I was recently on a long flight and watched Transcendence and the recent remake of Robocop, and felt moved to write on both at once.
I often wonder what’s going on with Cillian Murphy’s career, in large part because I admire his work, but also because it can be such an odd career sometimes. Somewhere in Los Angeles at any given moment, directors are hanging out at a party agreeing that Cillian Murphy’s talents are best used in the depiction of Special Agent Bland American, that staple of middling sci-fi. Transcendence unfortunately defines middling, but whereas Murphy’s character in In Time was a frustrating limitation on the Irishman’s talent, he seems to have been ahead of the curve here; he knows full well the film is all at sea. He plays his character as best he can but fully aware that in the final edit he will be a passenger with little in the way of any true usefulness to the plot. There are no wide-eyed moments here, none of the blue-eyed intensity at which Murphy really is quite adept, a skill that benefits from but is not provided by the colour of his eyes.
It’s a pity, but Murphy being lost somewhere amid the background set hanging out with Cole Hauser (Cole Hauser!!!) is only one of the many minor tragedies in Transcendence. Johnny Depp continues to work at pushing the boundaries of utilizing his star status to provide the least amount of effort he can get away with; he is surely only two or three productions away from having the script placed inside a prop below eye level during the shoot. Rebecca Hall does a fine job with what she’s given, which amounts to tearful powerlessness. Morgan Freeman seems to have realized the jig was up early on and settled into kind uncle mode. Kate Mara does a passable impression of Kate Mara, and I’m beginning to suspect Paul Bettany isn’t the talent I once assumed him to be. When his performance is the same whether he’s playing a vampire murdering priest in the post-apocalypse or an embattled scientist watching as the world falls apart, one starts to wonder. In Transcendence, he’s not helped by the script. Midway through the film his character chooses to join the ranks of the terrorists that murdered his friend and kidnapped him. This isn’t a film where you’re left to conclude a key moment must have occurred off-screen. There was no key moment; the character reached the page in the script that indicated he should do something else.
The idea isn’t bad and some of the goofiest aspects of the film, particularly as the script stretches uncertainly towards some kind of nanobot-riddled Gaia, are almost fun. This film could have been fun. Though, really, it is perhaps indicative of the film’s weaknesses that its greatest promise comes amid severe misery. Depp’s character, charismatic man with glasses, has been shot with a bullet laced with radioactive material. It comes across as rather vindictive. We can assume the terrorists’ plan was to grievously injure him but not kill him immediately. In any event, Depp is left to wallow in the inevitability of death. He sits around slowly coming to terms with his fate as his partner fails to bring herself to do the same. She simply cannot accept that he is leaving her, that he is leaving them. I want the first twenty minutes of the film to be its own piece. The cancerous savagery of Depp’s otherwise hysterically silly injury is quite upsetting, as is Hall’s depiction of death by proxy. The slow and unrelenting final steps of death are terrifying for the person slipping away and the people closest to them. Transcendence comes almost painfully close to capturing this, if only for a brief moment, but it seems accidental. The film is intent on making a statement about the role of technology in the formation of society, an aim it declares repeatedly but never executes in any meaningful way.
Robocop similarly strives towards making a specific statement about technology in society. The film is far less reflective than Transcendence and in some ways less ambitious, but ultimately more successful. Robocop says out loud something we all know to be true: technology facilitates the full expression of human cruelty as we scramble to avoid the truth. The titular policeman is a walking drone unleashed on the city of Detroit. Whereas in the original Peter Weller’s Murphy never had the chance to overcome his technological salvation to recover his old life as he wandered through an empty kitchen, the remake sees Murphy reunited with his family as soon as it suits his corporate masters only to take him away once more. Murphy makes a personal voyage through hell.
I mocked the early trailers of this film as it became apparent there would be awkward scenes of Robocop attempting to hug his non-robo wife and son, but it was a good decision. It fits the movie that Jose Padilha has made, and that’s important. Verhoeven’s Robocop was venal, trashy, cheap and inspired all at once; it was an imperfect classic that only improves with age as the rough edges fade from memory or become attributed to an acceptable attrition rate of dated obsolescence during repeat viewings. Verhoeven was biting in a way that Padilha is not here. Verhoeven laughed in the face of corporate masters taking our world away from us. Padilha mourns our refusal to fight against the obvious.
Of course, Robocop is more an action film than a tender reflection on the intense inhumanity of sending machines to end human life by remote control, though it is both. It’s also a little too often self-aware in a way it likely didn’t need to be. Michael Keaton’s corporate Doge orders that Robocop’s armour be changed to a sexier black in a move that makes perfect sense within the plot but I can’t help but wince a little. Thinking something looks cooler all in black just feels so nineties to me. The film occasionally quotes its ancestor when it really shouldn’t, though the ED-209 callback is rather nice.
Keaton, unsurprisingly, is magnificent. Mania has always been a central part of Keaton’s appeal, and his failure to contain it here while keeping up a thin pretense at the attempt is perfect for his ruthless CEO. Gary Oldman is a pleasure, doubly so when one considers how easily he could have left things in autopilot without doing too much harm. The mixture of his performance and the little bit of care in the script renders his scientist’s personal arc many times more convincing than Bettany’s sudden turn in Transcendence. Joel Kinnaman is a fine Murphy.
Ultimately however, the film tries to cram far too much in. Jackie Earle Haley does a great job with what he is given, but what he is given is completely superfluous, an odd budget R. Lee Ermey with antipathy towards the protagonist. Jay Baruchel must play the coke-addled corporate foot-soldier but he never had a chance, his character’s shine a mere mote in the face of Keaton’s sun. Michael K. Williams is never given a chance to show off what he can do, while Samuel Jackson is terrible, a Capital One spot in a sports coat. It’s just awful. He seems alone among the cast in assuming what I had before watching the film: that it would go straight to DVD.
I liked the film. Ultimately it tried to do too much, unfortunately. For much of the film Padilha strikes a nice balance of politics and action, daring to push his message a little closer to the forefront than the audience might expect. Unfortunately this is completely overcooked as the film goes on, and the script’s determination to spell things out to the point of audience abuse undermines the enterprise. Still, Robocop has heart and wants to make you think. It just makes the mistake of yelling at you when sitting down to chat would have done the job. Transcendence meanwhile merely yells at the audience incoherently and then tries for a happy ending. Both films look at the tragedy of men imprisoned inside machines. Transcendence, laudably, aims for ambiguity but falls short by some distance. Of the two films, Robocop is the film that asserts itself more clearly, that states the case that we are too quick to surrender our humanity to convenience. I’m still not sure if Transcendence wanted me to to think about the wonders of a post-industrial world or feel better using an iPhone.