Some Thoughts on RoboCop

by A. A. Matin

MV5BMTk1MDUzMTQ3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDAwNTk0NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_I was never a big fan of the movie Robocop. That is sacrilege to some.  I saw the movie when I was sixteen.  For a long time I think my distaste was because I expected a straight-ahead action film.  But instead I got “social commentary.” But that never rested well with me.  I usually love films that have a subtext, like how Dawn of the Dead is an allegory for Mass Consumerism.  Or Star Wars is a parallel for the Vietnam War.  But a closer inspection of the film as an adult and I realized why I felt the way I did.  The social commentary isn’t very good.  The car is named the SUX 6000.  I get it!  It sucks!  Is that really funny?  Also the film is outdated.

The original RoboCop was clearly written by adults who were not part of youth culture.  For example,  the first parody commercial we see is for the “Family Heart Center” where a doctor says, “We feature the complete Jarvik line.”  The movie was released in 1987.  Dr. Jarvik and his artificial heart was last news in 1983.  Four years is nothing to an adult.  But to a youngster like I was at the time – that was a quarter of my life!  These relatively recent references would never stand the test of time.

maxresdefaultAnd there’s a later ad for a game called Nukem!  It’s a board game about nuclear war.  But once again it was not new.  In fact it was backwards.  Nukem was a board game version of the video game Missile Command.  A game that was first released back in 1980 (obviously the writers did not spend time in arcades)!  Ironically, one of the film’s taglines is “The Future of Law Enforcement.”  But I guess the filmmakers didn’t know that board games were becoming the past and that video was the future of gaming.  And there was no particularly clever twist on any of the “breaking news” inserts to show the absurdist nature of it: the STI misfires and burns Santa Barbara, a power failure causes the President to experience weightlessness aboard a space station.  Big fucking deal!  

The very first news story says the ruling white military government of South African reveals that they have a French Neutron Bomb and will use it as their last line of defense.  Since the popular idea of a “French Neutron Bomb” is that it kills people and leaves the infrastructure in tact… and this story is set in a technologically advanced future… how about a new Neutron Bomb that only kills black people.  And the South African government detonated it – only to have it not work properly and it obliterated the entire nation.  Now that would be outrageous.

maxresdefault-1When I saw the remake, I liked that they did away with these commercials and attempts at satire.  It was a straight-ahead Science Fiction and action film like I expected back in the eighties.  However the attempted satire, no matter how bad, was one of the things most people remembered about the original.  Removing part of the essential nature of the original turned fans against the remake.  Additionally, the remake suffered from another elemental problem.  It told essentially the same story as the original.  Robocop overcomes his programming, takes his revenge on the people who “killed” him the first time and reaffirms his identity as Alex Murphy and ergo regains his humanity.  The studio wanted a franchise.  But where do you go from there?  

In the original film RoboCop asks his partner, “Murphy had a wife and son.  What happened to them?”  Lewis tells him that she thought he was dead and moved away and started over.  RoboCop replies, “I can feel them.  But I can’t remember them.” So what do they do in the sequel?  RoboCop drives by his former wife’s house and spies on them.  She sues OCP.  One of their lawyers says to RoboCop, “Do you think you could ever be a husband to her?  I mean, what can you offer her?  Companionship?  Love?  A man’s love?”  Murphy realizes the futility of his emotions the lawyer gets him to admit that he is no longer Alex Murphy and not human.  RoboCop then sees his former wife and says to her, “They made this to honor him.  Your husband is dead.  I don’t know you.”  How can you care about him as a character and want to follow his story when he treats his wife that way?  They had to undo the point of the first film in order to have RoboCop keep being a cop and have further adventures.


In the remake, they made the wife and child a part of the story.  She okays his transformation into RoboCop in order to keep him alive.  She is still married to him.  However OCP keeps her and their son from seeing Alex.  In the climax, Murphy overcomes his programming to protect his wife and child and the movie ends with them finally meeting him for the first time as a cybernetic organism.  And therein lies the rub.  The problem is that the story of RoboCop is essentially a tragedy.  He can regain his identity, but not his life.  He can’t share a bed with his wife.  A mostly robotic father playing catch with his son is more pathetic and sad than heart warming.  Once you tell the story of his regaining his free will and humanity and hunting down the people who originally took his life away – there is no more story to tell.  The logical evolution is Alex getting his life back.  But that can never be.

MV5BMjAyOTUzMTcxN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjkyOTc1MDE@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_So how do you keep the franchise going?  Well RoboCop was created to fight street crime by the Omni Corporation.  Like most corporations, they don’t care about right and wrong or doing a public service.  All they care about is profits.  As Dick Jones said in the original film, “I had a guaranteed military sale with Ed-209; renovation program, spare parts for 25 years.  Who cares if it worked or not?”  Not too dissimilar the attitude from GM and their faulty ignition switches.  Malcolm Gladwell gave a great talk once where he talks about how all great entrepreneurs and capitalists have a sense of amorality about them.  All they care about is their business.  They will exploit workers or get into bed with horrible governments if that is what it takes for the business to thrive.  

The next evolution of that is from amoral to immoral.  Dick Jones kills a co-worker who disrespected him.  Why?  Because he could.  To that end, OCP put in a directive that RoboCop cannot arrest an officer of the company.  In the original he never overcomes this immoral piece of programming.  In the remake, he just barely is able to – just barely.  So RoboCop regains his identity, but does he really regain his morality?  His ethics?  The moral compass he had as a human?  And ergo does he regain his humanity without them?  Once again, how can you root for him as a hero?  In an age of income inequality, it is clear that the evil is not the mugger on the street.  It is the corporations that create the economic environment for poverty to thrive.

Joel Kinnaman, left, and Gary Oldman star in Columbia Pictures' "Robocop."

Joel Kinnaman, left, and Gary Oldman star in Columbia Pictures’ “Robocop.”

So here’s an idea… Robocop needs to become like Robin Hood.  Alex Murphy’s organic brain is powerful enough to overcome the computer programming and he regains his free will and human sense of morality.  He breaks free from the control of OCP and as a result is forced into the position of a fugitive on the run.  Just like Dr. Richard Kimble in the original TV series of The Fugitive.  He is on the run from the cops, the FBI, and OCP.  But his moral compass forces him to help people in need when and where he can.  All the while he knows that his wife and son are in potential danger while he is out there.  RoboCop re-writes his own program and becomes a Corporate Cop.  CEOs and wealthy people commit crimes and get away.  So RoboCop acts as their judge, jury and executioner where the government won’t.  He hunts down douchebag CEO’s, corporate raiders, and the like.  This is a great way to add back the satire and “social commentary” of the first movie.  For example, lets say RoboCop finds out about a young guy like Martin Shrkeli who buys a drug company and raises the price of a life saving drug by 5000%.  He finds out that this guy is a playboy who likes to sleep with lots of women.  So does RoboCop shoot him in the face?  No.  

3656377-robocop_110616RoboCop corners him and snips off the head of his penis – only the head.  He leaves the testicles alone so his body still produces testosterone and he has normal male sexual desires.  And he leaves the shaft so he can still have coitus.  But without the head of his penis, it will be nearly impossible for him to ever have an orgasm and he is forced to live the rest of his life with Blue Balls.  That is his punishment for being a douchebag.  Lower the price back to a reasonable rate or the next time you see me, you will die.  That’s outrageous!  CEO’s become afraid of getting punished or killed by RoboCop such that many start insourcing jobs, stop trying to break unions, treat customers with more respect.  As a result all these companies see increases in productivity and ultimately gains in profits.  But they don’t care.  It’s not about money.  It’s about being in control.  So they still want RoboCop destroyed.  They buy political will to keep the police and FBI and even hired assassins on his tail and track him down before he makes another One-per center pay in some crazy and tortuous way.  

Call me crazy, but that sounds like something I would want to see.  That sounds like something that could be played out for a few movies before getting stale.  The Fugitive milked this premise for 120 hours of Television.  The tale of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is over 350 years old.  And isn’t that what we really want the future of law enforcement to be?

Birdman: Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is Phenomenal

by Erik Harty

Birdman-1Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a phenomenal film.  Written and directed by the lesser-known Alejandro González Iñárittu, it finds its life very much in the technical magic behind the scenes.  It is made to look like it is one continuous shot until the end of the movie, where some obvious hard cuts take place. But was it actually one continuous shot?  Absolutely not.  There are dramatic shifts in setting and time, not to mention the insanity of trying to choreograph every single moving part for nearly two straight hours.  So no, the film is not one single shot. Rather, it is a magical tapestry, woven together by the magic of clever cinematography, solid editing, and polished visual effects.

As an aspiring editor, I thoroughly enjoy learning about the inner-workings of the post-production process.  I love hearing editors, colorists, sound mixers, and visual effects artists discuss their work and the very specific decisions they made during their time with a particular film.  In the case of Birdman, the editors have actually kept a lot of their “secrets” to themselves, but that doesn’t mean their work can’t be dissected from the outside.  


When examining the film to find its edits, one of the things that immediately struck me were the interior/exterior transitions.  At many places throughout the film, a character will be moving from indoors to outdoors, or from one room to another through a doorway.  Often times, the camera pushes in to fill the frame with the character’s back or the area around the doorway is so dark that the frame is briefly entirely dark.  Assuming that lighting and color are consistent, a cut can be placed unnoticeably at the point where the frame is completely dark.  This particular method is very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), where he attempted to make a continuously shot film, but was limited by the amount of film that a camera could hold.  To hide the cuts, he had the camera push in to fill the frame with someone’s back.  Fortunately for Iñárittu, technology has progressed enormously since Hitchcock’s time.  The other two methods of hiding Birdman’s cuts require a little more post-production magic.

birdman_movie_stillThe first of these two methods is dramatically simpler than the second.  Known as “whip” or “swish” pans, these cuts find their strength in movement.  They work by cutting on the action, where the action is blurred because of fast camera movement.  The effect is further improved by using a frame rate near the cinematic standard of 24 frames per second.  Often times, a well-executed whip pan can even provide an unnoticeable transition between two completely different settings, so a discreet transition between two shots in the same setting is very feasible.  Birdman utilizes this technique all over the place, which actually helps add some energy to the film, in addition to its function as a transition.

birdman-emma-stone-changing-room-xlargeThe final technique used to mask transitions in Birdman is really more of a category than it is a specific technique.  “Visual effects” is a broad term than can mean a whole lot of things, but in the context of the cuts in this film, it refers to a method of smoothing transitions.  In some cases, such as the small number of exterior shots that showcase the transition from night to day, the effects are more akin to a very complex dissolve.  In other cases, they may add some extra blur to a whip pan to make it more believable.  Depending on the situation, they may even be a reanimation of some aspect of a cut that makes it almost unnoticeable.  Some might consider this category cheating, since it wasn’t how the film was originally shot, but it certainly rounds out the continuous feel of the movie.

Birdman-5Ultimately, I love Birdman because the unique way that it was shot and edited contributes significantly to the film.  It isn’t made to look like a continuous shot just for the sake of being different.  Rather, the continuous, almost dreamlike flow of the framing assists in characterizing this chapter of Riggan Thomson’s life as confused, dazed, and lost.  Birdman is a film worth viewing for its success in accomplishing a technical feat, but more importantly, for how its technical feat contributes to the overall character of the movie.