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Lethal enforcers: Robocop and the collateral damage of Hollywood’s quest for justice

As RoboCop patrols the streets of Detroit once again, Toby Litt considers the result of Hollywood’s conservatism: if there’s a gun, it has to be fired.

Crime and punishment: Travis Pitts’s RoboCop tribute in constructivist, Soviet-German style

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” This advice from Anton Chekhov has developed in the screenwriting business into the law of “Chekhov’s gun”. A Hollywood interpretation of the law might read: “If you put an X on the poster, there’s got to be an even bigger X in the film.” (For X, read: gun, laser, monster, explosion, and so on.)

Ever since the beginning of American cinema, films have been remade – but bigger. “Bigger” in this context means not only bigger budgets and bigger stars and bigger bangs but also bigger pretensions. This month’s example of same-but-bigger film-making is José Padilha’s Robo­Cop, which is an exponential version of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop.

A brief flashback to 1987 might be useful. While attempting to bring order to the streets of Detroit in the near future, the police officer Murphy is gunned down by psychopathic drug barons – in an extended scene reminiscent of David Cronenberg at his juiciest. Murphy’s bodily mutilation gives an amoral executive at Omni Consumer Products the chance to advance plans for a cyborg law enforcement officer. (“Part man. Part machine. All cop.”)

In a boardroom power play, the “old man” who heads Omni tells his senior president, Richard “Dick” Jones, to green-light the RoboCop project, after an executive is gunned down by a malfunctioning ED-209 military model robot. As RoboCop begins to bring order to the streets of Detroit, he realises that the man who is ultimately causing much of the civic disorder (for evil corporate reasons) is Dick Jones.

Because he is an Omni product, RoboCop is prohibited by “directive four”, programmed into him, from harming the company’s employees. When he first confronts Jones, RoboCop finds that he can’t arrest him, because his robot parts will not obey his brain. In the film’s final moments, Robo­Cop battles his way up to the Omni boardroom and proves to the old man that Jones is the villain. The boss tells Jones, “You’re fired,” and RoboCop is able to effect justice by shooting Jones, who is no longer an Omni employee.

Padilha’s remake largely follows this plot line but changes almost every detail to make it bigger. I say it’s Padilha’s film but those who wait through the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” until the end of the credits will see that to make films bigger these days, it takes a village or even a small commuter town.

You can tell that everyone involved – apart from the countless stunt people who mainly jump sideways and go “Eugh!” as RoboCop blasts them through the aorta – was straining to achieve some profound personal and geopolitical meaningfulness. Unusually, the film has an American actor, Michael Keaton, as the corporate baddie, rather than the default slimy Brit or hissy German. Gary Oldman brings plenty of ethical dilemmas to the role of Dr Dennett Norton, RoboCop’s Dr Frankenstein, and Samuel L Jackson acts as Shakespearean chorus, replacing Verhoeven’s ironic adverts and news reports with the rhetoric of a tech-loving, proto-fascist talk show host. (“Which begs the question – has the US Senate become pro-crime?”)

Amid the bigger explosions, there are some surprising moments of satire and philosophy that Slavoj Žižek (an admirer of the first film) might be able to make appear significant. But, after the underwhelming climax (at least, compared to that of the original), we’re left blaming the screenwriters for too slavishly firing and re-firing Chekhov’s gun until the thing overheats and jams.

The original RoboCop was a very intelligent movie masquerading as a dumb one. The new RoboCop is the reverse. Paul Verhoeven has made a career of Trojan Horse movies: thick, wooden offerings with smart, subversive contents, the best example being Starship Troopers.

Rather like Michael Mann’s The Insider, which begins with a bravura Middle Eastern, terrorist-related set piece, then turns into something far more inward-looking, Padilha’s RoboCop starts with cyber soldiers and updated ED-209s pacifying the streets of Tehran. In one of the film’s more telling moments, a group of suicide bombers sets out to disrupt the patrol – because it is being broadcast live in the US (on Samuel L Jackson’s gung-ho talk show). “The goal is to die on television,” says the bombers’ leader, Arash. They succeed beyond their aims; the ED-209 is recorded blasting to death Arash’s younger brother, who has rushed into the street armed only with a knife. This media Snafu is a setback for Omni’s owner, Raymond Sellars, who had intended to deploy ED-209s on the streets of Detroit “to save American lives” (and to make the corporation billions of dollars).

The film’s most visually powerful scene occurs when Norton shows the RoboCop Murphy what is left of his body. The robotic parts peel away and the human Murphy turns out to consist of one hand, a pair of lungs swishing around in glass tanks and a brain in a jar. Murphy asks to die but is persuaded to continue living – because of what his death would do to his family.

This is where the new RoboCop becomes dumb. Throughout the film, Chekhov’s gun is held up in front of our face and bullets are loaded. We’re shown Murphy’s wife and son and his mutually nurturing relationship with them. We get the doomed-cop-putting-his-child-to-bed scene. We get the we-have-a-kid-but-still-have-hot-sex scene.

Throughout the film, there is a theological and philosophical argument being put forward. The brain in a jar is pure Descartes. “Free will” comes to the fore as an issue – particularly as Murphy’s dopamine levels are dropped to make him pliable. Jennifer Ehle, an Omni lawyer, scoffs at the idea that something within Murphy might resist all these behavioural restrictions: “Like what, his ‘soul’?”

There’s an equivalent of the first RoboCop film’s fourth directive, which ensures that no Omni employee can be harmed by the company’s product. If that kind of situation arises, everyone assumes, Murphy’s robot parts will not obey his brain. But at the climactic moment when, in the first film, RoboCop needs to hear the words, “You’re fired,” we find that in this bigger version (with its bigger – or soppier – heart), Murphy is able to control his robot parts, override his protocols and kill the man who has just waved a gun at his precious son. Bang! Chekhov’s gun has been fired again – and don’t you feel cheated? Because you saw it coming all along.

The point is not just that a slick film with many good things about it has shot itself in the brain. For sci-fi films, the consequences of screenwriters unthinkingly firing Chekhov’s gun are disastrous; and they are most disastrous when those films are dealing with the consequences of firing pistols or guns or lasers.

Because there are a lot of guns and lasers in Hollywood movies and because those weapons, once introduced, have to be fired, there is bound to be a vast amount of collateral damage. All of this, within the dark morality of the multiplex, is forgivable because what is being sought is justice. And violence – glorious violence, in the service of the law and a grand quest for what is right – is the point of these films.

RoboCop is part of a tradition of sci-fi cop movies that includes Blade Runner (1982), Demolition Man (1993) and Judge Dredd (1995 and the 2012 reboot, Dredd). It is Demolition Man – the most underrated of these – that plays off best against the new RoboCop and its conventional bullet-spraying. Where RoboCop strains for angst, Demolition Man tosses off gags. Yet the hard points about American crime and punishment are still made.

In the film, John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), a 1990s cop reanimated in 2032 to capture an old enemy, says: “Hurting people isn’t a good thing.” There’s a comic pause while Stallone realises that he’s at risk of undermining his entire cinematic existence: “Well, sometimes it is,” he adds, with a slight moue of that much-punched jaw. “But not when it’s a bunch of people looking for something to eat.”

Demolition Man is the perfect example of an intelligent movie masquerading as a dumb one. (Judge Dredd was merely dumb and dumber.) Starring, or more accurately using, Stallone, its witty script undermines all the clichés that RoboCop is so keen to elevate.

It’s a commonplace of thinking about sci-fi movies that they are westerns in disguise but with RoboCop, it is unavoidable: there’s a new lawman in town and he is, in essence, a gunslinger. One significant omission from the new RoboCop film – perhaps because it’s not angsty enough – is Murphy’s trademark twirl of the weapon before he returns it to the holster in his leg. In the first film, it was this detail that allowed Murphy’s former partner to recognise him, even though he has become an anonymous cyborg. It also allowed US viewers to feel reassured that some things hadn’t changed.

Again, Demolition Man punctures this. Just before the “Hurting people isn’t good” comment, Stallone’s character says, “Look, this isn’t the wild west – the wild west wasn’t even the wild west.” This may be the most insightful line Stallone has ever uttered. And despite being a big, dumb sci-fi movie about a lone, discredited gunslinger brought back into town to arrest an escaped desperado, Demolition Man does an excellent job of undermining Hollywood’s cowboy machismo. Perhaps the funniest instance of this is that, while cryogenically preserved, Wesley Snipes’s villain is programmed to be fluent in all kinds of lethal urban terrorism and Stallone’s hero is taught how to knit.

Ultimately, as a result of Hollywood’s conservatism, if there’s a gun, it has to be fired. If there’s a super-bomb, it has to be detonated (in space or out at sea). For cinema trying to say anything truly interesting about justice, this can be fatal. Only in films that have moments of refraining, of weighing the scales, can we hope to watch justice in action.

We see this at the climax of Blade Runner. Here, a cop decides to let the rogue police officer Deckard (Harrison Ford) and his replicant lover escape. After chucking Deckard’s gun to him, he says, “It’s too bad she won’t live. But, then again, who does?” He sees that justice, in their case, is beyond what the law dictates. The cop has a gun but doesn’t use it.

RoboCop has a gun and does use it. And by having him override his protocols because of his love for his family, the film-makers of this new version undermine what distinguished the original movie: Murphy’s inhumanity, his inability to function beyond the laws and interests of a corporation. All they end up saying is that good people are still good, even if bits of them are made of shiny metal.

“RoboCop” is out now

The second issue of Toby Litt’s new monthly comic, “Dead Boy Detectives”, is available now (Vertigo, $2.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.