Monday, February 17, 2014

Robocop [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (1 Star)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Robocop [2014] (directed by José Padilha, screenplay by Joshua Zetumer, based on the screenplay of the 1987 original by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) is the third of three "back-to-the-80s" remakes to be released for this (Valentine's Day) weekend, the current film obviously conceived as "not much of a date movie" indeed, the "anti-date movie" of the weekend ;-).

Why there were so many "back-to-the-80s" movies released this weekend would make for an interesting reflectuion in its own right.  However, here I'd like to limit the question to whether there was really a need to revisit this particular (Robocop) franchise at this particular time in our history.

Here I would actually answer in the affirmative.  Why?  The Robocop franchise explores to possibility of using robots for policing work and technology has progressed since the 1980s.  The use of weaponized drone aircraft _overseas_ in the U.S. War on Terror is a reality today.  And it is a reality to the point, as the recent documentary Dirty Wars [2013] by Nation magazine's Jeremy Scahill, amply _documents_ the annoying (and telltale) _buzzing sound_ of these American drones HAS APPARENTLY BECOME A PART OF DAILY LIFE over the Sana capital of Yemen and over various cities of PakistanSo the beginning scenes of this reboot of Robocop [2014] showing, among other things, an "occupied Tehran" of the near future being "policed" by terrifying robotic solders, is a possibility _not that far away_.

Now there would be advantages to this.  The Normandy Invasion, for instance, during WW II (or the U.S. Marines' retaking of Fallujah during the insurgency that followed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003) would have been been _so much easier_ if robots could have been used rather than human soldiers.
On the flip-side, one could easily imagine the _added horror_ of Hitler's Operation Barbarossa (the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union) with its attendant Einsatzgruppen following behind the invading troops to round up and kill Jews if any or even all of those soldiers were pre-programmed killing-machine robots....

So this no longer altogether distant world, where military (and "peace keeping") operations would be done almost completely by robots, is the world of the rebooted Robocop [2014].  And the question being asked in the film (similar to the question ALREADY BEING ASKED TO TODAY with regards to "surveillance drones") is: Should this technology be used domestically?

The film predicts, probably correctly, that there would be some fairly loud voices like Pat Novak (played to exaggerated bug-eyed paranoid perfection by Samuel L. Jackson) and his The Novak Element, a show certainly modeled after Bill O'Reilly's current FoxNews' The O'Reilly Factor, speaking in favor of domestic use of such technology designed and built by an Orwellian "OmniCorp" headquartered in a still crime-ridden but industrially revitalizing Detroit of the future.  The film predicts, also probably correctly, that there would be widespread domestic opposition to relinquishing policing responsibility to "soul-less" (operating without a conscience) mechanical robots.

So, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (played perfect machiavellian fashion by Michael Keaton) comes up with the idea of "putting a human inside the machine."  What he means is essentially putting the head (mind/brain) of a severely wounded soldier or, in the case this story, severely wounded Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (played IMHO again quite well in the role by Joel Kinnaman) inside an adapted version of one of his robot soldiers, err police officers. 

This plot item calls to mind recent (post-Afghanistan/post-Iraq) advances in prosthetics while taking them a few steps further.  In the film, Dr. Dennett Norton (played again IMHO quite well, here in quite conflicted fashion by Gary Oldman) is introduced in the story by showing him giving a previously wounded American soldier a new prosthetic arm that is so good that he could play a guitar with it.

Sellars comes to Dr. Norton with the proposal of putting a human head into an entirely prosthetic body.  The good/conflicted Dr. Norton initially opposes the project because he knows that it would be used for non-peaceful purposes.  But he's given a deal that he can not refuse:  Sellars essentially offers him a blank check for any kind of research he desires besides completing this "one project" for them.  And the good doctor wants to help war veterans/amputees.

HONESTLY, this is VERY REALISTIC DILEMMA faced by the "good"/"conflicted" Dr. Norton as FOR DECADES all kinds of "dual use" scientific research has been financed by U.S. government defense (DARPA) dollars.  The most obvious example of this would be the development of the technology behind the Internet itself, which was initially funded as a DARPA/Defense project.  The difference here is that in this story, it's a Corporation, an Orwellian "OmniCorp" promising the "good Doctor" Norton to finance the "good doctor's" pet/priority projects if he "just did them this one favor" (work on ITS pet project) for it.  Note here folks that Nazi rocket scientist Werhner Von Braun justified his work on the Nazi-era London and Antwerp terror bombing V-2 as his "devil's bargain with the Nazis" to develop rocket technology that would eventually take humanity to the moon.  So he wasn't really building _vengence weapons_ (that's actually what the "V" in V-2 STOOD FOR) for Hitler.  Instead, in his (Post-War, and potentially facing the gallows at Nuremberg for War Crimes, and not just for building these weapons which bombed London/Antwerp but for killing many, many POLES and other slave workers from aphyxiation in the tunneled-out mountain-side factories where these rockets were made to begin with) mind, he was building the rockets that would eventually take us to the moon.  Yeah, right, maybe...).

Anyway, the good/conflicted Dr. Norton had experience in advanced almost human-like prosthesis and OmniCorp had an already proven robotic killing machine.  All that one needed to do was (1) figure out how to put them together and (2) oh, yes, find a sufficiently burned, crumpled body to justify replacing everything but basically his/her head and attaching it to a new, mechanical body.

Note here also that the already in the 1950s, under Pius XII the Catholic Church declared its moral opposition human head (brain) as well as human genital transplantation.  Why?  Older people with means would be tempted to harvest younger people without them for their bodies (and/or reproductive capacities).   In the 1980s, under John Paul II, the Catholic Church came out against in vitro fertilization.  Why?  In good part because of the manifold possibilities for genetic / developmental manipulation that become opened once the fertilization of human eggs is allowed to take place outside the human body: For instance, geneticists have already created "glow in the dark" rabbits by adding jellyfish genes to rabbit eggs, before fertilizing them and implanting them back into a rabbit mother.  There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TECHNICALLY PREVENTING some _crazy_ human couple from creating a "glow in the dark" child in an analogous way. 
The robotic/mechanical manipulations explored in this film, while somewhat different from the ones already opposed in the Catholic Church statements above, are nonetheless similar.  How much control would a human brain/mind/soul have over the mechanical body that it was implanted in?  Answer: ONLY as much as the designers of the mechanical body prosthetic allow it.

So, when OmniCorp's R&D folks find that even a more-or-less "okay with it" human mind (Alex's) driving a mechanical prosthetic body was not quite the "killing machine" as an all robotic machine was ... they demand that the "good" Dr. Norton come-up with a "work around." 

The work-around that he comes up with is that in NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES the human subject, Alex's mind/head, would be in control of his mechanical body.  HOWEVER, ONCE IN "COMBAT MODE" the _computer driven_ robot mechanics would kick in and FOR THE MOST PART "Alex's" mind would NOT REALIZE THAT THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENING.  He'd just believe that his combat instincts/reflexes "were that good."

Yet this "work around" wouldn't just fool Alex (or other human subjects inside such robots).  It would ALSO fool the public.  The public would believe that such "RoboCops" (or "RoboSoldiers") would still be controlled by the human subjects within them, when in reality ONCE IN COMBAT MODE, they would revert to being pure robotic killing machines (with the human brain inside there "just for the ride" and for the PR of giving the public the false belief that "people are still controlling these things.")

Pretty scary stuff...

Anyway, things go wrong (or sideways...) with this evil work-around, when former Detroit PD Alex, now inside his robotic body, begins to use the technology available to him (his brain is connected essentially to the internet) to investigate the circumstances of his own murder (the circumstances that brought him to the state where the only way he could possibly continue to live would be to have his head/brain transplanted to an all mechanical body).

Much, much, often violent, of course ensues ...

Yet, in the midst of that mayhem, the film then does raise some very current questions: Do we want robots doing this kind of (policing) work?   And if we don't want them used at home, why are we so okay with using them abroad? 

Then where do we start drawing the lines when it comes to human mechanical prosthetics?  Certainly there are obvious benefits to amputees.  But at what point does a human become a machine?  Finally, the film raises the question of possible future manipulation of sensory and cognitive functions in the brain (rendering one to believe that one is "in control" of something when one is not).

Again, this is pretty scary stuff ... and, it ought to make us thankful that when created naturally, we really created Freely and with Free Will.  (I wrote also about this at the end of my review of Her [2013])  We are what we are.  And we're free to think (and even to make mistakes) on our own.

In contrast, computers and computer programs do the bidding of their programmers.  Thus though as users we may feel "in control" of how we use our computers, we're actually in far less control than we think.  For instance as we surf the internet, we're bombarded by advertisements, _not_ because we want to be bombarded by such advertisements, but because the providers of the programs that allow us to surf the internet want us to be bombarded by them.

Similarly, this film reminds us that robots and even prosthetic devices can be designed in ways that serve not simply their users but also their manufacturers (and other outside interested parties like advertisers that may "bundle" their interests with those of the manufacturers).  

In any case, we're asked here to reflect on these very modern concerns, which are already upon us or will be shortly.

Yes, the film is probably needlessly violent.  But that in itself is perhaps a warning.  Honestly, how concerned are we about the mayhem caused by our drones flying all over the place overseas.  "Out of sight, out of mind," the saying goes.

Well, what's "out of sight" now, will in one way or another come home.  So it behooves us to think about what we are doing and the possible Pandora's boxes that we may be opening.

In this regard, this film is really quite interesting!

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