RoboCop (2014)

2018 #151
José Padilha | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

RoboCop

This reboot of the popular sci-fi/action satire wasn’t received too warmly on its release back in 2014, but nonetheless I’d been vaguely meaning to watch it (just because every high-profile sci-fi/action-y kind of movie goes on my back-burner). Then, after the news earlier this year that Neil Blomkamp had signed on to direct a new sequel to the ’87 original, I saw a fair few people say this reboot was actually quite good; that it only suffered due to comparisons with an original that’s a beloved genre classic. So I watched it, and, well, those people were being too kind.

The year is 2028, and mega-corporation OmniCorp have transformed warfare with their robot soldiers. Keen to deploy the same product as domestic law enforcement but blocked by legislation, they instead develop a proposal for a cyborg police officer — all the physical benefits of a machine, but controlled by the mind of a man. When Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is fatally injured in the line of duty, they have the perfect candidate; but they haven’t anticipated the emotional toll the procedure will take on its subject… So, it’s broadly the same plot as before, then. Well, it is a remake.

I wasn’t actually a huge fan of the original — I didn’t dislike it, but in my review I did say I thought it’d had its day and the idea of a remake was fine because “the concept’s a good’un and could withstand a refresh.” I stand by that assertion, I just don’t think this remake is a very good film. Reportedly the screenplay was based on an unfinished draft from 1985, which was commissioned by director Paul Verhoeven when he was considering making the film more serious. After reading that draft he realised he was wrong, returning to the original idea of “humour and brutal satire on the corporate future.” To put it another way: this film is based on a serious/humourless screenplay that was rejected because it wasn’t as good, rather than the one that was made and which garnered all the praise and fans and everything. What a bright idea.

Machine man

It’s clear that the writers (whoever they are — there were numerous uncredited rewrites) have serious things on their mind, with the film touching on various topical issues — overseas wars, prosthetics, murderous law enforcement — but instead of satirising them it mostly wants to take them seriously. There is a bit of satire left (Samuel L. Jackson ranting away as a commentator on a Fox News-esque TV network), but it lacks anything deeper than surface spoofery. Primarily, I think the film wants to say something about corporate America — about big business being above the law, and indeed manipulating politicians to set the law — but it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful on that subject. Indeed, I think my previous sentence summed up all of the film’s points on the matter. And that’s annoying because, now more than ever, takedowns of that Fox News mentality are important to how America-as-it-knows-itself is being destroyed from the inside.

The film also seems to have tried to switch satire for psychological matters, asking how this procedure would really affect a man. That aspect was in the original film too, but I felt it had greater focus here. Unfortunately, they cast personality vacuum Joel Kinnaman as the lead, immediately undercutting any attempt to effectively explore the character. He’s surrounded by an all-star supporting cast (Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, many other recognisable faces), who give decent performances, but the material hardly gives them a lot to work with. Oldman fares best: his character actually has an arc (unlike, well, pretty much anyone else in the movie), as he gradually sells out his ethics to attain his desired result. This brings in a theme of how good people can be corrupted bit by bit, but it’s still pretty thin. You never really feel that he’s selling his soul, meaning his redemption is kind of muddled. It doesn’t come off in the triumphant way you imagine someone had in mind when they wrote/filmed/edited it.

Shoot 'em up

If you want to block all of that out, sadly it’s not particularly satisfying as an action movie either. The attempt to genuinely focus on the morals leaves action pushed aside for most of the running time, which might be admirable if it worked, but it doesn’t. When it finally arrives, the action is as bland as the rest of the movie. In the original film’s climax, Robocop fought a stop-motion animated ED-209 that looks kinda clunky and cheap today; in this one, he fights half-a-dozen CGI ED-209s, but now they lack any weight and the sequence has no tension.

Basically, the film does nothing particularly well. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not good either. It’s fine. It’s adequate. Normally I’d now say it’s good for a couple of hours of brain-off entertainment, but is it? The action quotient isn’t really high enough for that. More likely you’ll end up pondering all the things the film itself doesn’t bother to adequately work through. It should be cutting and provocative, but it’s just bland. That’s the biggest shame, because if there’s a movie 2018 needs it’s one about corrupt businessmen hijacking the government’s decision-making while right-wing TV chatterers cheer them on and police officers are replaced by an ultimate-killing-machine robot. Put another way: 2014 probably didn’t need a new RoboCop movie, but 2018 does — but it needs one with more smarts than this.

2 out of 5

RoboCop is part of the opening night of Film4’s Fantastica season, airing this evening at 11:50pm.

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The Matrix (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #60

Believe the unbelievable

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (cut, 1999) | 15 (uncut, 2006)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 31st March 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th June 1999
First Seen: VHS, 2000

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Speed, John Wick)
Laurence Fishburne (Event Horizon, Predators)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Sabotage, Memento)
Hugo Weaving (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Lord of the Rings)
Joe Pantoliano (Bound, Memento)

Directors
The Wachowski Brothers (Bound, Speed Racer)

Screenwriters
The Wachowski Brothers (V for Vendetta, Jupiter Ascending)

The Story
Thomas Anderson, aka hacker Neo, is searching for answers to questions he doesn’t know. This search brings him into contact with Morpheus, a mysterious individual who claims to show Neo the ‘real world’ — something the powerful Agents are keen to prevent…

Our Hero
By day, Thomas Anderson is an office drone computer programmer. By night, he’s renowned hacker Neo. After he meets Morpheus and gets some of the answers he’s been seeking, it turns out he may be something greater…

Our Villains
The forces of the controlling machines are represented by Men in Black-style suit-wearing sunglass-sporting agents, the foremost of whom is Agent Smith. I don’t know about you, but I can’t read about / hear of / meet anyone called Anderson without hearing Hugo Weaving’s syllable-emphasising delivery of “Mr Anderson”.

Best Supporting Character
Hardened PVC-and-leather-clad warrior Trinity — a kick-ass female action heroine 17 years ago, while we still seem to be desperately hunting for them today.

Memorable Quote
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” — Morpheus

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“There is no spoon.” — Spoon boy

Memorable Scene
Neo + Agent + rooftop + super-slow-motion + impossible leaning-over-backwards-ness = one of the most iconic scenes in the movies.

Technical Wizardry
Hong Kong cinema has been using wirework to create kung fu action scenes for decades, but The Matrix brought it to the Western mainstream. The fights were choreographed by legendary action choreographer/director Yuen Woo-ping (Drunken Master, Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, etc).

Truly Special Effect
The much imitated and parodied bullet-time effect, where the action stops and rotates around the static scene before continuing. It was mind-blowing at the time, before it became overdone. And though it looked impressive, it was achieved with strikingly obvious simplicity: a rig of still cameras arranged around the subject, with a film camera at either end.

Making of
The character of Switch was originally intended to be played by two actors, an androgynous male in the real world and an androgynous female in the Matrix, hence the character’s name. According to IMDb, Warner Bros “refined” the idea (one wonders if “vetoed” might be a more accurate word), and Belinda McClory played the role in both locations. Maybe this signifies something, maybe it doesn’t, but given that both Wachowski siblings have since come out as transgender, it seemed a particularly interesting point.

Next time…
Laurence Fishburne committed himself to two sequels before he even read the scripts. “Of course you would,” thought everyone who’d seen The Matrix. Then they came out. As well as the two films, there was: a series of anime shorts; a computer game so ‘significant’ that scenes from it are included on the film trilogy’s DVD/Blu-ray release; and an MMORPG that ended in 2009. Rumours persist of more in the future.

Awards
4 Oscars (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Visual Effects)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Production Design, Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director)
7 Saturn nominations (Actor (Keanu Reeves), Actress (Carrie-Anne Moss), Supporting Actor (Laurence Fishburne), Writer, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects (it lost to The Phantom Menace!))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (it lost to Galaxy Quest)

What the Critics Said
“In addition to resembling both in concept and content the worthwhile Dark City, there’s not much more to it than ideas about the subjectivity of reality reworked from Descartes, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson and channeled into an operatic science-fiction metaphor about non-conformity (and drug use). But the Wachowskis do it so playfully well, keeping The Matrix’s potentially confusing plot intelligible, intelligent, and suspenseful, that it doesn’t matter. As far as sheer spectacle goes, it’s the most exciting thing to come along in quite a while. Where other films are done in by the freedom offered by computer effects, The Matrix integrates them beautifully” — Keith Phipps, A.V. Club

Score: 87%

What the Public Say
“The degrees to which The Matrix changed our cinematic landscape are inescapable. This is one of those rare cultural landmarks that overcame its cult status and truly became a part of our shared existence. It helps that The Matrix is a bit of a whole bunch of sci-fi, cyberpunk and dystopic fiction blended together with classic Hong Kong action film elements. Not bad for a film that stole much of Dark City’s thunder.” — The Hi-Fi Celluloid Monster

Verdict

There are some movies where their significance almost outstrips the ability to judge them independently — Citizen Kane, for the most obvious example. I don’t know if The Matrix now appears that way to newcomers, but it could, because it’s hard to understate the impact it had on action/sci-fi movies (and other media) for the next decade or more. But I haven’t included films in this list just for the impact they had: The Matrix is an exciting, thought-provoking, and innovative sci-fi-actioner. Unsurprisingly, all the reasons it was so influential are the reasons it’s so good.

#61 will be… future crime.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #36

It’s found its voice…
now it needs a body.

Original Title: Kôkaku Kidôtai
Also Known As: Mobile Armored Riot Police: Ghost in the Shell (Japan)

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 83 minutes
BBFC: 15

Original Release: 18th November 1995 (Japan)
UK Release: 8th December 1995
First Seen: DVD, 2000

Stars
Atsuko Tanaka (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Bayonetta: Bloody Fate)
Akio Ôtsuka (Black Jack, Paprika)
Kôichi Yamadera (Ninja Scroll, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie)
Yutaka Nakano (Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)
Tamio Ôki (Journey to Agartha, Wolf Children)

Director
Mamoru Oshii (Patlabor: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)

Screenwriter
Kazunori Itō (Patlabor: The Movie, .hack//SIGN)

Based on
The Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai, literally Mobile Armoured Riot Police), a manga by Masamune Shirow.

The Story
Japan, 2029: Public Security officer Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team are assigned to track down and capture a dangerous hacker known as the Puppet Master, but they soon find themselves embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy…

Our Hero
In a future world where humans can undergo varying degrees of cyberisation, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a “full-body prosthesis augmented-cybernetic human” — only her brain is organic. Her body is a generic mass production model, so she can blend in while being a kick-ass law enforcement officer.

Our Villain
The Puppet Master, a cyber criminal who hacks into people’s brains and gives them false memories. But is there something even worse going on behind the hacker?

Best Supporting Character
Kusanagi’s second-in-command Batou is stoic to the point of brusqueness — apparently quite a different characterisation to his portrayal in other Ghost in the Shell media.

Memorable Quote
“If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: overspecialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.” — Major Kusanagi

Memorable Scene
Pursuing the Puppet Master, Kusanagi comes face to face with a six-legged tank. After a blazing gun battle, she tries to physically rip it open, her cybernetic body straining to breaking point — and beyond…

Technical Wizardry
Ghost in the Shell was groundbreaking in its skilful combination of traditional 2D animation with CGI additions. It used a process called “digitally generated animation” (DGA), which combined cel animation with computer graphics to create lens effects that simulated depth, motion, and unusual lightning techniques, as well as mixing in 3D CGI and digital audio.

Letting the Side Down
In 2008, Oshii revisited the film to create Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which regraded the colour, replaced some of the original animation with new CGI, omitted several scenes, and featured a remixed and re-recorded soundtrack. (More details here.) As is almost always the case when directors fiddle with their creations decades later, it wasn’t well received by fans.

Next time…
As befalls many a popular anime franchise, Ghost in the Shell has spawned a raft of sequels and reboots. The only direct sequel, Innocence, was released in 2004. TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex ran for two seasons between 2002 and 2005, with the first run compiled into movie The Laughing Man and the second into Individual Eleven, all of which were followed by a final film, Solid State Society. Another reboot came in 2013 with direct-to-video series Ghost in the Shell: Arise, which so far totals five episodes and, last year, continuation film Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. (Only four episodes have so far been released in the West, but the movie — which continues the story from the fifth episode — came out on Monday in the UK. Just to make things more complicated.) A live-action American remake is currently shooting for release in March 2017 — you’ve probably heard about it.

Awards
5 Annie Awards nominations (Animated Feature, Directing, Producing, Writing, Production Design)

What the Critics Said
“When Akira first blasted out of Japan back in 1991 it looked like the Western concept of widescreen animation would be changed forever. […] Unfortunately, it was not to be. Sure, on video, the Manga scene has gone from strength to strength, but as far as theatrical releases are concerned, nothing has really come along to match Akira’s sheer retina-scalding magnificence. Until now. […] From its baddie-eviscerating opening sequence through innumerable car chases, shoot outs and tongue-in-cheek dialogue exchanges, this is exactly the kind of film that James Cameron would make if they ever let him through the Disney front gates.” — Clark Collis, Empire

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“both the film and Oshii have fallen into a kind of disrepute among the anime community. The common line on GITS is that it’s wordy, masturbatory, and pretentious with nothing going on intellectually and that the (plainly inferior but more easily accessible) GITS: SAC is a better alternative. I wanted to write this article to respond to that notion. GITS is a highly thoughtful film and worthy of comparison to virtually any scifi feature you could name. ” — tamerlane, too long for twitlonger

Verdict

Ghost in the Shell was the first anime I consciously saw, which maybe helps it earn a place here. It’s an initially accessible movie that’s also very complicated — there are pulse-pounding action scenes and a thriller storyline to keep things exciting, but also a lot of deep philosophical discussions, touching on themes of gender and identity. I think for some viewers the latter are a negative, while for others they’re the entire point. (I imagine the forthcoming Hollywood remake will either ditch or seriously curtail them, but you never know.) The combination makes for a stimulating (in multiple senses) sci-fi actioner.

Next… who ya gonna call? #37 !

Nirvana (1997)

2011 #75
Gabriele Salvatores | 89 mins | TV | R

NirvanaThe Radio Times film section may be steadily going down the drain, but when anyone describes something as “one of the best science-fiction films ever made” it’s worth paying attention. “Yet few people outside Italy have seen it,” they add. Indeed, despite screening at Cannes (albeit out of competition), this Italian movie has never been classified by the BBFC, so I presume it’s never been released here (though this was its third showing on the BBC). It’s been released in America though… by Miramax. They did their usual foreign film job, chopping out 17 minutes, changing the music and adding an English dub. This is the version shown by the BBC (at the time of posting, also available on iPlayer) and reviewed here.

Most sci-fi we see is of the American variety — partly due to the fact most of any cinema and the vast majority of imported TV we get is from there, partly due to that being where the money is for special effects and what have you — and that tends to mean tonnes of CGI, a fast pace and action sequences up to the eyeballs. Nirvana is more stereotypically European, however: it’s clearly a Deep and Meaningful film, though unlike many examples of Thoughtful cinema it at least has a slightly thriller-ish plot and a hefty dose of cyberpunk styling for us plebs to pick up on.

Sometime in the future (I read 2005 in one review, but best to ignore that now), Christopher Lambert is a computer game designer working on a new title for Christmas. Somehow a virus invades his system, in the process making his lead character, Solo, fully sentient. Unable to escape the game, Solo wishes to be deleted, but Lambert can’t because the final software is owned by some giant corporation and will be released in just three days… so he has just three days to get into their computer system and delete the file, before Solo is condemned to never-ending life stuck in the game.

Nirvana's SoloThe most obvious point of reference for Nirvana is Blade Runner, which I’d wager was a hefty inspiration. Writer/director Salvatores introduces themes of what it means to be human and a lead character one might like to decide isn’t after all, and sets it in a perma-night, dystopian, multi-cultural future. It doesn’t quite have Ridley Scott’s consistency of vision, though: while he just rendered an Asian-American future L.A., Salvatores takes globalisation to the max, running us through locations named after Marrakech and Bombay City, which may or may not be part of the same sprawling metropolis, and which all exhibit appropriately specific cultural stylings. These aren’t just pretty backgrounds, but in some ways reflect the film’s use of video games — in which you can, of course, constantly re-spawn your character — as a metaphor for reincarnation.

In aid of this, while Lambert is collecting the plot pieces needed to attack that corporation — at the same time as following a subplot about a missing girlfriend — we get to witness Solo’s experiences inside the game, frequently dying and re-living the same story with a group of characters who aren’t aware in the way he is. To be blunt, the in-game stuff is a bit odd. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and builds to a lacklustre climax — indeed, the word climax is a bit strong. But perhaps this is part of the point: as the only character in the game capable of independent thought, Solo is stuck in a loop of story and fellow characters who just re-enact what they were programmed to re-enact. Literally, he can’t go anywhere.

This part of the film calls to mind eXistenZ, David Cronenberg’s film about a virtual reality game that blurs the line between reality and the game. It’s rather a surface similarity though — Lambert barely spends any time in his game, I think there's something in my eyeinteracting with Solo merely though a series of screens on his journeys (and, one presumes, a series of microphones too). Cronenberg’s film was made a couple of years after this, so commending it for not doing the same thing would obviously be a bit rich. It is to be commended for not descending into a needlessly twist-strewn third act though, which I had thought was coming — there’s plenty of bits along the way that could be used to build a ‘surprise’ or two. There’s some ambiguity in the ending, but not too blatantly (unlike later versions of Blade Runner, for instance), and Emmanuelle Seigner’s ex-girlfriend character is never quite used in the way I expected.

For all its intellectualising, Nirvana can still be a fun film, and not just because Lambert’s accent is always set to provoke a giggle. That sounds horribly xenophobic written down, but it’s all Highlander’s fault: there’s no reason he shouldn’t sound European here (and he has dubbed himself), but the memory of that accent supposedly being Scottish does linger. (And, just so we’re clear, I love Highlander.) But no, there are proper dashes of humour, scattered here and there to provide some subtle texture. And there are action sequences too, and dated ’90s music (presumably thanks to Miramax), and even some boobies. To be honest, though, if you just want humour, action, dated music and boobies, there are dozens of films that will serve you better. At least they stop it becoming too dry, and give you a chance to let what’s going on sink in, helping prevent total confusion every time the film threatens to become incomprehensible (maybe it’s just me, but it took a little while to work out what Lambert was actually getting up to in the main plot).

I’d quite like to see the original version. Who knows what changes Miramax have wrought with their fiddling (that woman on the poster certainly isn’t in this version, at least), Smells like teen somethingand I imagine subtitles could be easier to follow than this dubbed version, in which everyone’s covered by either the original actors straining with English (based on the accents) or the typically bad voice actors employed for such dubs. The Italian DVD is reportedly English-friendly and very good quality, so perhaps I’ll get hold of that (expect another review if/when I do… well, eventually).

Apparently Nirvana “has achieved something of a cult status, especially in Europe”, and I think I can see why: there’s a few themes that might be worth a ponder, and enough splashes of style and action to keep one’s attention… most of the time. It might not be as stylistically delineated as either of the films it brought to mind, but then Blade Runner is perhaps the pinnacle of screen SF and eXistenZ… well, now I really want to see that again. I don’t know if this is “one of the best science-fiction films ever made” — especially not in this Americanised version — but it certainly has a few things going for it.

4 out of 5

Nirvana is available to UK viewers on the BBC iPlayer until 3AM on Saturday 3rd September (i.e. Friday night).