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):
https://i1.wp.com/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):
https://i2.wp.com/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

New Trailer: Captain America The Winter Soldier

Marvel's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER - Teaser PosterJust yesterday, the first trailer for the upcoming Captain America sequel was released. Entitled Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this movie appears to pick up where the Avengers left off. And from the look of things, they chose to go with a “the enemy within” story arc, where Shield is forced to contend with a threat that comes from within the US government itself.

The cast includes Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson – reprising their roles as Steve Rogers (Capt. America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Nick Fury – and also includes Anthony Mackie as “The Falcon”, Sebastian Stan as “The Winter Soldier” and Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. The movie is set to be released on April 4th, 2014.

Robocop Relaunch!

Oh no, not another 80’s relaunch. And just when it seemed that this summer couldn’t possibly OD any more on 90’s relaunches! But, all things considered, I think this is one that might actually be worthwhile, and which I myself could be persuaded to see.

In any case, though the details are a bit sketchy, the movie is scheduled for launch in 2013 and will star Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy/Robocop. Additional cast include Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish (from Suckerpunch) and Hugh Laurie (of House fame).

In addition, the trailer seems to be taking the same approach as Scott did with his build-up to Prometheus. Rather than show any scenes from the film itself, the preview takes the form of an advertisement by Omni Consumer Corp (OCP), the evil mega-corporation that is responsible for building Robocop and controlling Old Detroit.

It’s quite interesting, and I am reasonably intrigued as to see how the remake chooses to deal with the original’s various themes, such as cybernetics, corporate domination, urban decay and a society numbed by violence and distracted by mindless entertainment.

Attack of the Clones. Here we go again…

Hello again! Here we are picking things up again with the Star Wars saga. Today, it’s the second installment in the prequel series, the ridiculously named Attack of the Clones. As I’m sure we all remember, Clones was the stuff of mixed reviews, some critics hailing its special effects and visual style, while others emphasized its flat dialogue and wooden romance.

But even more interesting was the fact that critics were torn over whether it was better or worse than the Phantom Menace. Not a good sign, and the butt of a LOT of jokes and debate. Hard to imagine that fanboys who were united in bashing the PM would find themselves fighting each other over which they thought sucked more!

But to be fair, there were some good points in this movie. So without further preamble, let’s get into it:

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with the crawl once again saying that there is a crisis. This time around, it’s the threat of Separatists – led by former Jedi Count Dooku – that’s making things problematic. And once again there is deadlock in the Senate over it. In any case, now-Senator Amidala comes to Coruscant to speak her peace on behalf of those who oppose taking strong measures, and an assassination plot gets underway.

This prompts the Jedi order to send two old friends, Obi-Wan and Anakin, to provide her with added protection. Their introduction is rather painful to behold, as the hormonally raging Anakin begins relating how he hasn’t stopped dreaming of her and tries to make awkward conversation with her. He also picks a fight with his mentor, Obi-Wan, over what their mandate truly is. In the midst of all this, Jar Jar breaks the fourth wall by looking into the camera and smiling at the audience – a sort of, “I’m still here, bitches” for all the fanboys to see!

In another bit of “things to come”, we also learn that Anakin has been having dreams of another woman – his mother. He dreams that something terrible is going to happen, but in the meantime, they must focus on Padme, who’s assassin is still out there. For some reason, they decide to “use her as bait”, which consists of letting her sleep in a window-filled room with nothing but R2 as protection. Didn’t Obi-Wan say they weren’t supposed to be investigating, just protecting? Oh well…

In any case, her would-be assassin sends a probe with some poisonous slugs to attack her. Obi-Wan and Anakin kill said slugs, and Obi-Wan jumps through the window to grab the probe and ride it. Wait, didn’t he say they weren’t supposed to be investigating? Why’s he so determined to follow this probe then? Anakin grabs a speeder, they fly like mad, and chase the attacker through the city. Anakin reveals that this woman is a shape-shifter, a fact which seems superfluous, but whatever. They also performs some stunts that defy the laws of physics, but that’s also unimportant.

After reaching a bar, Obi-Wan and Anakin chase her inside and begin combing the crowd. After a quick re-enactment of the scene from A New Hope (where Obi-Wan sliced off another thugs hand), they drag the shape-shifter outside and learn she’s subcontracting. But of course, her contractor kills her before she can say her name. Obi-Wan, who for some reason was willing to chase the shapeshifter across the planet, just lets him go…

The Jedi Council decides its time to send Padme home, and that Anakin is to go with her. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is to track down the assassin by himself, a quest which takes him to the world of Kamino. This decision to split them, far from making logical sense, seems more like an excuse to get Anakin and Padme alone. Why send a Padawan off on his own, especially when his master has such misgivings about his attitude and powers?

But anyhoo, things get kind of cool when Obi-Wan arrives on Kamino and learns that former Master Sifo Dyas ordered the creation of a clone army. This, combined with the fact that the location of the planet was removed from the Republic archives memory would seem to indicate that there is a conspiracy afoot. Obi-Wan then meets with the clone template, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett, and is convinced he’s found Padme’s would-be assassin. They fight, Jango escapes, and Obi-Wan pursues him to Geonosis.

Meanwhile, we get a string of scenes that are meant to elicit a romantic response. After following Padme around, complaining bitterly about Obi-Wan and professing his love in a series of ever creepier and wooden dialogue, Padme tells Anakin there’s no way. Why? She’s a Senator… Uh, what? Are Senators not allowed to date? Of course, Anakin can’t because he’s a Jedi, but the very fact that they’re talking about this would seem to indicate the feeling is now mutual. Seems sudden, but neither here nor there…

Arriving at Geonosis, where there’s a massive a droid-building colony, Obi-Wan gets into it with Jango and the Slave I. After thinking he’s killed him (Obi-Wan eludes death by copying Han’s hiding move from Empire), Jango proceeds to planet and Obi-Wan follows shortly behind. After wintessing a meeting between Dooku and the Separatists in which they plan their attack (using their droid and clone armies), Obi-Wan broadcasts his position and is then captured. He meets Dooku, who proceeds to tell him the truth, after a fashion…

He tells Obi-Wan there is a Sith in charge of the Senate, and that his plans are motivated to bring him down. He asks for Obi-Wan’s help, who in a move taken from Empire and Jedi, tells him he “will never join you”. Back on Naboo, Anakin continues to have bad dreams about his mom and decides he must go to Tatooine. He retraces her path, only to discover that she was taken in by some people from the movie – the Lars family, which includes the future Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

He learns she was taken by Sandpeople, and catches up with them just in time to watch his mother die, at which point, he and loses it! And I mean REALLY LOSES IT! In a scene we don’t get to see, Anakin takes out his lightsaber and kills the entire community of Sandpeople who kidnapped and tortured his mom, including the women and children. He returns to the Lars family dwelling and tells Padme of his mass murder, to which she replies that it’s no big deal.

I’m sorry, NO BIG DEAL?! Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, this man just confessed to murdering women and children and all Padme can say is that “to be angry is to be human”? What kind of sociopathic, enabling bullshit is that? Is she so into bad boys that she’s willing to overlook this first-time offense? Or are they in such a hurry to get to the next scene that she’s just got to forgive and move on? And why the hell didn’t the Jedi Order even mention this on his return? We all saw Yoda sensing it? C’mon people!

Alright, moving on… Back on Coruscant, the news of a Separatist army explodes like a bombshell, with Palpatine once again exploiting it for personal gain. Thinking he’s doing the smart and noble thing, Jar Jar moves that Palpatine get emergency powers – a la Octavian – and his first act is to create an army for the Republic. Why they don’t have one already is beyond me, but who cares? Point is, Palpatine has got his way, and Yoda and Mace Windu decide its time to get involved.

Anakin and Padme also get the distress signal from Obi-Wan and decide they will go save him. They arrive on Geonosis too and after a needless scene where they are almost killed in a robot factory, they too are captured. A scene ripped off from Gladiator follows, as they are reunited in a massive Colosseum-type arena to die in a public display. They escape and begin to wreak havoc, and are rescued just in time by the arrival of Mace and the Jedi Order. They fight to a standstill and are surrounded, when Yoda arrives with the Clone army and begins kicking some ass.

A big fight scene ensues on the open plains of Geonosis between droids and Clones, while Obi-Wan and Anakin chase Dooku down. He beats them both in a rather implausible scenario, first managing to cripple Obi-Wan without actually killing him or severing any of his limbs, and then cutting off Anakin’s arm (an obvious preview of the scene from Jedi). Yoda once again shows up to save the day, and in another scene from Jedi, Dooku does his lightning trick.

The fight ends with a stalemate, Dooku runs with Padme shooting at his ship. Once more, a scene from the originals is at work here, this time from Empire when Leia was shooting at the Slave I. But Dooku escapes, makes it back to Coruscant and tells Sideous (Palpatine) that the war is happening, as anticipated. He meanwhile sends the first batch of clones on their new Star Destroyer look-alikes, and Yoda laments that the Dark Side has fallen and “The Clones Wars” have begun.

The movie ends with Padme and Anakin back on Naboo, where they’ve decided to get married after all. But since it’s a secret wedding, the droids are the only parties in attendance. THE END!

What didn’t work:
Well, where to begin? I shan’t dwell on the wooden dialogue or the horrid lack of romantic tension, since those are the popular whipping posts of most critics when it comes to this movie. Instead, I’d like to stick to some of the more obvious weaknesses, those that become more clear with hindsight.

  1. The Set-Up: Things get rolling when we learn that an assassin is trying to kill Padme, presumably because she’s the voice of moderation between the Republic and the Separatists. However, things get really implausible, really fast. For one, why the hell did Jango Fett subcontract anyway. Why not simply kill her himself? And why did this lady use poisonous bugs when a simple bomb would have killed Padme instantly? We saw how easily that probe flew to her window, so why the slow, stupid and easily thwarted approach? Then came how Jango’s involvement led Obi-Wan on his wild goose chase. The only reason he knew to find him on Kamino was because he used a dart which was manufactured there. The only reason he know to fly to Geonosis was because Jango mentioned it to him. And why was Jango pulling double duty with the whole assassination thing anyway? If the Kaminos are such good cloners, anybody’s DNA would do and they could just enhance it. Having him do that and eliminate Padme was just a way to tie the two plots together really and make sure Obi-Wan could find out all that was going on.
  2. Love-Story Contrivances: I know, I said I wouldn’t mock the terrible dialogue, which I won’t. To me, the real weakness here was just how contrived and unnatural the whole love story seemed. Aside from a brief, age-inappropriate meeting ten years before, Anakin and Padme are practically strangers. Having Anakin say that he’s loved her ever since they met was completely forced. On top of that, the way they are sent to Naboo together and all the scenes of them doing lovers things: boating, playing in open fields, eating and retiring to the hearth – are all obvious attempts to try and force a sense of romance. That’s the key word here: force (no pun intended). Between Anakin constantly announcing his feeling for her and all the idyllic scenery they take in, it’s like Lucas was behind us constantly saying “Look, they’re in love!” In the original movie, Lucas took his time to build up the romance between Han and Leia. In the beginning, they couldn’t stand each other, but this concealed some genuine tension. In time, this flourished as they got to know each other and began to start acknowledging each others strengths. In the end, it was clear that their different backgrounds and personalities is what led to their attraction. Throw in some genuine crisis, and they realized they were in love. See? That’s a love story, not this!
  3. Unsubtle Dialogue: Again, said I would avoid talking about the wooden dialogue. Which I am, sort of! My gripe here is just how unsubtle and (again) forced it all was, which is something the critics really didn’t get into. Examples: in the beginning, Anakin announces that he loves Padme when talking with Obi-Wan and Jar Jar. When talking to Padme, Anakin announces that Obi-Wan is an unfair master who’s too hard on him. When sitting around the fire, Anakin announces how much he loves her. Finally, she announces her feelings back. And in this, they are hardly alone. All throughout the movie, actors announce what’s going on as a means to convey what’s happening and to make the audience feel the requisite emotions. Never is time taken to convey feelings, mood, or establish tension the old fashioned way. And this just makes for a bad movie! As Robot Satan said in Futurama: “You can’t have characters just announce their feelings! That makes me SO ANGRY!”
  4. Way Too Much: In the documentary of the making of Phantom Menace, there is a lovely scene where Lucas and his people are watching the screening and there’s this moment of “uh-oh” at the end. They then discuss how Lucas did too much and how that brought down the ending. You’d think between movie one and two, he would have learned from this, but no! In this movie, he tried to do way more. On top of showing how romance developed between Padme and Anakin, he’s also shoved in a big ol’ preview of Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side, how the Clones Wars started, and Palpatine’s evil rise to power. A lot of critics jumped on this, saying that the movie was too long and suffered from a sense of duty. And in that, they were profoundly right! Duty is another key word when describing this movie. Having spent movie one showing where Anakin came from, they now had to preview his fall, where the twins came from, and how the Clone Wars started all at once. And it made for a sloppy feel, with too much happening and things bouncing around from one thing to the next without any of it getting enough development.
  5. Recycling: But alas, all of these faults could have been mediated had it not been for the fact that there really didn’t seem anything new about these movies. All throughout, there is material which seems to serve no purpose than to satisfy origin stories or recapture elements of the first three movies. In Clones, Boba Fett, Luke’s surrogate parents, the Death Star and Vader’s robotic arm are all previewed, and that’s on top of the Clone Wars and the romance plot. Once more it’s like Lucas is behind us saying “Look! That’s how it happened!” But like everything else, it just feels forced. Why not let new characters have their time in the spotlight? Why is it necessary to use every character from the first three movies? And another thing, this movie, more than in the first, uses scenes from the originals like never before. I mean, its one thing to rip off other movies, like the arena scene from Gladiator, but Lucas was even ripping off himself! The scene in the bar where Obi-Wan cuts off the hunters arm, the scene where Obi-Wan hides his ship on the back of an asteroid, the scene where he tells Dooku he won’t turn, the scene with the lighting bolts, the scene at the end where Padma is shooting at Dooku’s ship. All of these are clearly meant to recapture the feeling of the original Star Wars, but they fell short for the simple reason that audiences wasn’t nearly as emotionally involved. There’s paying homage to an original, and then there’s recycling, and this was the latter!
  6. Lazy Shooting: Something else which became apparent by this movie was the lazy way in which it was shot. After Phantom, It was already obvious that Lucas loved to cram as much CGI into every frame as possible. Hell, that much was obvious with the Star Wars Gold Editions! But if you watch the movies again, pay close attention to how EVERY SINGLE scene is shot. In these, you have the actors either walking slowly across the stage or sitting down. Always. Two cameras capture all of their dialogue and exchanges, Camera one, camera two. Always. If they are walking and talking, they will always stop, turn, and go back and forth between camera one and two. Meanwhile, all visual effects and background are provided by a green screen and all CGI characters are represented by colored lights. There are virtually no props, no stand ins, and a minimum of real actors. This, I have learned, reflects Lucas’ preferred way of directing. He sits in his chair at the edge of the green screen and drinks his coffee while the actors interact with each other or lights which tell them where to look. They walk through, stop, turn, or stay seated, do their lines, and his two cameras capture everything. Action shots are handled in much the same way, with only the occasional close-up or distance shot. Unless of course the entire sequence is animated by CGI, which they usually are!
  7. Strengths? Not so much: The strong points about this movie, the ones that critics hailed, mainly had to do with vision and special effects. But here’s the thing: Lucas’ vision in this movie consisted of CGI environments that all seemed to be taken from other movies or real locations. That doesn’t seem very bold or original. And what’s more, even the special effects weren’t so innovative. Clones was launched during the summer of 2002, right about the time that Spider Man, Minority Report and Men in Black 2 were released, all of which made impressive use of CGI. So really, what was so stunning and unique about this movie’s visual effects? And if action was something else about this movie that people liked, consider that it came out at the same time as The Bourne Identity and XXX as well.  So really, this movie was not a stand-out, smash-hit, summer blockbuster. If anything, it was one hit in a summer full of them.

Well, that about covers the weaknesses of this movie. I did my best to avoid the cliched, beaten-to-death talking points, and yet I still feel I hit on them quite a bit. And I really went long there too didn’t I? And yet, I haven’t even mentioned what bothered me personally about this movie. But to do so means ditching all the civilized critique stuff and going all the way back to summer of 2000.

In was back then, between the first two movies movies, that Lucas seemed to be pulling an about face. A year after the Phantom Menace debuted, reassuring rumors began to circulate that Lucas claimed its sequel would be more dark, more realistic and more gritty, kind of like the way Empire was to the first movie. However, these hopes were shot when Lucas announced that the second movie would be a romance story at that Jar Jar would remain in the picture.

When asked about the fans hopes for something more adult and dark, he casually dismissed these and other criticisms by saying that Star Wars had always been a “Saturday morning serial for kids”. This above all else seemed to annoy me, and countless other fans, since it now seemed apparent that Lucas really didn’t care what his age old fans and was going to continue to do the things that was making the new movies incompatible with the old.

However, after movie two he seemed to sit up and take notice of just how annoyed the fans and critics were getting. With one movie left in the franchise, he seemed determined to give these objections some due before the sun set on the prequel trilogy. Of that, more next time. Stay tuned!

 

Cool Weapons!

Last time, I spoke (at length) about all the awesome firearms that come to us from a variety of science fiction franchises. But let’s face it, there’s a lot more than just guns to speak of! In fact, part of the genius of sci-fi is in how it is constantly inventing entire arsenals of weaponry, tools, and the various nicknacks that make the world go round. Any director or writer who show attention to detail will make sure that their characters come equipped, looked the part, and that their settings have plenty of believable gadgetry taking up space in the background. Here are just some of the cool examples:

Claws:
Predator_clawsAlong with the burner/plasma caster, these weapons are the most basic of Hunter weapons in the Predator universe. According to tradition, every Hunter must distinguish themselves in battle by confronting an enemy in single combat using no other weapon than their claws. Based on the two non-crossover films (Predator and Predator 2), this is apparently done once all lesser prey are eliminated and only the top prey is left. When that occurs, the Hunter will ensure that this finale opponent has been deprived of any additional weaponry, and then will shed every other weapon in their arsenal and engage them in hand to hand combat.

Combi-Stick:
Part of the Hunters arsenal, this weapon comes from the Predator universe and is part of their wider arsenal of cool weaponry. The name refers to the fact that this staff serves multiple functions. Collapses, it serves as a sort of quarter staff. However, the stick has telescoping sections with a blade like end, which when deployed turn it into a spear. In Predator 2, a hunter used his stick on multiple occasions. Against a group of the Jamaican gang members, it was used strictly for impaling, but during a later scene, it was used as a throwing spear against Danny Glover’s character.

Crysknife:
The Fremen weapon of choice, made from the tooth of a Maker (i.e. a Sandworm). The name and design of the weapon are based on the kris, a ceremonial dagger that was traditionally used in Indonesia and is associated with many cultural legends.

A testament to Herbert’s ability to incorporate historic and cultural elements into his stories, the kris is an enduring symbol of the Dune universe and was used by Fremen for warfare, duals, and ceremonial purposes, much like the real thing! In addition, the Fremen had very strict rules about the use and exposure of these knives. According to the Shadout Mapes – the Fremen housekeeper in Dune – who gives one to Jessica: “Who sees that knife must be cleansed or slain!” And as Leto II remarked in Children of Dune: “The crysknife dissolves at the death of its owner.”

Lasgun:
This weapon was the brainchild of Frank Herbert, and is a familiar weapon in the Dune universe. According to Frank’s many novels, the lasgun was a continuous-wave laser projector weapon that when fired emitted a constant, narrow beam of photons. Though it was able to cut through just about anything and was the weapon of choice in the Old Imperium, it had since fallen into disuse by the first Dune novel.

This apparently had to do with the invention of personal shields. Rather than protecting against a lasgun burst, the interaction of the two would cause a reaction that rivaled that of an atomic explosion. Hence, attacker and defender would both be killed instantly if either ever came into contact. Much like the prohibition against the use of nukes in Herbert’s universe, one would get the distinct impression that he was commenting on the futility of nuclear deterrents and arms races.

But that’s another matter. The lasgun, from its first appearance in Dune, has gone on to inspire many a sci-fi franchise. One that immediately comes to mind is Akira. In this movie, riot squads and the military employed large, external cell powered weapons to fire focused beams of light on a large mob, hewing off limbs and burning holes straight through some people! The main character Kaneda also commandeered one and used it to fight his psionic friend, Tetsuo, near the end of the movie.

Lightsaber:
Just what is it about lightsabers that make them so unbelievably cool? Is it that warm glow? The otherworldly feeling one gets from seeing one being activated? Could it be that crack, hiss sound they make when they clash, or that warbling noise when they’re spun around? Or could it just be the fact that they deflect blasters and cut through anything? Well yes! It’s all of the above, clearly! Yet another brainchild of George Lucas, meant to call to mind scenes of swashbuckling and chivalry from old samurai movies, the lightsaber has since gone on to occupy a central spot in the collective unconscious of an entire generation. It is a staple, perhaps THE staple, of pop culture’s take on sci-fi.

Making its debut appearance in the first Star Wars movie, the lightsaber was the established weapon of the Jedi. In addition to being their mainstay, lightsabers were also highly personalized, every Jedi being tasked with building one as part of their training. Originally, the only two designs were that of the blue and red, the former being associated with Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker (which Luke then inherited), and the latter being associated with Darth Vader. However, Luke went on to create his own and fashioned a green beam. With the expanded universe, significance has been given to different colors, each one associated with a different class of Jedi, and indicating whether they are a member of the Sith or the Jedi Order.

For starters, blue is the color of the Jedi Guardian, the warrior class of the order who focus on combat training and fighting. Green is used by the Jedi Consuls, people who focus more on the force and accumulating wisdom and insight. Yellow represents a sort of middle ground, belonging to those Jedi who focus on a combination of both and are usually called upon to settle disputes and act as arbiters. When it comes to the Sith, only one color appears to be used, and that is red. However, purple, orange, and other closely related colors have popped up from time to time in various places as well. In addition, Mace Windu, the Jedi Master portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, wielded a purple lightsaber as well. However, this was apparently due to Jackson’s insistence that his character have a purple weapon, as well as the initials BMF etched onto the side!

Ma’Tok Staff:
Coming to us from the Stargate universe, the Ma’Tok is a combination laser gun, club staff that is used by Jaffa warriors (the specially-bred human servants of the Goa’uld). According to the Stargate Wiki, the Ma’Tok relies on a plasma discharge to strike and cauterize the enemy, causing severe damage and intimidating resistance. It takes its power from an internal cell that employs a liquified mineral (Naquadah) to generate plasma energy. This liquid mineral gives the staff a virtually indefinite shelf life, making it the perfect blend of aesthetics and lethality!

Monomolecular Wire:
Here’s an idea that comes in various forms, but for the purposes of this post, I shall stick to the examples that I know best. The first one comes in the form of the Yakuza enforcer from Johnny Mnemonic! Anyone who’s seen this movie (or read the short story it was based on) will remember the main badguy who had an artificial thumb that contained a long filament of glowing wire. When he pulled that thing out and started whipping it around – LOOK OUT! – things began to get lopped off and sliced up! Another example of this being used as a weapon is from the Japanese anime Hellsing. In that show, the butler of the namesake character had monomolecular wires attached to each finger which he would break out whenever there was a crisis. Perhaps they were fashioned from silver, I really can’t recall. Would make them more effective against vampires though!

Plasma Sword:
And we’re back to the Halo universe for another example of cool gear! And today, the item in question is the plasma sword. As gamers are no doubt aware, this weapon is melee weapon of the Elites, but can be employed by humans as well since it’s your basic hand-held weapon. And much like lightsabers and lasguns, it can cut through just about anything and makes short work of any opponent. In many ways, its even more effective than the ballistic and energy weapons in the game. Whereas those can take several shots to take down an enemy (especially someone infected by the flood) one good hit from this baby will turn them into pulp! And if you see an enemy approaching you with one, be sure to hang back and unload your weapon in their direction!

Stone Burner:
Doubling down on the Dune universe, the next example of cool weapons comes in the form of Stone Burner. As a tactical nuke of limited yield, this weapon was the only form of nuclear device that was not prohibited by the Great Convention. This body, in addition to banning all forms of AI’s, also put a stop to the use of nuclear weapons, though it did not forbid the Great Houses from owning any. In any case, Stone Burners, when used strategically, could have a devastating effect on an enemy.

This weapon makes only one appearance in the Dune saga. In Dune Messiah, Paul Atreides is lured into a trap in the old quarter of Arrakeen where a stone burner is set off, which leads to the loss of his eyes.  Though physically blinded, Paul was not deprived of his vision (i.e. his prescience). This all had to do with a larger plot to force Paul to surrender his power as Emperor in order to save his children. And I think we can all agree, any plot that involves a tactical nuke and blinding your enemy Samson-style is pretty badass!

Throwing Disc:
Another Hunter weapon, this particular one made its first appearance in the second Predator movie and then went on to become a regular part of the Hunters’ arsenal. Much like their other weapons, the throwing disc appears to have many variations and may even be personalized to an extent. This may be the result of constant upgrading, or it may be that individual Hunters have a hand in designing their own gear. In either case, many types of throwing discs have appeared. Some employ simple curved blades, blades with spikes, or even shuriken-like appendages (as the picture at right demonstrates). In each and every case, the result generally involves hewed limbs and decapitations!

Thermal Detonator:
“Because he’s holding a thermal detonator!” Yes, whenever a bounty hunter pulls one of these out, you know they mean business! This weapon, which comes to us from the Star Wars universe, made its first appearance in Return of the Jedi. Since that movie came out, the device has been mentioned and referenced countless times in the expanded franchise. Apparently, thermal detonators are the grenades of the future, using plasma charges that when detonated, cause a large explosion that will burn through just about anything. Always be sure to bring one to a negotiation, just be sure to get the ones with the fail-safe triggers!

Vibroblades:
My third and final act of doubling down on a single franchise! Vibroblades are an integral part of the Star Wars universe, but also appear in a number of other franchises. In each case, the weapon revolves around melee weapons that are powered by ultrasonic devices. This increases the weapons cutting effectiveness, and makes them almost as dangerous as a lightsaber. Well, more like a distant second! But non-Jedi’s got to settle for what they can get.

In the video game Knights of the Old Republic, vibroblades and melee weapons are used due to the introduction of personal shields. Some might call this a rip-off of the Dune universe, but in this case, its not so much a matter of necessity as practicality. If an enemy can absorb your blaster fire, then rushing and attacking them with a sword kind of makes sense. And it gives the characters some practice with melee combat before they learn to harness their Jedi abilities.

Last Word:
Okay, I got nothing! Yep, after looking through all the aforementioned examples of cool weaponry, I really couldn’t find any particular patterns that were worthy of comment. Basically, it all comes down to things that augment or go beyond the usual arsenal of guns. It’s only where the swords and knives come into the mix that I see anything beyond simple coolness. And just about all that drinks from the cup of Frank Herbert, a man who merged the ancient and futuristic in order to make a point about technology and how one could find the past in the future and the future in the past. Yeah, that stuff was deep!

As for the rest of it, it’s just plain cool to behold… and fantasize about! Yeah, twenty years later and I still want a lightsaber of my own! 😉

The Star Wars Prequels (cont’d)

Isn’t it always this way? I just get finished with a long review of the Star Wars prequels, and I realize I left some stuff out. Not only that, I notice that I made some technical errors as well. Ah well, I suppose its the burden of Star Wars geekdom – anal-retentiveness and a total weakness for details. And if all these Star Wars reviews have proven nothing else to me, it’s that I’m a total geek! So here we go…

1. Anakin is NINE in the original movie: That’s right, nine. Not ten, as I originally said. Boy, I’m splitting hairs even mentioning this, but I don’t want someone noticing it and thinking I’m not up on my Star Wars trivia. Why, to a fellow geek, something like that might just stick in their craw!

2. Good acting: Looking back on my three reviews of the Phantom, Clones and Revenge I realized there was something I neglected to mention. The fact that there was actually some good acting throughout. Liam Neeson, for example. He’s always good, but as Qui Gon he was actually quite capable and had a good presence. Samuel L. Jackson, though his lines were heavy-handed as hell, nevertheless managed to bring some much needed bad-assery to this painful trilogy. And how could I have possibly forgotten Ian McDiarmid? The man who brought The Emperor to life in the originals was back again for more in this trilogy! I honestly think that his character was the only one that was faithfully executed in every one of his scenes. He was certainly the only one who had consistently decent one-liners, and that’s in spite of Lucas’ weak writing! I tell ya, it’s that voice. The man could make dish water sound cool and menacing! And the way he transitions so easily from a prissy, overly-cultured Senator to an evil blood-curdling Sith Lord… masterful!

3. Racial Caricatures: In drawing out Lucas’ use of racial stereotypes, there was one key characteristic I failed to mention. Watto, who is an obvious Jewish caricature, had several characteristics that gave him away. The ones I mentioned were his love of money, yamaka-style hat, and exploitative personality. But I forgot to mention the hooked nose! That above all else was a dead giveaway that Lucas had antiquated prejudices on the brain when he wrote this! I also could have mentioned that he combines several Italian stereotypes into his character as well: the stubbly face, the paunchy belly, the thick, raspy accent, the tank top, the hand gestures and phrases like “whaddyaknow?” In fact, that’s what I thought he was until the Shylock-like parallels were pointed out to me, then I was even more offended. Two stereotypes in one, good job Lucas! *Cough* Racist!

4. Hard-ass Jedi: In my first review, I mentioned how the Jedi were portrayed as needlessly harsh teachers for the way they told Anakin that his fear for his mother was a bad thing. I even mentioned that this would come up again later, by which I was referring to the third movie. And wouldn’t you know it, I totally spaced on it! Which is nuts because it was pretty damn intrinsic to the plot. To recap, the Jedi Council tells a nine year old Anakin (nine, not ten!) that he must forget about his mother because his fear of losing her will lead him to the Dark Side. Of course I thought that was total BS! I mean, who tells a kid this kind of stuff and expects it to go over well? Not only that, but it seems like such a stretch. “You’re afraid of losing your mom? Why, that’s the gateway to evil!” No, telling a kid he has to forget about his mom and sit back while she’s MURDERED is the gateway to evil! Not that they’d notice, these guys can’t sense evil when it’s three feet in front of them and in the form of a Sith Lord!

But as if that wasn’t enough, Yoda is at it once again in the third movie. When told that Anakin is having premonitory dreams where someone he loves dies, he simply tells him to let it go. Apparently, his love for this person and fear of losing them is also a bad thing! “Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is,” says Yoda. Not only that, he’s told he should be happy that this person is dying! “Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force.” What the hell kind of advice is this?! Has Yoda forgotten what Anakin did the last time they told him to just let go? Apparently he has because it never once came up again! So not only is he not allowed to have any romantic attachments, he can’t have any attachments period! Seriously, was Lucas so desperate to make Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side seem justified that he had to pitch the Jedi as a bunch of unfeeling jagoffs? Personally, I’d be telling Yoda and the entire Council to get bent and then march straight on home to nail my wife! Them and their whole order of ascetic virgins can kiss my ass! Bunch of self-righteous fops, you ask me!

4. Selling out: Last time around, I lamented Lucas’ selling out but hoped he might take the hint and get back to his base. Alas, I was already too late! Seems that in the last few years, he’s released two more special editions of his movies! Yes, as if the original box set, the THX box set, the Gold Edition box set, and the prequel box set weren’t enough, now we have “Star Wars: the Force”, and “Star Wars: The Complete Saga”, both of which are full volumes of all six movies. Both contain all the usual bonus feature crap and behind-the-scenes documentaries, but the Force edition is apparently a directors cut that includes all the deleted scenes. Yeah, I’m kind of intrigued by the idea of bonus scenes too, but Jesus Christ Lucas, how many new versions of Star Wars do we need?! You got alimony to pay or a dozen bastard children we don’t know about? Stephen Spielberg got something on you that you gotta pay to keep under wraps? Why else would you feel the need to re-merchandize the most merchandized franchise of all time? You know, I think this might just be his way of sticking it to all those people who laughed at him when he said he wanted to retain the merchandizing rights!

Well, that about covers it for now. As usual, reflecting on the path Star Wars has taken since my younger days has left me feeling bitter and jaded. I suppose its all in how you look at it. On the one hand, I could be happy that Lucas, who started as a humble purveyor of sci-fi (like me!), became a man with the power to shape several generations worth of popular culture. Or I could be pissed that the man who created something that helped shape my and many other people’s childhood went on to rape it! Tough call man…