, with acres of natural forest destroyed in a firebal.  The journalists report that environmentalists are incensed. 

Leeza Gibbons’ blond anchorwoman replies with a guffaw that environmentalists are always incensed.  In other words, an unsafe nuclear reactor has destroyed one of the great treasures of the planet, but the people who are worthy of derision and blame are those who would seek to protect the environment.

Pesky environmentalists! Damn tree-huggers who care more about the planet than about making money!

Another sequence involves a commercial for Sun Block 5000. The advert begins with a vapid model reporting that “ever since we lost the Ozone…” she can’t sit by the pool in California.  At least not without her sun bock, which comes with a warning that it could cause skin cancer.  

Again, the scene perfectly encapsulates the recklessly pro-business nature of this fictional world. It wasn’t a profitable enterprise, apparently, to save the environment and the Ozone Layer, but it could be profitable to sell a product to protect people from sun rays: Sun Block 5000.  Of course, since business isn’t regulated in this world, that product itself comes with a surgeon general’s warning that it could cause skin cancer.

RoboCop 2 ruthlessly makes the point that nothing in this world can be allowed to stand in the way of making a profit. Not safety, not the environment, not science. And the corporate media is just the delivery boy for the pro-business agenda.

In terms of real-life happenings, RoboCop 2, keys on two crucial historical aspects of the George H.W. Bush Years, 1988 – 1992. The first was the so-called “crack epidemic” of the age. Although statistics suggest that cocaine-related deaths in that span were never even close to tobacco or alcohol-related deaths in terms of numbers, the media nonetheless embarked on a feeding frenzy about a “generation” lost to crack.  President Bush and his wife, Barbara, both mentioned holding “crack babies” during important, televised speeches. The media push was so strong that Americans, when polled, believed the war on drugs was more important than the specter of nuclear war.

The overall impression was that the “crack plague,” as it was known, had infiltrated every aspect of American society, when the truth was far different.  RoboCop 2 takes aim at this crack “epidemic” by focusing on a new narcotic, “nuke,” and making one of its’ key villains, a child; not a crack baby, per se, but a nuke (baby) or dealer, named Hob.  And Hob, of course, is a nickname for the Devil. 

Many critics, including Roger Ebert, were infuriated that RoboCop 2 featured a child as a drug dealer and villain, but again, good sci-fi is about extrapolating from the present.  If the late 1980s gave us crack babies, why not imagine that generation a little older, even more addicted and more dangerous to the fabric of America?  That’s exactly what RoboCop 2 proposes.  And though the child is himself an immoral bastard, RoboCop 2 treats the subplot, and the character with humanity and dignity.  

When Hob -- just a child -- is mortally wounded, RoboCop soothes him, and stays with him. Hob may be a “nuke baby” but he is still a human being, and still a child, and he is very afraid of dying.  RoboCop acts appropriately sympathetic towards him, perhaps because he remembers his own son; perhaps because his “humanity” is still a powerful force dictating his actions.

The second aspect of the culture tackled by RoboCop 2 is political correctness. 

Again, this phrase came into common usage during the first Bush presidency, and concerned the idea that people had to watch their tongues, or “the PC police” would come get them.  

In RoboCop 2, our friendly neighborhood cyborg is outfitted with 200 plus confusing and contradictory directives, the vast majority of which seem to be PC in nature. Now, he must lecture kids about staying in school, or about not smoking.  He is, literally, a manifestation of the PC police. One of his prime directives to avoid "premature value judgement."  Another is "to discourage feelings of negativity and hostility." Imagine operating under such dictates and dealing with hardened criminals at the same time!

If RoboCop 2 can be said to be prophetic in a fashion, it is for its central debate, however, about privatization. It imagines a Detroit that goes bankrupt (and hey, that happened in 2013!), but raises questions about how and why. In this case, OCP tells the same old story of City Hall, a place of “mismanagement and corruption,” while positioning itself as “a responsible private enterprise.

What a nice big -- and real-life -- lie!

The truth is something different. OCP puts a psychotic, stoned nuke-head in the position of protecting and serving the people of Detroit, an absolutely egregious example of mismanagement and corruption.  

But isn’t it odd how society always criticize government for being corrupt and incompetent, while letting big business off the hook for its errors, and simultaneously de-fanging regulations to watch it?  Here, as usual, OCP skates by. The Old Man finds a scapegoat for his errors -- Dr. Faxx -- and moves on trying to destroy the city from another angle. If government has any problem, it is not too many regulations, but a lack of real oversight for bad actors, like big corporations.  But again, corporate media tells us a different story.

In the years since the 1980s, Irvin Kershner’s work in film has become much more highly regarded by film scholars and fans. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is widely considered the best of the original Star Wars films now, and I certainly prefer the humorous, human Never Say Never Again (1983) to the bloated and interminable Thunderball (1965) by a wide margin. Indeed, the most successful Bond film in history, Skyfall (2012) takes a page from Never Say Never Again’s playbook by acknowledging Bond’s advancing age and mortality. 

Kershner's approach is human in another way too: it is funny. One of Robocop 2's opening scenes depicts a crime wave in Old Detroit. A man robs an old woman of her jewels. That man is then robbed of those jewels by several (fierce) prostitutes. And then the prostitutes walk away, and a group of thieves pull up to rob a gun shop on the same street.  These incidents pile up, and so does the violence, but we can laugh at the moment because a bigger fish keeps taking the prize.  

And of course, that's the undercurrent of the entire film. The biggest criminal of all -- the biggest fish -- is OCP, and it plans to buy the entire city, the whole prize, as it were. That idea is captured visually, in microcosm, from this scene of snowballing petty crime on a street level.

Another funny sequence in the film involves the failed RoboCop 2 candidates. They malfunction egregiously and monstrously. These moments are both disgusting (for what was done to innocent human beings) and funny, because of the designs and malfunctions. Once more, Kershner explores a sense of gallows humor, much in keeping with the spirit of the original film, and the always-malfunctioning ED 209.

The Kershner approach -- to acknowledge humanity even in worlds of fantasy and adventure that don’t normally do so --  is the key to this success, and I believe one can see it at work in RoboCop 2.  The film has an abundant number of close-ups of RoboCop (or actually a kind of spfx puppet of RoboCop).  His face fills the screen many times.

Why?  Not just to showcase good special effects, but to reveal his agony, his pain.  

And in that pain, we register the character’s humanity. 

One crucial scene showcases a meeting with Murphy's wife, and throughout the scene, the two are separated by a chain-link fence.  We see both figures in close-up, but they can't touch each other. Technology (the fence...) separates them in the same way that technology has created RoboCop and separated Murphy from his family.

As was the case in RoboCop, it is the human tragedy -- the story of RoboCop himself -- that truly resonates here. Here, thanks to the Kershner aesthetic, we gain insight into his psychological pain, felt because he is separated from his family. We see how much it hurts him not to be fully human, but to anchored nonetheless to these human desires and emotions.

And we also get a scene that I (personally) found difficult to watch, and which plays, essentially, as a high-tech crucifixion. RoboCop walks into a trap, and Cain dismembers him a piece at a time.  He is ripped apart.  Literally.

The message is plain: RoboCop may be part machine, but he feels pain both emotional and physical.  

That fact, gives Murphy something in common with the rest of humanity. The film’s last scene acknowledges this fact, when Murphy notes that “we” (meaning Lewis and him) are “only human.”  

When I first saw the film, I felt the line was a pat throwaway. Screening the film this time, I registered instead that RoboCop had come to grapple in the film with something very human: his pain. 

And what did he learn? 

Not how to overcome his pain. But the mere fact of it. Since he could feel pain, he still possessed that spark of the human…a soul.

RoboCop 2 is a sequel I never thought I would champion so vociferously, but today -- with the culture moved further down that slippery slope towards corporatism -- it is easy to see how the film explored brave and ambitious directions, and also added a meaningful chapter to Murphy’s quest to reclaim his humanity.

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