RoboCop (2014)


RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

(2014) Science Fiction (MGM/Columbia) Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Zach Grenier, Maura Grierson. Directed by Jose Padilha

Military drones have become over the past 12 months something of a cause célèbre, although drones have been in use for years. In the near future, those drones will be even more sophisticated – human control may well be entirely unnecessary. However most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of life and death being doled out by machines.

Pat Novak (Jackson) begs to differ. The host of the right-wing news magazine show The Novak Element thinks that having robots in law enforcement would be a very good thing. However, existing laws in the United States prevent drones and robots being used in a military or law enforcement fashion on U.S. soil. Novak is campaigning to change all that.

Raymond Sellars (Keaton) would like to see him succeed. As the CEO of OmniCorp, the multinational corporation that supplies robotic devices to the military and to international law enforcement, he’s chomping at the bit to get at the virgin U.S. market but is frustrated that public opinion is against him. However, he knows that given the right stimulation, public opinion can change. What the machine needs is a human element.

Cue Alex Murphy (Kinnaman). An honest cop on the Detroit Police Department, he is chasing a  criminal gang leader named Vallon (Garrow) whose investigation by other cops on the force has stalled. An inadvertent miscue by a lowlife gun dealer gives him and his partner Jack Lewis (Williams) an opportunity to connect Vallon to actual crimes and put him away. Unfortunately, someone tips off Vallon and Lewis gets shot for their troubles.

Realizing that Murphy is not going to give up until he gets an arrest, Vallon arranges for Murphy’s car to be wired with an explosive device. It goes off, critically injuring the cop in full view of his wife Clara (Cornish) and son David (Ruttan).

This gives Sellars the perfect opportunity. Brilliant cyberneticist Dennett Norton (Oldman) can rebuild Alex; he has the technology. He can give Murphy all the advantages of being a robot while still retaining his human control. However, there are glitches. A machine doesn’t hesitate or consider human consequences; it just acts. Murphy is held back by having a conscience and emotions. Norton reluctantly must delete these items from the programming.

In his RoboCop role, Murphy scarcely even responds to his family who quickly realize that something is wrong. Norton isn’t happy about the situation either – the whole point was to retain both the human and machine and what he has created is essentially an automaton with some organic material. Nonetheless RoboCop is a huge success and Sellars is getting exactly what he wants – a repeal of the laws that keep his company from profiting in America. However, when Murphy’s human side begins to reassert itself, RoboCop becomes expendable in a hurry.

The 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed feature was more of an over-the-top satire of consumerism as well as social commentary on urban decay and the ultimate soullessness of our society. It was most definitely a product of its time. Brazilian director Padilha (making his English language debut) is far more subtle but no less satirical, but with a little bit more thought beneath the satire – what constitutes humanity and at what point do we cease being human? He also asks a question that is very much one that should be getting asked more often – is trading freedom for security a wise idea?

I appreciate undertones of that nature, and give the movie points for it. However, movies of an action/sci-fi bent also need to be entertaining and for the most part, this one is. Kinnaman has a facial resemblance to Peter Weller (who originated the role) but in the Alex Murphy scenes shows a little more warmth than Weller radiated. He does surprisingly well as RoboCop and gets the right movement that you’d expect from a robot.

Michael Keaton is one of those actors that you don’t realize you miss until he shows up for an infrequent role. He is perfect for Sellars, making him almost likable despite his black heart. Only near the end of the movie do we see Sellars’ true colors but by then Keaton’s sucked us in. Oldman also manages to bring the conflicted nature of Norton to the fore and show both sides of the coin equally. Cornish is, I think, supposed to act as the conscience for the movie but doesn’t quite jell there. Jackie Earle Haley is awesome as OmniCorp’s prejudiced chief of security.

While the CGI is good (especially a squirm-inducing scene in which we see Murphy without the RoboCop armor) and the action decent, the story has a fractured element to it and seems to be travelling in all sorts of directions. Reportedly, the studio was extremely involved in the film and frustrated Padilha’s creative control to the extent that he made some unwise comments which he later recanted. However, the movie does show all the earmarks of studio interference which is never a good thing. Too many RoboCooks spoil the RoboBroth.

Despite the critical bashing it’s received, the movie is decent enough entertainment. If you go in expecting the same humor as the original, you’re not going to like this much. In fact, this version could have used a little more humor which it mostly gets from the Novak show segments that open the movie and are shown intermittently throughout. I would have been interested to see what Padilha’s vision for the film would have turned out to be although I understand that the movie’s budget became an issue in that regard. I suspect that he could have turned this into a better film than it turned out to be – although what he did produce is pretty good in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent entertainment value. Kinnaman does a fine job as does Oldman and Keaton.

REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and unfocused, a sure sign of studio interference.  

FAMILY VALUES:  While not as violent as the 1987 original, there are plenty of bullets flying and some mayhem. There’s also a few choice bad words here and there as well as a disturbing image of the remains of Alex Murphy after the bomb blast.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman have both been involved in the Batman franchise; Keaton as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s two films, Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Norton’s trilogy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Total Recall

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hysteria

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Prometheus


Prometheus

Michael Fassbender wonders about the pretty lights.

(2012) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott, Kate Dickie, Patrick Wilson, Lucy Hutchinson. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

It’s the simplest questions that are the hardest to answer. Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? These are questions that have occupied scientists and philosophers since we were able to put a complete sentence together. We still haven’t answered them. Perhaps we never will.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) doesn’t think so. She and her husband Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) have been researching ancient civilizations and have noticed the same glyph appearing in all of them, despite never having met or interacted – a giant pointing at a star formation. Dr. Shaw believes that it is an invitation to meet our makers – and despite the presence of her father’s (Wilson) cross around her neck, she’s not talking about the almighty but of aliens.

She convinces Peter Weyland (Pearce), the mad genius behind the Weyland corporation, to finance the expedition and the trillion-dollar space ship Prometheus is constructed. The crew, including Shaw and Holloway, lie in suspended animation, tended to by David (Fassbender), the gently-spoken, polite android.

As they near their destination it is Meredith Vickers (Theron) who is awakened first. She is neither scientist nor crew – she is an executive from the Weyland Corporation and she makes it clear in no uncertain terms that no matter what the scientists are after, it is Vickers who is in charge. To say the least Shaw is unhappy about this.

However, they have work to do. The scientists believe that what they are searching for is an ancient alien race that they call the Engineers. These beings, in theory, may have caused or altered life on earth leading to the ascent of humanity. As Captain Janek (Elba), the ship’s pilot, brings the Prometheus down to the planet’s surface, straight lines are discovered. As we all know, straight lines don’t occur in nature. They have to be made by an intelligence. As they  come closer to these lines, pyramid-like structures rise from the valley floor. The Prometheus lands.

Immediately the impulsive Holloway goes to explore the structure, sending miniature probes ahead to map the structure and search for life forms. What they find is a game-changer – not every life form is benevolent, for one thing. For another, the most malevolent force against them may well be from within. And now that the Prometheus has discovered the secret of the Engineers, Earth now has a gigantic target painted on it.

The movie was initially intended to be a prequel to Alien but Scott decided that the xenomorph species that confounded Ripley had run its course; while the movie is set in the same universe, it is not a direct antecedent – or so they say (a final scene may well prove that to be false). There is a familiarity to the proceedings, some of which mirror the original Alien nicely (for example, the final log entry for the Nostromo as read by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is referred to in the final scene of the movie).

But make no mistake, this is definitely not Alien. That was more or less a monster movie with the crew of the ship being stalked and picked off one by one by a single alien. This time, the humans are doing the stalking. They just don’t like what they find.

I have to admire Scott’s willingness to tackle some of the more basic questions of human existence. He posits a theory that other scientists have long held – that without some sort of intervention of a superior intelligence, it is impossible for our species to have progressed as quickly as we have – although anyone who watches “Survivor” may tell you we may not have progressed as far as we’ve thought.

Theron, appearing as a villain in her second summer blockbuster movie this year, isn’t quite as memorable as she was in Snow White and the Huntsman but she carries some of the icy blonde evil from her work in that film over into this one. Here, she is if anything colder and more reptilian and the explanation for her behavior, when it comes, is less relatable than her motivation in Snow White.

Still, Theron isn’t really the focus here – Rapace is – and the veteran of the Swedish Millennium trilogy films shows that her star performances in those movies weren’t just a fluke. Rapace is a major star, one who is going to be headlining big event movies for a very long time to come.

Fassbender also shines here. His David is polite, well-mannered and soft-spoken. His tone is pleasant and soothing, sort of a HAL9000 with legs. He moves unperturbed through the movie, with an agenda that isn’t necessarily one that is shared by the scientists on board. David is a victim of his programming; he neither apologizes for it nor frets about it. He does merely what he is told to do by people who have no morals, no ethics.

Given the current mistrust and anger with large corporate entities, it makes logical sense that they are shown to be amoral and duplicitous with an agenda all their own and if sacrifices have to be made, well, people are as replaceable as post-it notes. In some ways, that’s far more chilling than the ooey gooey aliens that we’re shown but we’re far too inured by corporate misbehavior to be surprised by it.

Ridley Scott hasn’t done a science fiction film since Blade Runner in 1982 but he still shows a tremendous confidence of vision. The special effects are amazing and for the most part, practical. For those who have issues with 3D, this one used a system based on the one that Avatar used and the shadows and darkness were added in post-production, which makes it a lot less clear when watching with the polarized 3D glasses we’re forced to wear to view it. In other words, it’s not so hopelessly dark that we can’t make out what’s going on, and the 3D is used to good effect here which is unusual for the gimmicky technology.

And yet my recommendation isn’t quite as high as you might think. For one thing, while the movie admirably tackles some pretty lofty subjects, it doesn’t always succeed in addressing them satisfactorily. I was also left curiously flat by the movie; while there are some awe-inspiring moments, this doesn’t have the fire that the first Alien had and I never got as invested in this film as I did in that one.

Prometheus is a movie that set high standards for itself and met a majority of them. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet enough of them to be a truly great movie. At least Scott and cohorts were shooting for greatness rather than trying to be all things to all audiences. There’s something to be said for that.

REASONS TO GO: Magnificent effects. Aims high. Rapace could be the next Sigourney Weaver.

REASONS TO STAY: Fell a bit shy of its lofty goals. Never really blew me away.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be intense although not terribly gory and the creature images can be nightmare-inducing. The language isn’t particularly child-friendly either.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the conditions for Scott to do the film was that he not be pressured to tone things down for a younger audience. He was supported in this by 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Rothman who allowed Scott to make an R-rated film, even though that might cost revenue in the short term.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solidly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey

ICELAND LOVERS: Many of the exterior scenes were shot there, as well as in Scotland.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Exporting Raymond

Edge of Darkness


Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson doesn't react too well to getting a speeding ticket from Officer Goldberg.

(2010) Suspense Thriller (Warner Brothers) Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Shawn Roberts, Bojana Novakovic, Frank Grillo, Jay O. Sanders, Denis O’Hare, David Aaron Baker, Damian Young, Caterina Scorsone. Directed by Martin Campbell

The somewhat bizarre story of Mel Gibson of late has been public knowledge almost to the point of overkill. I’m not going to comment one way or another oh the things he’s done or said – that is for others to do. I will say I have always admired him as an actor.

It’s been eight years since Gibson last assayed a leading role in a film. In this one, he plays Boston Police Detective Craven, who doesn’t have a whole lot in this life, but he does have a daughter, Emma (Novakovic) who is his whole existence. She works for a big corporation called Northmoor that is one of those companies that nobody seems to know what they do, only that they have big government contracts. Emma seems a bit unwell, with frequent nosebleeds and overall fatigue.

However, her condition gets a whole lot worse when a masked figure shouts “Craven” as the two of them are walking out of his house, then lets loose with a shotgun blast that kills her right in front of his eyes. With her death his life is completely shattered in an instant.

It is assumed that the shooter had meant to target the police detective instead of the girl, but it becomes evident that there is more going on than meets the eye and the detective in Craven knows something smells rotten. He decides to ask a few questions, shake a few trees, see what falls out. He starts with her boyfriend (Roberts) who seems terrified but points Craven in the direction of Northmoor. The detective talks with the unctuous corporate president Jack Bennett (Huston) and while that sets his cop instincts into overdrive, he’s still flailing around in the dark. That is, until he gets a visit from Jedburgh (Winstone), a mysterious sort who is one of those clandestine guys who knows more than anybody else.

Soon Craven is knee deep on eco-terrorists, government hitmen, corrupt politicians and attempts on his life. There is no subtlety going on here; he is a man with nothing to lose because he’s already lost everything. There is indeed no more dangerous a man than that.

This is a more than competent thriller. Director Martin Campbell has done Bond movies (the very respectable Casino Royale) as well as high-profile franchise pics (the upcoming Green Lantern) and has shown that he knows what he’s doing. He handles action scenes deftly, and spends enough time on character development without slowing the pacing down for it. That’s a pretty difficult balance to achieve, and Campbell makes it look effortless.

His star has a whole lot of baggage and I don’t just mean onscreen. Gibson’s popularity isn’t what it once was when he was the World’s Sexiest Man, whose smile made him a “right here, right now” choice for many a woman. His anti-Semitic and misogynistic tirades have landed him on tabloid news shows and brought him unwanted publicity. His career has suffered as a result – this high-profile film was far from a hit.

That’s a shame because it isn’t half-bad. It’s based on a BBC mini-series of the same name. While this one has been transplanted to American shores, it retains much of the suspense of the original. Helping out is a stellar support cast. Winstone is one of the best in the business, and he sinks his teeth into this role. His scenes with Gibson are some of the film’s best moments.

Huston plays the smooth Bennett like a cobra, mesmerizing us before he strikes to inject a lethal dose of venom. Huston excels at these sorts of roles and he could have easily phoned this one in, but he doesn’t. He makes Bennett more than the standard corporate cliché, and that helps elevate the movie somewhat.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of clichés here and the movie gets bogged down in its own plot intricacies from time to time. Be that as it may, this is a good thriller that has enough entertainment value that if you can look beyond Gibson’s off-screen troubles, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

WHY RENT THIS: Gibson is still very much a star, although a tarnished one. A very respectable cast; scenes between Winstone and Gibson are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The concept has been done to death and the movie doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the table. While there are a few good scares, mostly it’s just gruesome.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence, some of it gruesome. There’s also plenty of good Irish Catholic Boston cop-style foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Martin Campbell also directed the mini-series on which this is based.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the British mini-series giving viewers a good frame of reference.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $81.1M on a $80M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Obsessed