Monday, March 9, 2015

Robocop, How I Would Write It

The Brilliant Very Good Original

Robocop is not my favorite Verhoeven film, but it's a film I like a lot: you can watch it naively as a simple tale of man vs. machine, of the corrupting influence of capitalism, of--Wait, did I say that was the naive way to watch it? Let's start over.

Here's a classic, simple tale: a man falls into some pit, but then crawls his way back up. We cheer. That pit takes many forms, whether it's an internal character flaw (like greed or anger) or an external situation (like... a pit).

At its most basic, Verhoeven's Robocop is a pit story: a man falls into a pit--cop Murphy gets shot up and then re-made as a cyborg without a name, a cog in a corporate machine who can't even do his job (arrest criminals) because of corporate corruption; but by the end, that cyborg cop (OK, fine: robocop) crawls his way out of the pit, reclaiming his name and his humanity.

(Also, getting his vengeance, the classic American story of regeneration through revenge.)

(Also also: his revenge is entirely mediated by the corporate structure since he only takes revenge on the corporate criminal when that guy gets fired by someone even higher up on the corporate food-chain. But for a moment, pretend this paragraph doesn't exist.)

So, it's a fine story at the man-vs-pit level.

On top of that, screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner build a story about unrestrained capitalism, which reaches its apotheosis in the owning of people, either in the form of addiction (the drug trade is the highest form of consumerism here) or in the literal owning of people's bodies (as with Murphy being property).

And then, on top of that, Verhoeven adds (or embraces) a certain tone of louche skepticism. I'm not entirely sure what I mean by "louche skepticism," but I like it as a phrase. No, I do know what I mean: as friend Jason points out in his blog post, Verhoeven makes everything so gloriously over-the-top that it's hard to miss the satire here.

(Then again, when Starship Troopers came out, I said the same thing--and lots of people missed it.)

But really, when a drug-dealer comments on how drug-dealing is the highest form of capitalism, there's not a lot of subtext going on there. At that point, it's just text.

The Rather Hollow Remake

I just finished the remake and... I'm not really sure I could tell you what it's about. There's Alex Murphy, who, again, is a good cop turned into a product. There's the big corporation that makes robots/drones for war overseas and wants to start using them here. There's the blow-hard TV personality with a definite bias. There's the doctor with the heart of gold. There's the widow/wife and the partner of Alex-cum-RoboCop. There's some of the same goddamn lines, like "Dead or alive, you're coming with me."

And about that particular line: goddamn it, people, in the original that line was a way to show that RoboCop retained some of Murphy's personality, which was a little cowboyish (That line and the gun-twirling are both used as proof that RoboCop was Murphy; and as proof that Murphy is an old-style American, a no-nonsense frontier-tamer. That description comes with a big old wink by Verhoeven.) In the 2014 version, that line is repurposed--Murphy is now describing himself as "Dead or alive" as opposed to describing the criminal--which is cute, but has no real purpose other than to remind the audience that this is a reboot. It doesn't add up to anything.

That's the big problem with the remake: it's flashier than the original, but there's a certain sense of hollowness here.

Fix It, Felix Ben!

RoboCop in 1987 was science fiction satire, with deadly robots and private cops and corporate crime. In 2014, we call that reality.

So why remake RoboCop? How can the general frame of this story--man vs. corporate machine that he's become--help tell a good story, illuminate our moment, and, oh yeah, make a killing at the box office?

(RoboCop 2014 was made for 100-130$ and made 240$, which is respectable, around 200% return. RoboCop 1987 was made for 13$ and made 54$--a 400% return. Which would you rather have?)

First, screw all that ridiculousness about the political opponents of the robots having power. It generates some motivation for the corporation to use RoboCop as a mascot, but it waters down the real conflict. Ditto the media issue with Samuel L. Jackson's TV blowhard: it's not that interesting because it doesn't tell us anything we don't know about the world or take the story anywhere new.

Second, corrupt cops are boring; a broken policing system is interesting. (Did we learn nothing from The Wire?)

Third, what's interesting about this story to you (screenwriter, director, producer)? Verhoeven's RobcCop is clearly Verhoeven's work: the story may be pretty ordinary man-and-his-pit core, but there's all of Verhoeven's usual issues on top of it.

RoboCop 2014 could almost be the work of anyone because there's nothing that really distinguishes it; it's a little bloodless. If you're going to remake a movie, make it something you're interested in.

(Hollow, bloodless--thanks, filmmakers, for making a movie where the central metaphor maps perfectly onto the critique of the film.)

My RoboCop

I'm not going to write a reboot of RoboCop 1987 (and this post is already way too long), but here's some things I would want to think about going in to write or pitch on this project:

  1. corporations and patent-trolling; 
  2. intellectual property; 
  3. race-class inequality in policing; 
  4. drones and the psychological cost of distant war; 
  5. augmented reality and tech popularity; 
  6. corporate-political cooperation; 
  7. neverending war.

There's a couple different ways to go with this constellation of issues. (And you might disagree that these are, in fact, the useful issues to be discussing; in which case, please tell me about your version of RoboCop.) But at its heart, RoboCop is a man-vs-pit story, where that pit tends to be marked as corporate capitalist organizations, like drug cartels and corporations. It's about a man regaining a sense of self through fighting a conspiracy. It's an underdog story (with a massively armed and armored underdog).

So here's one version: I call it, A Boy and his RoboCop.

The military-industrial complex keeps pumping out drones for war overseas; and then needing to dump the older models so they can keep pumping out newer versions. As in our world, this ex-military gear finds its way into the hands of the police forces--and maybe the criminals. (Though as we've seen, arming the police is pretty terrifying all by itself.) A damaged police drone starts acting erratically, going AWOL to discover its original home, now occupied by a small homeless child who might or might not be the child of the drone's original brain. Ah, because (dun dun dun) these drones are built around dead veterans. Something something apathetic cop, good cop, damaged cop.

(Note: this wouldn't work as a RoboCop pitch since, going into RoboCop, the audience knows that he's man and machine. So we couldn't have that "human brain in a jar" as a revelation. Still, I'd rather watch this movie than the one I did watch.)

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