Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Once Too Often to the Weller

This is my entry into the Juxtaposition Blogathon. The folks over at Pussy Goes Grrr are running this show. It's their first blogathon.

I got it into my head this week to watch RoboCop 3 (1993, directed by Fred Dekker), a film I barely remember seeing when it first came out. To say that it was a troubled production is putting it mildly. Peter Weller, iconic as the title character, refused to reprise the role. Nancy Allen only agreed to do it if her character were killed off. And to top it all off, Orion Pictures went bankrupt at the time of its production, causing it to sit on a shelf for two years. The movie isn't well liked by audiences, either, perhaps because of the casting, but also, perhaps, because it tones down the violence of the previous entries to gain that PG-13 rating that many genre fans hate. The film currently rates a 3.5 out of ten among the users of the IMDB. I feel kind of bad for Fred Dekker, a director I'm fond of. A lot of this was out of his control.

But the film itself? Y'know, it's not bad. It's like reading one of screenwriter Frank Miller's comics from the same period. Certainly, the film reflects Miller's preoccupation with all things Japanese, while indulging in the dystopia of The Dark Knight Returns and Give Me Liberty. It even has a character named Bertha Washington (very close to Give Me Liberty's Martha Washington). And for all the changes that occurred during its production, it feels like a RoboCop movie. The importance of Phil Tippett, Rob Bottin, and Basil Poledouris to the feel of these films shouldn't be understated, and all three of them return for this installment. Hell, Poledouris's score for RoboCop is almost as iconic as his score for Conan. Also, the movie retains the comedy value of the ED-209 robots, which I love.

What makes this less fun than it might be is the creepy accuracy of its prophetic vision. The future postulated by RoboCop is meant as satire, but in the years since these movies were made, the Supreme Court has ruled that Eminent Domain can be used to take property for commercial improvement and that corporations are people, while the state of Michigan this very year enacted legislation giving the state the power to seize municipalities in crisis (voiding their elected governments) and appoint managers who may or may not be private enterprises. The news broadcasts RoboCop uses as a joke have also taken on a feeling of verisimilitude. The third movie overplays this when it has a news anchor refuse to read patently ridiculous propaganda, which is probably giving TV journalism too much credit.

The story in RoboCop 3 finds OCP clearing out Cadillac Heights in order to build Delta City. They're implementing forced relocation using a brutal private security firm a la Blackwater (again, prescient). Some of the now homeless inhabitants of the neighborhood have organized a resistance. If they can hold out for a little while longer, OCP's loans will come due and the whole Delta City scheme will collapse. They're playing for time, but they're forced to use increasingly violent tactics. RoboCop is caught in the middle. His directives impel him to defend these people, but he's prevented from acting against OCP. The Rehab goons make his decision for him when they murder his partner, Officer Lewis, in cold blood and seriously damage Robo. Fortunately, Robo's new handler, Dr. Marie Lazarus, is sympathetic. She removes his fourth directive and allows him to act in the name of justice against OCP. Meanwhile, OCP has been taken over by the Kanemitsu corporation, who have deployed cyberninjas against him...

RoboCop 3 has a relatively excellent cast, including CCH Pounder, Stephen Root, Rip Torn, and Jill Hennessy, who all take the material slightly more seriously than it deserves. The excellence of its actors is a prime reason it's as watchable as it is. I'll also admit to being relieved at the relative de-escalating of the violence in this entry, which lets me enjoy it more as a comic book narrative than as a visceral splattery experience. I had enough of that in the first two movies. In spite of my relief at the de-escalation of the violence, the film does falter a bit in the staging of its action scenes. When you have cyberninjas in your movie you owe the audience a better martial arts showdown than what this film provides. Where is Yuen Wo-Ping when you really need him? The film's biggest lack, however, is in the lead. While Robert John Burke cuts a fine figure as Robo/Murphy, he misses some ineffable spark of performance that Peter Weller brought to the role.

Weller, meanwhile, was off making Naked Lunch, which was probably not a bad career choice given Weller's career choices immediately post-RoboCop. The highest profile movie Weller did during this period was Leviathan (1989, directed by George P. Cosmatos), one of a cluster of films that were playing guessing games about James Cameron's The Abyss. Because of that film's long production time, the rip-offs mostly beat Cameron into the theaters. These films also include Roger Corman's Lords of the Deep (natch) and Sean Cunningham's Deep Star Six. There must have been something in the water, if you'll pardon the pun. Of these films Leviathan is probably the best, but that's kind of faint praise if you've seen the others.

The film follows the crew of a deep sea mining operation who discover the wreckage of a Russian freighter. The freighter's log suggests that some kind of plague or contagion wiped out the crew--a supposition supported by the skeletons in its sick bay--but the true culprit is a mutagenic virus, perhaps man-made, perhaps not, that transforms its victims into shape shifting aquatic monsters. Soon, our blue-collar heroes are under siege. Meanwhile, the company doesn't have any investment in saving them. They're on their own.

It should be noted up front that this is more than just a rip-off of The Abyss, it's also a rip-off of Alien and The Thing. I'm frankly amazed that no lawyers were involved, but I guess by this point, rip-offs of Alien and The Thing were so numerous that litigation was probably an expensive luxury. I mean, it's a pretty shameless copy: you get the bickering of the crew at the dinner table at the beginning of the movie, you get the doctor who attempts to cut them off in the name of saving the world, you get the disgusting alien shapeshifter who assimilates its victims. You even get the faces of its victims staring out of its body. The movie throws in an ending inspired by Jaws for good measure. This is a film that doesn't have an original thought in its mind, not in its screenplay, not in its production design, not in its special effects. This is Hollywood serving up the same shit for lunch that it served up for breakfast, warmed over in a microwave. There's a level of cynicism in the screenplay that goes even deeper than that, though, because in addition to its thievery from other movies, it manufactures a couple of false crises at the reel changes to keep the audience from nodding off, while ignoring some of its own logical fallacies. We don't need a shark attack as a fake climax--we need an explanation as to why flushing an amphibious monster out the airlock into the open sea is a good idea--but we get one none the less.

For all that, though, it's relatively watchable. While the production design is totally derivative, it's derivative of good-looking films, and it manages the same level of polish. And while Stan Winston has created much better monsters than what appears in this film, it serves well enough, given that it takes as its design template various benthic fauna like the Dragonfish. And it has a pretty good cast. Weller is the lead, but Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo, Richard Crenna, Lisa Eilbacher, Amanda Pays, and Daniel Stern are all capable actors with interesting faces. The cast is too good for the material, actually. Still and all, I can't totally hate a movie that has characters walking through a grove of tubeworms. That one scene, after all, is something I've never seen in a movie before. Mad props for it, even if the rest of the movie kind of sucks. And it does.


Timothy S. Brannan said...

Great entry!

I love the RoboCop movies, but I'll be honest I can't recall anything of RC3.

You are right, the "future" of RoboCop looks a little too similar to the news of today.

I should go back and watch them all with new eyes now.

Mr. Gable said...

I'm glad we're on the same page with Robocop 3. I really can't stand the guy that plays him though. I know you only see his lips but honestly in part 3, they look like they're all swollen and gross.

But I do the extra badness in this movie. The extra attachments, the cyberninja, all that good stuff. Too bad this hurt Fred Dekker so bad he kinda hung it up after that. He's just so awesome.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Tim.

The accuracy of RoboCop's future is kind of creepy, isn't it? And depressing, too, especially because we don't have cyborg superheroes.

Hi, Mr. Gable.

I think the last thing Fred Dekker was involved with was Enterprise, the last Star Trek series. It's a shame he never got another feature, but we'll always have Night of the Creeps, I guess.

RVChris said...

I love the first Robocop and think that Robocop 2 is underrated. I didn't like Robocop 3, its too bad Weller didn't come back and that it was rated PG-13. I love Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad although I still need to see his Night of the Creeps.

I haven't seen Leviathan yet as I want to see The Abyss first. While it's not uncommon for hollywood to have several movies about the same topic come out around the same time (Armageddon/Deep Impact, Mission to Mars/Red Planet, etc.) I still find it funny that there were at least 4 underwater aline/monster movies that came out around the same time and tried to cash in on each other. 2 would be one think but 4?!