Saturday, September 1, 2012

the future has a silver lining

With its specific 1980s Cold War allegorical bent (but yet still relevant today), Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi romp Robocop remains a startling send-up of American violence, media and corporate corruption.  It's startling mainly because of its format -- nosiy, boyish blockbuster -- and like most complex film satires, it embraces what it mocks (violence and non-subtlety).  An enterprise, Omni Consumer Products, plans to gentrify crime-plagued "Old Detroit" and metamorphose it into "Detla City." After a droid ("the future of law enforcement" / "hot military product") malfunctions in a board meeting, in the movie's first big shootout (filled with chunky gore), a dead cop Murphy (Peter Weller) is revamped into Robocop, a gun-toting cyborg created to rid the city of its crime and relieve the burden of an overtaxed police unit once and for all.  In the presence of his former partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), Robocop/Murphy begins to remember his former self and gathers information to hunt down his killer and also his mercenary megacorp creator.

Robocop is rife with in-jokes and black comedy.  It opens with a TV-viewer POV scene of newscasters with warm smiles relaying dire events of the world (the prescene of Leeza Gibbons reminded me of the Don Henley "Dirty Laundry" lyric: "she can tell you about the plane crash / with a gleam in her eye") and a creepy commercial pitching corporate-owned artificial hearts. The brilliance of these two TV set pieces establishes the tongue-in-cheek, unsettling mood of the film and its thematic motifs: the inharmonious coexistence of humans and also human (and masculinity) and machine ("the silver lining").  It's a bleak movie but it's also a lot of fun to watch, as it moves quick from one scene to the next, smoothly edited by Frank J. Urioste, who earned an Academy Award nomination, and energetically filmed by Jost Vocano, with its tracking shots and menacing low-camera angles.  There are impressive moments inter-laden in Robocop's static-laced TV-vision, especially when he travels back to Primrose Lane and recalls his family (his son watches a violent 'TJ Lazer' cop show on television) while stalking the barren rooms of the mod-1980s house, with its glossy black fireplace, cold white walls and detritus (a broken 'World's Best Husband cup' in the kitchen and photos with burned edges--likely destroyed by Murphy's wife in grief).  As the real estate agent (a head in a boob tube) extols the house's virtues, the scene moves seamlessly through flashback and present.  In the flashbacks,  the performers of the son and wife deliver an eerie, heightened commercial-style of acting.  I distinctly remember this style from the overload of relentlessly chipper 80s ads I saw as a kid; in the movie, Verhoeven spoofs this and war-culture in his commercial for the family board game "Nukem."

It's a man's world in Robocop and nearly all the men in the film are schemers and villians (Clarence played with cartoonish menace by Kurtwood Smith is the creepiest).  Allen, as the tough, gum-popping partner, is one of the film's few female characters, and is refreshingly non-romanticized, and also the most humanistic.  British psychoanalysis Darian Leader describes the movie as a study in man and machine: "his son always insists, before the transformation, that his human father perform the gun spinning trick he sees on TV. When the robot can finally do this properly, he is no longer just a male biological body: he is a body plus machinery, a body which includes within it the symbolic circuitry of science. Old heroes had bits of metal outside them (knights), but modern heroes have bits of metal inside them. To be a man today thus involves this kind of real incorporation of symbolic properties."  When Robocop uncovers his helmet and sees his face within a broken piece of mirror, we see the "metal inside" him and the movie itself. The film is dependent on male-infused violence to be entertaining for its intended audience.  Originally it was rated 'X' but then cut down and was a subsequent box office success in 1987. The yuppie boardrooms in sleek glass towers seem to me  an ironic statement not just on 1980s corporate culture but also Hollywood. I was reminded, too, how a movie is simply, like Robocop himself, "a product" but a product full of interesting paradoxes and themes.  *** 

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