- Robocop’s ranking on the Oldometer: 4/10
- Gary Oldman character quality: Dr. Norton is not the best-written character of all time, but he fares better than most of Oldman’s latest supporting roles, and turns out to be essentially the protagonist of the movie.
- Does Gary die in this one? No.
Robocop is one of the few Gary Oldman movies in recent years that slipped under my radar upon its release. I recall it coming out and I believe I had intentions to see it, but I was living in a small town in North Dakota at the time, where my options were limited. It was a land devoid of multiplexes for a hundred miles in each direction, and had a good deal in common with outer space: in Dickinson, North Dakota, no one can hear you scream… about not being able to see the latest Wes Anderson movie. Also, that is the snobbiest, most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said, and I apologize. To get to the point, basically, if a movie didn’t have the privilege of making it to one of our town’s three screens, I probably wasn’t going to get around to seeing it, and unless it starred Mark Wahlberg, teen vampires, or hobbits, it wasn’t going to be rolling into town.
In fact, if you wanted the chance to see anyone on the big screen aside from Marky Mark, you would find yourself headed on a road trip to Bismarck, about an hour’s drive away. As someone who once hailed from Los Angeles, the land of cinematic prosperity, this was one of the hardest adjustments for me to make. Going to the movies had long been a hobby and a means of relaxation for me, and while I loved the sense of adventure that my life up North provided, it was uncomfortable for me to part with that luxury. However, a few months into my first summer in the Badlands, I had a magical conversation with a young friend of mine, and he helped me to reframe my perspective.
He and I worked nights at a nursing home facility together, and he made me laugh so hard I cried at least 3 times a shift. We became fast friends in a weird way; each of us were fascinated by the other’s background which was so different from our own. He had lived in Dickinson his whole life while I had done nothing but move myself from state to state. Usually, after punching out of our shared shifts at about 5 in the morning, we would burn off our remaining energy by driving around town, talking about North Dakota and watching the sun come up. On this particular morning he treated me to a fine selection of donuts (I don’t always eat donuts, but when I do, they have sprinkles on them), and I complained about how hard it was for a cinephile to hack it in a small town. He smiled in that loopy way that exhausted-yet-wired people do at 5 in the morning and told me something like “But isn’t that the great thing? For most people, going to see a movie they’re excited about is no big deal, but for us, if we want to see something it becomes an event. You travel an hour each way to see a movie you’re pumped about, like people did in the olden days. It becomes special.”
I’m not sure what he meant by “olden days” (The 90’s? Victorian times? It’s hard to say with this kid), but the heart of what he had said rang true: one way of reminding yourself of a treasure’s value is to keep it at a reverent distance. Once you’re driving an hour to see Bridesmaids, for example, you have a lot of time to anticipate settling in for a laugh, and on the way back you have plenty of space to reflect on how much you enjoyed yourself. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, but it also makes reunion that much more exciting.
After my initial evaluation of the film not being worthy of that treatment, I didn’t expect much this weekend when I curled up to watch RoboCop for the first time. In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised. Robocop (2014) is a remake (or is it a reboot?) of the cyber-punk classic of the same name, released in 1987, the year I was born. I’m sure that I included the original movie in my sweep of the 80’s/early 90’s sci-fi classics when I was 14 or so, but it’s hard to remember anything about it when juggernauts like Alien, The Terminator, and especially Blade Runner take up my memory storage for that genre. I recall (I’m trying so hard not to add a “total” to that somehow for the sake of a Paul Verhoeven gag) that the movie was entertaining, but I don’t think I could make an accurate comparison between that and the remake, though I am fairly certain that the ’87 version had a sense of humor. In contrast, this ’14 version relies on its sole grim chuckles to be delivered by a lone Samuel L. Jackson, who probably knocked all of his scenes out in a day, playing a fired-up All American media mogul with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek action going on. Otherwise, the movie is stone-cold serious, which is sometimes to its detriment. It’s called Robocop, guys. Chill.
Aside from that and a baffling lack of memorable action sequences (again… it’s called Robocop, guys), I found the movie enjoyable enough. For those who don’t know, it’s about a Good Cop with little in the way of a real personality who gets blown to bits by some corrupt guys who don’t want him on their case, and a powerful business man, played by Michael Keaton, who must find a way for his company to install drone law enforcement in the US, after having success with the drone movement in other countries. The American public finds a robot’s lack of empathy and emotion disturbing when it comes to problem-solving (see: preventing deaths) so the government is resistant about allowing Keaton’s company to do its thing. But Keaton comes up with a brilliant idea: a human/robot hybrid.
Bridging the gap here is Gary Oldman as Dr. Norton, the scientist who creates robotic, prosthetic limbs for amputees. He wants his work to flourish, and sees his agreement to help save a good cop’s life and give the man a functioning robot-body as an advancement of a decent cause. The pleasant surprise about this remake is that Dr. Norton turns out to be the main character, a good guy who is dedicated to his work but so under the thumb of The Big Corporation that he begins to crumble under the pressure to protect his investor’s interests. Oldman, as usual, makes something compelling out of a character that might’ve otherwise been bland, and uses subtlety with a dash of the classic Oldman flair to display something very real amidst the whiz-bang of a sci-fi thriller. In Dr. Norton we witness the slow-burn effect of corruption on an intelligent, well-intentioned man.
The movie is NOT subtle, however, when it comes to its message: Big Business is ruthless and uses fear-mongering to make money; we must all choose compassion and value human life and individualism above capitalism and utilitarianism. Fair enough. Early on, Oldman-as-Norton tells a patient with robotic arms and hands that he must keep his emotions at bay in order for his parts to be functional, and that is also the whole point of a robocop as well– but in the end, that is the downfall. As the story unfolds, Michael Keaton, character actor extraordinaire appearing here as the stand-in for Horrible Bosses everywhere, does his best to threaten life as we know it by selling the world what he says is an efficient and incorruptible means of law enforcement, but we know that his chief interest is control. Along with his cronies, played by the militarized but still bizarrely watchable Jackie Earle Haley, the forever young Jennifer Ehle whose one memorable moment in the film is scoffing at the idea of the human soul, and Jay Baruchel who spends the whole movie doing some kind of weird James Cagney impression, Keaton’s character pushes his business-minded agenda so hard that one begins to think he may even be lying to himself about his own hunger for power.
Keaton commands poor, thoughtful Dr. Norton to take away more and more of Robocop’s human traits in order to make him a credit to the company, and Norton is both flattered by the trust that rests on his shoulders and stressed out by the weight of it. Dr. Norton not only creates a robot-body for this Good Cop’s head/brain and lungs (the only parts of him that remain. Oh, and his hand. He still has a human hand. They keep the hand? How is his hand not destroyed while the rest of him is? I have many questions), Norton also talks his Frankenstein Monster out of euthanasia, detracts Robo’s agency for decision-making in order to pass evaluations, and, eventually, subtracts his dopamine levels down to 2% so that Robo will not appear unstable or flush with emotion (“two percent!” Norton’s thankless female assistant cries in anguish, as if her local drug emporium sold out of whole milk that day).
Once his human automaton defies science and the manipulation of his puppeteers by manually boosting his dopamine and going freelance while he takes down some crooked cops and would-be murderers, Dr. Norton is even called upon to keep Robo’s wife, played by a very Charlize Theron-esque Abbie Cornish, away from her hubby, lest she fluster and distract him even more from his robo-work. Doesn’t Keaton have someone in HR or something to handle that stuff? However, Norton can only talk himself into so much as he observes his creation reinventing his own consciousness and reconstructing his emotional life. In the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, life, uh, finds a way.
It’s a funny thing that a focal point of Robocop is self-awareness, as I struggle to think of the last movie I saw that was quite this– for lack of a better word– meta. The villains in RoboCop demand that Robo’s agency be removed so that he can function as they see fit, etc, and meanwhile the movie parades in front of us a host of not only stellar character actors, which are generally unappreciated as a species, but all of them with one thing in common: around the time of the original film’s release, each of these actors were nearing their “prime” or already seeing it pass them by.
In 1988, Keaton appeared in Beetlejuice and followed it up with his star turn as Batman in 1989, only to eventually see that star fade in the mid-90’s (until his recent, triumphant return, of course), while Jackie Earle Haley (Bad News Bears) had already seen fame posse out in the 80’s after his big splash as a child star in the late 70’s. Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), though endowed with probably the most stable career out of this bunch, has long been typecast and was generally denied lead roles following his emergence as a household name (shame, when you get ahold of his great work in Black Snake Moan etc). Jennifer Ehle, anchor of the defining 30-hour Pride and Prejudice marathon that all the Austen snobs really like (the one with the Mr. Darcy wet-blouse contest), would also see her star rise and dim in the early 90’s. Including Gary, who scored leading roles starting in 1986 and yet found himself scraping the bottom of the movie-role barrel in the late 90’s, all of these actors have known what it is like to attempt reinvention with varying results. I’m not sure if this casting was intentional, but if it was, I think it deserves praise. Not only is this an assemblage of a quality, underrated cast, but their presence helps pose the question: are the riches of the past worth reviving?
Like the character of Robo himself, Gary, Michael, and the rest of the gang are stand-outs in their field, no longer merely good actors but now with an edge to them and a baggage-cart full of experience. Due not only to their work as thespians, but their familiarity with Hollywood, the dubiousness of fame, and the line of Oscar statuettes that prance just out of their reach, each of these cast members has value that exceeds this frothy remake of a Verhoeven movie (to put things in perspective, this is the director of Showgirls we’re talking about).
It feels almost impossibly perfect, then, that this cast should find themselves in a film about a celebrated professional who is forced to attempt reincarnation as an all-new being, complete with a personality that can be manipulated as his directors see fit. The fact that this RoboCop is a reimagining of a popular classic just adds another layer of delicious cognizance to this meta-cake. It’s an outing that flat-out makes no pretense about coming at you from the past, but it also, gosh darnit, really wants your approval. Like any big budget movie, it needs your permission to entertain, and your money to justify its existence. If it manages both of these gains, it may claim to be successful at giving “faded” treasures a fresh sparkle.
Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle and Gary Oldman are a dream team. Clearly, not a one on this list is suffering from lack of work or talent. However, when I see a cast like that tossing just-okay dialog at one another, I wish it were more satisfying for all of us. Ultimately, all of these character actors are settling for simply being included. RoboCop may be a decent enough action movie, but will we remember it in a couple more years? Was it worth anyone’s time?
Worthy or not, now is the time for 80’s-90’s remakes/reboots to flourish because there’s nothing the current American public craves more than the satiation of our nostalgia; look up Fuller House and the upcoming remakes of The Craft and She’s All That, should you doubt me. Millennials are coming into power at present, and I think I speak for my people when I say we are not just any nostalgia junkies– we are junkfood nostalgia junkies. Our nonsense fondness for cheap and stupid things, just due to the fact that we miss our childhoods (which, let’s face it, probably weren’t all that great), has created a demand for a new level of recycled art; the cinematic equivalent of a more expensive yet lesser-quality selection of butterfly clips because remember when we were preteens and those were fun? My generation is one that longs not for things of The Past but OF OUR OWN PAST. We don’t even go all the way backwards to glean forgotten knowledge. We just go on loop.
We’ve done this to ourselves. By all means keep your memories close to your heart, but how about also seeing yesteryear for what it was and moving on? Maybe thanks to the ubiquitousness of cold technology it has become harder to create our own happiness and the past seems so much warmer, but, love or hate the present state of bankable creativity, our art may gradually sink under a pile of constant revision until it is rendered unidentifiable.
Just like a robot-dude with a single hand and a set of lungs, maybe we need to learn to let go of the past and build with the tools we have in front of us. In the case of RoboCop, I’d say that means refraining from forcing a group of fine artists to battle for relevance. Of course, this movie is utterly harmless and not every film has to be a masterpiece, but if there’s anything to be learned from this recycled (and admittedly fun) popcorn flick, maybe it’s that so long as a human being lives, they have value, so why not utilize that value and push forward with new ideas and artistry. We would all benefit; from the viewer at home who deserves something worthy to engage her mind in, to, say, Gary Oldman in his little round spectacles who probably deserves better lines than the following: “Aleeeeeeeex! ALEX! Alex. Alex! Alex! ALEEEEX CAN YOU HEAR ME? Alex! Alex! Alex! Alex, no!” (Clearly he cannot hear you, Gary, or he probably would have mentioned it by now).
If there’s one thing I learned from my stupidly painful separation from the convenience of modern movie theaters, it’s that the old adage about “absence making the heart grow fonder” rings very true. It’s okay to feel pangs of nostalgia for the 80’s, the 90’s, your childhood, or how distant and futuristic humanoid robots once seemed to be, but if we continue to wear what we miss like a coat or second skin, eventually it will fall apart and become lost in what should have been our present.