Robocop Then and Now

robocop-2014-wallpaper-robocop-movie-wallpapers1Recently, I took the plunge and watched some of the reboots I had been avoiding. These included the reboot of Robocop, an updated take on the 1987 Paul Verhoeven gorefest about a police officer who is brutally murdered and brought back as a cyborg. The movie was officially released in February of 2014 after being pushed back from its original August 2013 release, and received mixed reviews.

In any case, upon viewing the film, I totally saw what all the mixed reviews were all about. Whereas the new movie does score some points for updated special effects, technology, and has some decent casting, it lacked the social satire, edginess and macabre sensibilities of the first. So while it had some entertainment value, it really suffered from a sense of ambivalence, as if the makers themselves were wondering what the point of the remake was.

To put it in perspective, here’s a rundown on the original and what made it work…

Robocop (1987):
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/50/Robocop_film.jpgSet in the near-future, the film opens on a Detroit that has become a cesspool of crime, corruption and corporate greed. Having gone bankrupt, the city has signed a deal with Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to run the underfunded police department in exchange for demolishing Old Detroit and building a new metropolis – Delta City – that will renew the city and provide employment.

To remedy the crime situation, OCP plans to deploy the ED-209 enforcement droid. But after a demonstration leads to the death of a junior exec, an alternate plan is considered from the cybernetics division. This involves placing a recently-deceased police officer inside a machine that is armored, has superior firepower, and runs on programming based on three simple directives:

1. Serve the public trust
2. Protect the innocent
3. Uphold the law

https://i2.wp.com/www.joblo.com/images_arrownews/robocop%204.jpgTo get a “volunteer”, OCP transfers officers to more crime-ridden districts, one of which is officer Alexander Murphy. A dedicated officer, he and his new partner run into criminal kingpin Clarence Boddicker and his gang during their first patrol. After pursuing them to an abandoned steel mill, Murphy is isolated and gunned down. Pronounced dead, his body is then used to create Robocop.

His deployment results in an immediate drop in crime, but problems quickly ensue. At OCP, the creation of Robocop leads to an internal power struggle between senior president Dick Jones and Bob Morton – the young exec behind the Robocop program. Boddicker, it is revealed, has been working with Jones for some time, using his crime connections to advance OCPs agenda of taking over Detroit. Jones orders Boddicker to kill Morton, and promises him exclusive control over all vice in Delta City.

https://i2.wp.com/normalguysnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/robocop.gifMeanwhile, Murphy begins to remember his old life and begins hunting for Boddicker and his gang. After capturing him, he learns of Boddicker’s relationship with Jones and attempts to arrest him, but is stopped by a secret Fourth Directive, which prevents him from arresting an executive of OCP. He narrowly escapes OCP headquarters with the help of Lewis, his old partner, and flees to an abandoned factory to recuperate.

Meanwhile, Boddicker is given advanced weaponry by Jones and a tracking device to go and kill Murphy. In a showdown at the abandoned plant, Murphy and Lewis kill all members of his gang, including Boddicker himself. He then goes to OCP headquarters and presents a video of Jones confessing to ordering Morton’s death. Jones attempts to take the head of OCP chairman, but he fires Jones, giving Robocop freedom to kill him.

http://nureviews.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/robocop-without-helmet.jpgThe movie ends with the chairman asking Robocop if he has a name, to which he replied: “Yes. Murphy”.

Summary:
For many reasons, the movie remains a cult classic and an iconic genre film. Though the franchise didn’t do so well after two sequels, the original remains popular with fans decades after the fact because of the way it pulled no punches and delivered on a message. Set in a future Detroit characterized by rampant crime and urban collapse, the movie showcased a very real problem that was apparent by the late 80s in America, and people certainly noticed.

Thought it was brutal and shocking at times, the over-the-top nature of the violence played into the social satire of the film. As he would demonstrate with later films – Total Recall, Starship Troopers – Verhoeven was known for using graphic violence to parody America’s preoccupation with violence in media. And in this context, it provided a sense or urgency to the plot – with police, politicians, and common folk feeling helpless in the face of it, and corporate execs being indifferent and using it to further their agendas.

In short, the hard-R rating of the movie worked in its favor. And the exploration of issues relating to identity and humanity in an age of man-machine interface were also well rendered. Now as for the reboot…

Robocop (2014):
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/b1/Robocop_poster.jpgThe year is 2028, and robotics and automated military systems are now commonplace around the world, enforcing US military policy in places like Iran. Looking to expand, Omnicorp contemplates ways that they will be able to make robots palatable to the American masses, where the Dreyfus Act currently forbids their deployment. All they need is a critically injured policeman to put inside the machine.

Meanwhile, detective Alexander Murphy and his partner are trying to take down crime boss Antoine Vallon, who has contacts within the police department. A car bomb nearly kills Murphy, and Omnicorp roboticist Dr. Dennett Norton convinces his wife to let them use him in the program. What is left or Murphy is placed inside a full-body prosthetic, and he is awakened.

robocop-2014-1Initially, Murphy is shocked to see what has become of him and tries to escape. But Norton manages to convince him to stay and do his job, if for nothing else for the sake of his family. He begins undergoing testing to see how combat effective he will be, and proves to be inferior to a fully-automated robot. Pressured to make him work, Norton then alters Murphy’s brain so that behavioral software is control of his actions, even though he still thinks he is in control.

This leads to the confirmation of the Robocop program and the company prepares to unveil it to the public. But his first demonstration, Murphy experiences a seizure when they attempt to upload tons of information and video feeds to his brain. Norton and his team then alter his emotional responses again, leading him to coldly enact his protocols before the public and arrest a criminal in the crowd. The arrest is a PR success, and Robocop’s performance begins to reduce crime and convince the public to rescind the Dreyfus Act.

https://i1.wp.com/www.robocop.com/media/images/gallery-2.jpgMurphy’s wife confronts him in the street, which triggers Murphy’s memories and leads him to begin investigating his own death. He tracks down Vallon and destroys his gang in an intense shootout, and then confronts the members of the police department who were supplying him. Seeing this, Omnicorp shuts Murphy’s systems down before he can arrest the police chief and begin to rethink his existence.

They decide to circulate a news story that he died of complications, while plotting to shut him down permanently. With the help of Doctor Norton, Murphy escapes the Omnicorps facility where he is kept and goes to the headquarters to confront the CEO. With the help of his old partner, he is able to fight his way in and narrowly kill the CEO, who is holding his wife hostage.

Murphy is then rebuild in Norton’s lab, the President of the US vetoed the repeal of the Dreyfus Act based on the testimony of Norton, who confesses everything OmniCorp has done, and Murphy goes back to work and living with his family.

Summary:
Compared to the original, the reboot suffered from multiple problems. In addition to being toned down and less violent, as evidenced by its PG-13 rating, it was c0mparatively confused and muddled in terms of its message. Whereas the original was a hard-hitting movie about corporate greed, corruption, crime, and the fight to retain humanity in inhuman circumstances, the new movie was a rather bland commentary on the morality of robotics and autonomous machines in today’s world.

https://i0.wp.com/blogs-images.forbes.com/scottmendelson/files/2014/03/robo.jpgWhile these issues are certainly very relevant, the way the movie went about presented them seemed at once too subtle and heavy-handed. This is best illustrated by the character of news pundit Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a clear parody of Bill O’Reilly and a slew of other Fox News commentators. In addition to being loud, extremely biased and a corporate shill, he completely hands the message to the audience within the last few seconds of the movie:

Now I know some of you may think that this kind of thinking is dangerous and these machines violate your civil liberties. Some of you even believe that the use of these drones overseas makes us the same kind of bullying imperialists that our forefathers were trying to escape. To you, I say… Stop whining! America is now and always will be the greatest country on the face of the Earth! 

The way his scenes are shot, he’s even addressing the viewing audience. So he’s effectively breaking the Fourth Wall when he says this. It was honestly the most obvious scene and message I’ve watched in some time!

Another odd aspect of the movie was Murphy’s sense of self, which was a key aspect of the original. After having his remains dismembered and placed into a “full-body prosthetic”, Murphy’s memory was erased to prevent any semblance of his old personality from coming through. This was to ensure that Robocop would function perfectly and not experience complications due to things like anger, sadness, trauma, or an attachment to his old life.

https://i0.wp.com/cephuscorner.jadedragononline.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Making-of-RoboCop-3.jpgBut in this movie, he wakes up inside the machine remembering everything that happened to him and has trouble performing on par with automated robots. To remedy this, they have to go through a convoluted process whereby he’s no longer in control, but thinks he is thanks to the magic of brain-altering software. All of this seemed unnecessary, clunky, and took away from the story. It also begged the question, why not simply erase his memory and avoid all this?

But above all, the decision to go this route also robbed the movie of its most central theme – i.e. the Jesus allegory of death and ressurection! Murphy does not rise from the dead at all in this movie, but is simply put in a body to keep him alive. So ultimately, his transformation – dying and coming back to life as something completely different – is something that’s very watered down and ineffective by comparison.

robocop_concept_art_walkerThis all seemed weak when they could have simply gone with what they did in the first movie and erased Murphy’s memory, which would have worked way better for the plot. That was one of the most important aspects of the old film and how it exposed OCPs corruption and delved into the whole issue of man vs. machine and what it is to be human. Not only was OCP looking for an automaton, Murphy’s recovery of his past self got the audience emotionally involved.

To boot, the bad guys were very underdeveloped in this film. Vallon was no match for Boddicker, having little screen time and no sense of motivation compared to Kurtwood Smith. His allies in the police department were also afterthoughts, who seemed to be nothing more than bride-taking cops who betrayed Murphy because he was too dedicated. And Michael Keaton is poorly cast as the crooked CEO of Omnicorps, which in this movie falls far short of the cold, indifferent corporate crooks of the first one.

Robocop_concept_art_UAVTo be fair, some casting choices weren’t bad. Joel Kinnaman wasn’t bad in the lead role, Gary Oldman played his role ably, and Samuel L. Jackson (though not very well scripted) certainly delivered on his portrayal of a loudmouthed, angry, horribly-slanted media pundit. But compared to Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith and Miguel Ferrer, the guys were just eating crumbs off the table.

All of this leaves me wondering, what was the point of this remake? The idea was to relaunch the franchise for a new generation by focusing on modern issues, updated technologies, and a fresh take on the whole cybernetics thing. And in all of these respects, save for the technology aspect, they failed. Too bad, because their certainly was potential, given the range of issues that could have been explored better.

Between the highly contentious issue of UAVs, killer robots, and their effect on foreign and domestic policy, this movie could have really been something. Instead, it was a confused, half-hearted and obvious effort. And this is really too bad, because it’s likely to lead to yet another relaunch in a few years time. Don’t believe me, just look at Terminator: Salvation!

But regardless of what any reboots or relaunches attempt to do, Detroit still loves Robocop! As evidenced by their commissioning a massive statute of the guy. And Peter Weller and Kurtwood Smith… still the men!

robocop-statue-2

Detroit’s New Robocop Statue

robocop-statue-2Some of you may recall how a few years back, a group of Detroit citizens began talking about erecting a statue of Robocop in their fair city. At the time, Detroit’s Mayor David Bing shot the idea down, eventually referring to it as “silly”. This led to a campaign that was dedicated to making the statue happen, and after three years, it looks like they are finally going to get their wish.

In addition to a promotional video starring Peter Weller (Robocop himself), a Kickstarter campaign was mounted to fund the statue’s creation. The campaign was launched back in 2011 by the group known as Imagination Station, a Detroit nonprofit specializing in art and renovation. Within 45 days, they had raised over $67,000, thanks to public donations but also from an unexpected source.

ROBOCOP-Concept-Art-Image-02 As the story goes, Brandon Walley – director of development at the Imagination Station – received a call from Pete Hottelet, the founder of Omni Consumer Products (OCP). As anyone who’s seen Robocop knows, this is the name of the evil megacorporation at the center of the RoboCop universe. But in this case, OCP specializes in selling real-world versions of products seen in popular movies and TV shows.

Apparently, Hottelet had contacted Mayor Bing’s office and was told outright that the city was not involved in any such project. He then called Walley, got the low-down on their intentions to go ahead with creating one anyway, and agreed to match the money they raised. After six days and $25,000 raised, Hottelet cut them a cheque for the same amount. Thirty nine-days later, they had the remaining ten grand they needed, and then some.

robocop_concept_art_walkerAnd as I recently learned, back in May production began on the statue right here in British Columbia by Across the Board Creations, a studio that specialized in 3D models, props, and artistic recreations. This past Wednesday, the finished product arrived in a crate at the Imagination Station, and photos have began to circulate of the finished product.

The Imagination Station in Detroit has offered a place on its property at Roosevelt Park to install the 10-foot-tall statue, which has now been cast and is headed to Venus Bronze Works in Detroit to be bronzed. And as you can see from the photo (see below), it is rather large, detailed, and pretty badass! Plans have already been made to erect the statue in 2014, just in time for the Robocop movie relaunch.

Robocop_concept_art_UAVYou may also notice I’ve peppered concept art for the movie throughout. These include Robocop’s new sidearm, OCP’s ED-209 Assault Walker, and the XT-908 Area Drone. Clearly, they are looking to merge elements of the original with a more model feel, going beyond mere cyborgs, walkers and corporate greed to include unmanned aerial surveillance and the motif of a police state.

Pretty badass, huh?
Pretty badass, huh?

And be sure to check out Peter Weller’s hilarious promotional video for the statue, plus the trailer for the Robocop relaunch. Enjoy!


Sources: blastr.com, motherjones.com, kickstarter.com, acrosstheboardcreations.com

Favorite Cult Classics (Part the Second)

Welcome back! As promised, the second half of my nostalgic, cult classic favorites for you to peruse! Let me know what you think, and feel to add some contenders of your own. Cult hits are nothing if not personal, and what constitutes a classic is open to interpretation. Okay, six to ten, here goes:

2001: A Space Odyssey:
Yes, this movie deserves top billing for being a classic! And yet, the movie really doesn’t seem to garner much appreciation from audiences, not unless they are self-professed film buffs or hard sci-fi fans. Not sure I qualify for either, but I loved this movie for the simple reason that it was packed full of mind-blowing themes. Much like Akira, it was chock-full of things that got my young mind thinking and completely shaped my outlook on science fiction.

Sure, there are those who complain that this movie is boring and esoteric, but I found all that a fitting price for the kick-ass subject matter, not to mention the mind-blowing climax. You got a mystery, speculations about human evolution, ancient aliens, space exploration, and existential singularities! All the while, the weight of the philosophical implications are weighing at your mind…

And let’s not forget how inspiration this movie proved to be. Today, the concept of ancient astronauts, aliens who came to Earth millions of years ago and tampered with human evolution, has become all the rage. From Star Trek to Stargate, Battlestar Galactica to Prometheus, the concept of ancient astronauts has played out. And frankly, 2001 has them all beat! Between Kubrick and Clarke, their concept of the aliens and how they altered the course of evolution on Earth was the most realistic I have ever seen.

But I think what I liked best about was the fact that the movie was the subtle nature of the whole thing. At once speculative, philosophical, and visually stunning, this movie was characteristic of Kubrick, who preferred to convey things visually rather than coming out and telling people what was going on. You never really quite knew what happened during that eye-popping final scene, but those who love sci-fi and imaginative filmaking were sure to have ideas!

Alien:
Granted, this movie wasn’t exactly under-appreciated, but compared to the lavish attention the rest of the franchise has garnered- even though it was all downhill after Aliens – this first installment truly was the diamond in the rough. Not only did it have a cool concept, awesome set designs and a kick-ass back story, the direction and cinematography captures the story’s sense of dread and claustrophobia perfectly.

Little wonder then why this movie spawned an entire franchise, because it really did have everything. You had your blue-collar peeps working for the major interstellar company (Weyland-Yutani), a frightening discovery made on an uncharted planet, a mysterious derelict belonging to an unknown race, and a terrifying creature awakened from its slumber. And not just any kind of creature, but a complex symbiote that was designed for and possessed of a single purpose.

Or as Ash put it: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” He had a point didn’t he? In fact, all structures in this movie were pure genius, whether it was the Nostromo, the Derelict, or the Facehugger and Chestbuster combo. As with everything Scott does, attention to detail and the careful construction of a universe was paramount. Every set was richly detailed, well shot, and clearly made to elicit the right feel and impressions on the audience.

Much of the credit for this goes to H.R. Giger as well, the surrealist artist who brought Lovecraftian horror to the alien concept and set of the alien ship. Years later, I still find myself tuning in just to get a glimpse of that Gothic reconstruction, or to see the Space Jockey sitting in its chair, the tell-tale hole punching through its chest. Few movies have managed to capture that same sense of awe and wonder for me, with the possible exceptions of 2001 and Akira

Johnny Mnemonic:
Some people might think I’m crazy for listing this movie as a personal classic, but it can’t be helped! And my reasons are pretty simple. On the one hand, this movie kind of has that “so bad, it’s good” thing going on, but at the same time, I also felt it possessed some real signs of quality. Sure, the acting was pretty wooden, the fight choreography total crap, and the low-budget nature apparent throughout. But it was still a pretty faithful adaptation of Gibson’s work and introduced to that world at a still-young age. Hence why I come back to it every few years just to see it again.

Filmed in the mid-90’s, this movie is an adaptation of the short story by William Gibson and previewed a lot of what he wrote in Neuromancer. For example, you’ve got the big bad corporations, the cyberspace jockeys, freelance assassins, Yakuza, and the character Molly Millions. Things are also set in “The Sprawl”, the megapolis that stretches from Boston to Atlanta and is contained in geodesic domes, and the look and feel is definitely of the cyberpunk variety.

Into all this, Gibson introduced the revolutionary concept of mnemonic couriers, people who have “wetwire” implants in their brains that allow them to carry vast quantities of data from point A to point B. Basically, these couriers are the answer of what to do in a world where information is the most precious commodity, and all databases are vulnerable to hacking and protected by “Black ICE” – hostile Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics (aka. viruses)

And, in keeping with Gibson’s style, the story involves a titanic corporation that is fighting to maintain its monopolistic grip, while freelancers, smugglers and assorted little people are fighting to undermine them and distribute the information freely. Naturally, the main character of Johnny is an unlikely hero who is forced to take a break from looking out for number one and help others for a change. Might sound cheesy, and a little cliche, but it works and delivers on Gibson’s style. At the very least, it’s a guilty pleasure flick for me.

Screamers:
Now here’s a movie that’s high on the pleasure, low on the guilt. While a low-budget sci-fi flick that was (like Johnny Mnemonic) produced and filmed entirely in Canada, it had many signs of quality that immediately made it a cult hit. There’s the post-apocalyptic setting, the frightening tone, and the Cold War feel of the thing, updated for the 90’s. All the while, there is the knowledge that this is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Second Variety, which sort of makes it a must-see of PKD fans.

Much like in the original story, the plot of the film involves a race of self-producing, self-upgrading machines that are designed to infiltrate enemy territory and eliminate all combatants. But of course, things begin to go awry when the people who produced them realize that they have upgraded to the point where they can impersonate human beings. And whereas the original story was set on Earth and took place between the US and Russia, the updated story takes place on Sirius 6b, a pining planet that became the front line between a the political-economic entity known as the NEB  and those who chose to resist its rule.

Personally, I felt the updated version works. Not only does the conflict seem more relevant, being between a mega-corporate entity and a coalition of workers and dissenters, but the off-world setting also feels more realistic. Perhaps it was the fact that in the post-Cold War world, nuclear war between two superpowers didn’t seem a likelihood anymore. Or it could just be that the whole NEB angle was reminiscent of Weyland-Yutani and Alien. All I know is, I liked it!

What’s more, a good deal of attention went into creating the setting and modelling the Screamers – aka. the automated machines that kill people. Designed to be the perfect terror weapons, they emit a high-pitched “scream” before making their attack, and can toy with their targets for some time before moving. This concept, combined with some good shooting, really created a sense of tension which is felt throughout. And of course, the paranoia which is engendered by the appearance of human-like machines was a very nice touch! A good movie, and a fitting adaptation which managed to capture PKD’s cautionary tale about the dangers of runaway progress.

Time Bandits:
And last, here is the classic time traveling tale that I first saw in my childhood. Recently, my wife was told by a coworker that she should ought to see it, and my memory was jogged! Yes, this is indeed a cult classic, and one which is deserving of plenty of kudos and praise. Well cast, well written, witty and poignant, it’s one of those quintessential 70’s movies which has been rediscovered by several generations of film buffs and sci-fi fans.

The story opens with an imaginative and historically-minded child who lives in an overly-bourgeois neighborhood with his materially-possessed family. But upon realizing that there is a time-portal in his wall and that people from the past and future can come through it, his world is turned upside down. Quickly, he become the unwitting companion in a group of dwarves who are traveling through time, stealing precious artifacts, and being pursued by both the “Supreme Being” and an evil sorcerer.

Immediately, one can see the layered and inspired plot taking shape here. On the one hand, you have some decidedly Judea-Christian elements, plus a tale of childhood imagination and escapism. The dichotomy of the Supreme Being who possesses the power of time travel and the sorcerer who wants it for himself are representative of God and Lucifer, after a fashion. The dwarves who stole this power for themselves are a sort of Icaran allegory, or possibly Adam and Eve once they ate from the tree of knowledge. And ultimately, the way they are saved in the end from evil represents their redemption.

All the while we are left wondering if the boy is merely dreaming, or if what he is experiencing is real, which is an element that is intrinsic to all tales of childhood fantasies. On the one hand, the protagonists flights of fancy are seen as a weakness and immaturity to those around them, whereas we tend to see as it a rare gift to see past the surface. Should it all be a fantasy, then the story is left without a formal sense of resolution; but if it is real, then the hero has been vindicated and proven right. Appropriately, the movie plays with the two possibilities, going back and forth, but then giving strong hints at the end that it was in fact real. So really, you have a story that is inspired, imaginative, and also suspenseful!

___

Well, that’s my top ten list for the best cult classic movies of all time. What’s yours? I know I have a few in common with some people ’round these parts, and I also know that a few were previously unheard of. Hence why I want to here from others. I have a feeling there are some which I need to see and would very much enjoy. Already, I’m poised to watch Sunshine, A Boy and His Dog, and a few others which I’ve heard good things about. And I hope that in the course of swapping lists, I might be able to find a few more I’d like to see. Take care, and enjoy the rest of the long-weekend, those of who are reading this in Canada. As for the Yanks in the audience, and the rest of the world for that matter, enjoy the work week 😉

Happy Canada Day!

Hello and welcome to my Canada Day post! As it is the True North’s national birthday – commemorating the day when the original provinces came together and agreed on Confederation, the first act of national building and quasi-declaration of independence – I thought it fitting that I do a post honoring Canada’s contribution to the field of science fiction. The list is extensive, contrary to what you might you think, and includes some of the most critically acclaimed examples of literature, film and television in this genre. But like most things Canadian, it suffers from a potential lack of recognition. Well, I, as a patriotic (but not nationalistic!) individual, shall do my part to promote. Hell, one day I want to be on this list, so I better make sure people know about it 😉

First up, movies that were filmed, directed and produced right here in Canada, eh!

Scanners (1981):
This film, directed by David Cronenberg, is considered a cult classic amongst fans of sci-fi and horror alike. In this movie, “Scanners” are people that exhibit powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities who are being sought out by a corporation named ConSec, a purveyor of weapons and security systems. Ostensibly, their purpose is to register scanners so the public can be protected from them, but it is clear that they have a nefarious agenda as well.

The story revolves around two rogue scanners, the dangerous Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) and the reclusive Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). After a “demonstration” goes terrible wrong where Revok causes Dr. Ruth – head of ConSec’s scanner section – to explode, ConSec becomes dedicated to finding all rogue scanners and stamping them out. On their radar is Revok, a known and powerful scanner who is a homeless transient, moving from place to place in the hopes of staying ahead of corporate spies.

In the end, Vale finds himself trapped between Revok’s renegade faction on the one side and ConSec’s goons on the other. In the end, he is captured by Revok and learns that they are brothers, that Ruth is their father, and that all scanners are the result of drug trials involving pregnant women and ephemerol. This drug, which was designed to combat morning sickness (echoes of thalidomide), is the same one which they now use to control scanners.

Revok’s plan is to now use a captured shipment of the drug and administer it to countless pregnant women worldwide, thus creating an army of scanners. When he learns of this, Vale and Revok begin to fight each other using their powers. In the end, Vale defeats his brother and then assumes his likeness, thus putting him in charge of the rogue scanners. The story thusly ends on a cliffhanger note, with Vale’s intentions open to speculation.

This movie was not only a cult classic, but very heavily inspired. It’s investigation of psychic abilities, with corporate controllers, rogue telepaths, and drugs used to control them, would all show up in later franchises, particularly Babylon 5. In addition, that head exploding scene is considered an iconic imagine, one which has been referenced many times over on the silver screen. Consider the line from Wayne’s World where Garth appears to be having a nervous breakdown on TV and one of their cronies asks: “Did you see that movie Scanners where the dude’s head exploded?”

Johnny Mnemonic (1995):
Though it was widely considered one of the worst adaptations in science fiction history, Johnny Mnemonic was nevertheless a faithful representation of William Gibson’s original work (also a Canadian). Set in the “Sprawl” of the 21st century, the story is about a mnemonic courier who uses wetwire implants (i.e. cybernetic brain implants) to carry information around illegally. This is apparently a common practice in the world of the future, where corporate control is absolute and the most precious commodity is information.

Enter into this Johnny (Reaves), a courier who is given a job to carry a package that is twice the size of his capacity. He takes it, knowing the risk it will pose to his brain, because he’s looking for that final payoff which will allow him to have his implants removed and his memory restored. This is something all mnemonic carriers must go through, which is the sacrifice of their own memories in order to make room for all the pirated data they carry.

Quickly, Johnny realizes the package he contains is incredibly valuable, as Yakuza close in and murder his contacts. His own boss betrays him as well, forcing him to turn to a freelance ninja named “Sally Shears” (aka. Molly Millions) for help. Like him, she has enhancements which are beginning to mess with her body, and she recommends they get help from her friend Spider. As a doctor, he is used to dealing with nervous system illnesses, particularly NAS (nervous attenuation syndrome).

When they arrive, Johnny is informed that he is the one who hired him, and that the information he carries comes directly from the pharmaceutical giant Pharma-Kom’s labs. It is nothing less than the cure of NAS, and the company will kill to make sure it doesn’t get it out, seeing as how they make billions off of treatment and will lose out if it is cured. The race is then on for Johnny to download the cure onto the open Net, and with the help of a group of counter-culture fighters named Lo-Tek, they manage to do just that.

Though the movie was generally panned by critics and did quite poorly at the box office, it remains a cult classic to many because of its gritty, cyberpunk feel and faithful adaptation of Gibson’s characteristic themes. It also boasted an all-star cast, which included Keannu Reaves (Canuck!), Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, and Udo Kier. On top of that, it also made use of pioneering special effects to give visual representation to Gibson’s concept of “cyberspace”, the movie also contained all the elements he so loves to include in his stories. Freelancers, Yakuza, mega-corporations, mercenaries, cybernetic enhancements, dirty environments, urban sprawl, hackers and techy geeks. This movie had all that, and is required viewing for fans of Neuromancer and Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy.

Screamers (1995):
Here’s a cult classic I keep coming back to of late! Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety”, Screamers is another adaptation of classic sci-fi which was filmed, directed and financed here in the Great White North. And I mean that literally since most of the filming took place in a quarry in Quebec during the dead of winter. And though the story was updated for the post-Cold War world, set on a distant planet and being a war between corporate interests and quasi-national forces, the basic elements remained much the same.

Taking place in 2078 on a planet known as Sirius 6b, the story revolves around an ongoing war between two factions who are fighting for control of the planet. On the one side is the NEB (New Economic Bloc), a super-corporate entity that controls mining in outer space. On the other is the Alliance, a resistance formed out of the former miners and scientists from the colony.

After the NEB bombarded the planet with nukes, turning it into a radioactive wasteland that is perennially experiencing nuclear winter, the Alliance resorted to creating devices known as the “Autonomous Mobile Sword”, a race of self-replicating machines built by a self-sustaining underground factory. These weapons, which tunnel underground and use high-pitched sonic blasts to paralyze opponents, carry the nickname of “Screamers”.

The story opens when a NEB representative comes to the Alliance bunker offering a ceasefire. After investigating the situation, the Alliance commander JOe Hendricksson (played by Peter Weller, aka. Robocop) realizes that the war still rages back home and no one cares what happens to them anymore. He decides to take the NEB up on their offer to end the fight on Sirius 6b, but during his trip to the NEB bunker, learns that new breeds of Screamers are out there. After meeting with Jessica (Jennifer Rubin), the NEB mercenary commander, they attempt to investigate the Screamer factory and learn that there are in fact four varieties now, each of which is becoming more human!

They make it back to the Alliance bunker, only to see that it too has been overrun. In the end, only Hendrickson and Jessica survive and begin making their way to the emergency escape shuttle hidden in the nearby mountains. Once there, Hendrickson learns that Jessica herself is a Screamer when an identical model of her appears and attacks them. Apparently, she is the fifth variety and the most advanced model to date, one that bleed, cry, imitate human emotions, and even have sex. Jessica sacrifices herself to protect him, and Hendrickson learns that her mission was to find the escape shuttle and go back to Earth where they could be sterilizing it of all life as well.

This was in keeping with the Screamer new mandate which was to destroy all human life, not just their enemies. However, that ended when Jessica became over-sympathetic to Hendrickson and broke with her original programming, thus demonstrating the most human characteristic of all, that of empathy. Hendrickson then takes the shuttle himself and leaves the planet, bound for Earth, and safe in the knowledge that the Screamers will never get off Sirius 6b.

Thought it differed in many ways from the original PKD short story, the thematic nature of the movie was accurate. You have the idea of the Screamers, the automonous, self-replicating and intelligent machines that are left to their own devices and end up turning on their own masters. You have the concept of runaway technology erasing the line between what is real and fake. Thought it ended on a happy note, unlike “Second Variety” where a machine made it off planet, the movie still managed to deliver on its message. And it was pretty damn scary too boot!

Cube (1997):
Here is another cult-classic that practically created its own sub-genre in science fiction film making. Directed by Vincenzo Natali and produced by the Canadian Film Centre as its first First Feature Project, Cube became an instant hit due to its paranoid, Kafkaesque feel and psychological thriller tone. Set inside a giant (you guessed it) Cube, made up of countless adjoining rooms that are numbered and contain different booby traps, the story revolves around a series of strangers who wake up inside and must find their way out.

What is immediately apparent to all the characters in the story is that they all possess different abilities and share the same story. Each and every one of them was carrying on with their daily lives, only to wake up and find themselves inside a cube-shaped room. None of them know each other or can remember how they got here, but once they found each other, they agree to work together and find the way out.

Amongst the captives is Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a charismatic police officer who takes command, Leaven (Nicole deBoer) a young mathematics student, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a doctor and conspiracy theorist, and Worth (David Hewlett), a pessimistic man who refuses to talk about himself. Quentin believes they all have a role to play, Holloway believes they are part of a government experiment, Leaven develops a theory that the room’s numbered in prime are the safe ones, and Rennes follows but seems skeptical of their chances.

As they continue, they find that Quentin’s theory about the prime numbered-rooms is flawed. Tensions also begin to rise within the group because of Holloway’s paranoia, Quentin’s controlling behavior, and Worth’s reticence. The group then experiences a bit of a breakdown, during which time Worth finally reveals that he was one of the architects who helped design the Cube. He never knew what it was for or who even commissioned it, the specs merely passed his desk and he added his own insight. He believes that essentially, the Cube created itself, the result of human stupidity and complacency.

However, Leaven concludes from Worth’s description that the numbers might actually be Cartesian coordinates, and the group begins working its way to one of the outer edges. They also come across a mentally challenged boy named Kazan, who Quentin wants to leave behind by Leaven insists they bring. But in time, their efforts prove futile when another feature of the Cube is revealed, the fact that it periodically shifts its rooms around. Another breakdowns occurs as Quentin becomes paranoid and shows his dark side. After a confrontation with Holloway, he lets her fall to her death, thinking she was out to get him.

The group begins to truly fall apart as Quentin’s true nature is revealed. It seems he is a violent man with a penchant for young girls, the reason why his wife left him with their kids. He begins to run the group through bullying and fear. But a ray of hope emerges when Leaven concludes that the numbers are not primes or coordinates by powers of prime numbers. She cannot calculate them, but the mentally challenged boy Kazan – an apparent autistic savant – can. They continue on their way and Worth incapacitates Quentin, who has now gone completely insane.

Eventually, they find their way to the outer edge and prepare to leave, but Worth wonders if it’s worth it considering that there is nothing out there but “boundless human stupidity”. They are about to step out when Quentin sets upon them. Leaven jumps in to help, and the three are pulled back in as the room’s once again shift. Kazan is left alone to walk out into the light of day, free of the Cube.

Where to begin? This story was a masterful piece of psychological thriller and paranoid fantasy! The fact that we never truly learn who built the Cube, what purpose the “test” really served, and the possibility that complacency and ineptitude is what built it not only makes for a mysterious story, but a big, fat existential allegory! For in the end, are we not all prisoners within a giant maze we can’t discern, who’s maker is unknown and who’s purpose in indistinct? Calling to mind Kafka, Sartre and the “Allegory of the Cave” – a la Socrates – these movie was not only a nail-biting thriller but a fittingly dark philosophical commentary.

Last Night (1998):
Filmed and set in Toronto by writer/actor/director Don McKellar, this apocalyptic sci-fi film tells the story of the last night on Earth, and shows various people choose to spend it. Though the date is not specified, and no explanation is given as to what calamity will be bringing the world to an end, it is made abundantly clear that it will be coming at the stroke of midnight, leaving everyone in the story only a few hours with which to live life to the fullest.

Naturally, the streets are filled with people who have decided to riot, loot and generally wreak havoc. But the main focus of the story is on the lives of various intersecting characters who have chosen to use their time more constructively. One is Patrick (played by McKellar himself), who lost his wife not long ago and is spending the time saying goodbye to family and friends, but who seems to want to spend the last of it alone.

His best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) chooses to spend it in a non-stop sexual marathon as he attempts to fulfill every possible erotic desire he has, not to mention those of his partners. This includes having sex with his former French teacher, a black woman, a virgin, and just about any other scenario he can think of. When Patrick comes to say good-bye, he clumsily tries to encourage him to have sex with him as well. Patrick awkwardly declines, but Craig manages to get a sustained kiss out of him before he goes.

Meanwhile, Sandra (Sandra Oh), who has become stranded in the streets, meets up with Patrick and they get to talking. After realizing their time is short and they have only each other to spend their last hour with, they begin talking and sharing. Many times over, she insists that Patrick open up, saying “make me love you”. They agree to a suicide pact on the roof, listening to “Guantanamera” and drinking wine. In the end, they cannot shoot each other and end their time on the Earth with a heartfelt kiss.

The movie became an instant hit because of its personal nature and the realistic way in which it depicted the end of the world. By not specifying how the world was ending, McKellar kept the focus on the people themselves and how they chose to confront death, bringing out the very best and worst in themselves. While some chose to lose all control and commit murder, others chose to spend it with loves ones, or took a chance on forming new bonds with total strangers.

This last performance, between Sandra Oh and McKellar himself, was the most touching part of the film. We have two people who would never have known each other, both of whom experienced personal tragedy, and who came to experience one brief, shining moment of love – the most life affirming thing of all – before all life ended forever. So sad, yet so poignant. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

eXistenZ (1999):
From the same mind that brought you Scanners (David Cronenberg) comes this twisted psychological thriller about reality and the way technology affects our perception of the world around us. Featuring an all star cast that included Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar and Willem Dafoe, this movie received multiple awards and was well received by critics, though its box office gross was overshadowed somewhat by the release of the Matrix that same year.

Set in the not too distant future where organic game consoles known as “game pods” are all the rage, the story revolves around two game companies – Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics – who are competing to create the best in bioware. At the same time, a group of “realists” – people who are opposed to the technology because it “deforms reality” – are engaged in a guerrilla-style fight with both companies.

Enter into this Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the greatest game designer in the world who works for Antenna and is testing her latest virtual reality game, eXistenZ. During a seminar, she is shot in the shoulder by a realist using an “organic gun” – a device which can pass through security checkpoints – and the console appears to be damaged. As a result, she must plug in and test it with a trusted person and asks Pikul (Jude Law), the security guard to join her.

As they enter the game, reality becomes increasingly distorted as the two undergo behaviors which seem odd to them but are “consistent with their characters.” At the same time, they are stalked by characters that appear to be Realist fighters who are trying to sabotage them. Geller eventually realizes that they have been double-crossed by the people who installed Pikul’s bioport, the interface which is inserted into a gamer’s lower back, in order to infect and destroy her game. On top of that, Cortical Systems personnel are also inside, looking to copy the game for their own purposes. Pikul then reveals that he is in fact a Realist agent who was sent to kill her. She answers by saying she knew for some time and detonating his bioport.

However, in a finay twist, the two then appear on a stage with the other main players from the game and realize they were all part of a virtual reality game called “tranCendenZ”. This game was being played by the cast,  mirroring the first scene, but with electronic devices rather than game pods. The real game designer, Nourish (played by McKellar), feels uneasy because the game started with the assassination of a game designer and had an overall anti-game theme that he suspects originated from the thoughts of one of the testers.

Pikul and Allegra approach him and ask him if he should pay for his “crimes” of deforming reality. As Merle (Sarah Polley), Nourish’s assistant, calls for security, Pikul and Allegra grab hidden pistols  and shoot Nourish and Merle to death. As with the other game, the other players appear more frozen than shocked, suggesting that they are still inside. Pikul and Allegra point their guns at another player, who is at first dismayed, but then asks if they are still in the game. Pikul and Allegra don’t know, and the last scene ends with the fear written on their faces.

Much like the Matrix and Inception, this movie was characterized by it’s mind-bending sequences and unpredictable twists, showing how one’s perception of reality can be distorted thanks to the effects of mind-bending technology. But whereas other films chose to delve into the relative aspects of it all or sought to make an existential point about mind control, Cronenberg’s aim was clearly in showing the dangers of such reality-based technologies by equating them with drugs. All throughout the film, the psychoactive nature of the game is played up, showing how the ability to distort reality and tamper with one’s own psyche can be an addictive form of entertainment. The dangers in this are obvious of course, in that one’s ability to tell reality from fantasy will be worn down, leading to potentially fatal consequences.

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Well, that’s movies covered! It will take a few more days to cover the rest, respectively television and literature. These are even more fertile ground than films, so expect some detailed and lengthy posts. I will try to be brief as possible, but this is a tribute to my country of origin so don’t expect any topical treatments. No, sir! In the meantime, Happy Canada Day to all Canucks at home and abroad. Hope you are with the one’s you love and are having a good time. And to you Canada, happy 145th birthday! Cheers!

Robocop Speaks to Detroit

robocopHilarious, yet somehow socially relevant. Recently, Peter Weller joined the people at funnyordie.com to make a public announcement. Apparently, several citizens of the Motor City announced that they want to erect a statue of Robocop to commemorate their city and how it was the setting for that franchise. However, Mayor Bing shot the idea down, referring to it as “silly”. In response, Weller went online to call the mayor out and lend his support to the idea.

Through a series of comical displays and a cheeky speech, he indicated how the themes of Robocop are in fact appropriate for a city which is suffering from rampant unemployment, a decimated manufacturing sector and corporate greed. After all, these were all central to the story of the movie, so it makes sense to Weller and others that his trademark character get a statue.

And it does, if you think about it. Robocop was all about a good cop who sacrificed his life, only to be turned into an icon for corporate control over a once fair and proud city. He turned the tables by becoming a popular hero, taking on the very corporate moguls who made him what he was.

Follow the link below to watch the full video. I would have embedded, but the damn folks at Youtube disabled it. Dorks!