February 13, 2014

Who cares about Robocop's nuclear family life?

Of all the things they're changing in the RoboCop remake, the heavy focus on his family life is the main reason I'm no longer curious to see how this one turns out. It's got Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman, so it should at least be watchable, unlike the remakes of Footloose, Total Recall, etc., which had nobody, and which were not hard to spot ahead of time as garbage.

First, the scientists don't just pick Murphy to be the hapless cyborg guinea pig -- they go to his wife to get her consent. In the original, the fact that he's just chosen without asking anybody shows how much corruption there is between all the parties involved -- police, government, big business. How are these parties supposed to come off as disturbingly all-present and all-powerful when they have to clear the cyborg idea with the wife first? If she had said "no," would that have stopped the entire scheme dead in its tracks? Maybe they just don't make omnipotent corporations like they used to.

Then when Murphy doesn't feel so hot about the whole robotic cop deal, the scientist convinces him to stay strong and go through with it -- for his wife and son. This is just ego-stroking for the target audience of doofus dads, who want to see their ordinary effort of "being there for the wife and kids" glorified into heroism. And not in a self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek way, like Clark Griswold in Vacation. No, it has to be in a serious emo tone, reassuring them that helicopter parenting is nothing less than an epic sacrifice, rather than suffocating to the kids and paranoid and cowardly toward the outside world that must be shut out.

In fact, Murphy's family in the original are gone. When he visits his old house, it's empty, and his wife and kid have moved away. I guess after learning of his brutal murder and not being informed by OCP about about the whole "new life as cyborg" experiment, they figured he would never be coming back to visit. Not only does their absence add to his desire for revenge (the bastards robbed me of my family too), it serves to contrast the two lives that he has led: formerly a family man, now a loner.

In the remake, his wife and kid are still there, even interacting with him. They visit him at work, she tells him about his son's nightmares, and he returns home to them while reviewing footage of his murder. Does Robocop also get interrupted on his cell phone every half-hour because his son got an owie, because his wife needs him to pick up some yogurt on the way home, because the dog peed in the living room again and when are you going to finally make him housebroken, bla bla bla?

Not only does their presence dull the revenge motive from the original, it makes him too dependent, when he is supposed to be more of a lone wolf. How else is he supposed to find the time to single-handedly send crime rates plummeting in dystopian Detroit? Super-cop has no time to double as Super-dad.

Back in the '80s, critics complained about "gratuitous nudity" and "gratuitous violence." How about gratuitous wives and gratuitous children? It's fucking RoboCop. We have enough movies with CGI nuclear families taking their puppies to a picnic at Disney World.

I think this is one of the key elements of success behind the new Batman and Iron Man movies. No families. There, it takes the form of a playboy who moonlights as a superhero, which is the opposite extreme on the family-life spectrum. Characters today have zero nuance, and are either hardcore cads or single-minded dads.

In RoboCop, Die Hard, and Lethal Weapon, Murphy, McClane, and Murtaugh all had wives and families, but they were in the background to establish that the hero was a father and husband, not to play their own role throughout the plot. The only time they enter the plot is to get kidnapped, taken hostage, or driven away, in order to provide motive for the hero. Family life itself does not come into play, and the wives and children have no goals or agency of their own.

What if the entire plot centers around kidnapping the protagonist's child? At least that keeps the family members from interacting with each other, so we don't have to see drab family life in an action or thriller movie.

Even there, new movies do it worse than the '80s originators. The movie Taken, for instance, is nowhere near as adrenaline-pumping as Commando, despite similar plots -- retired government ass-kicker finds his daughter abducted, he must track her down in unfamiliar territory, kill the abductors, and rescue her back home. In Commando, the kidnappers have a personal beef with the ex-Delta Force colonel played by Schwarzenegger, and his daughter is taken as a pawn in the larger game of chess being played between her father and those who have beef with him.

In Taken, the ex-CIA operative lets his daughter go to Paris, where a gang abducts her purely in order to sell her to the highest bidder on the black market for white slavery. None of the antagonists have any idea who the father is, are not trying to use his daughter to get back at him, etc. Just sheer profit-seeking opportunism. Not exactly adrenaline-pumping revenge and counter-revenge.

It's shamelessly meant to feed the helicopter parents' paranoia about what random crimes will definitely befall your teenage children if you let them have a social life. "Can I go to Susie's party?" becomes caricatured into "Can I go to Paris, France with Susie?" And "Some creep tried to make out with me" gets warped into "Albanian gangsters tried to sell my virgin body to a shady Sheikh."

Helicopter parenting of cocooning times gets everything about family life wrong, probably because it is so paranoid and over-reactive. Vacation, Commando, Die Hard -- those movies get family dynamics right, yet they came from a zeitgeist that prized communal rather than familial bonds.

I think what's going on is that in more outgoing and community-oriented times, folks come to appreciate the bigger picture, beyond their narrow little lives. It puts family life in perspective. Paranoid cocooners and helicopter parents lose that perspective and over-exaggerate the importance of constant contact among family members. Sheltered within their private nuclear households, they can't see what larger belonging and meaning they ought to be enjoying in life, and they try to make up for that by having family members shoulder way more of that burden than they are capable of.

Give them a break and get that sense of belonging and meaning where you're supposed to, from the larger community.


  1. excellent analysis.

    My wife first started pointing out the gratuitous wives and children ,which have ruined so many movies, about a decade ago. She likes thrillers and action movies and feels showing the so much phony family interact detracts from these films.

    I remember seeing the original Robo-cop in 1987. this was popular with the teenage crowd and young adults. I doubt many people over the age of 30 went to this movie. The crowd was overwhelmingly male, while I brought a date to see Die Hard, I went to see Robo-cop with my male friends. It would have been a turnoff to us if he Robo-cop had kids and a wife hounding him. Today they try to appeal to the older people, thus they add the family scenes. Now the teenage boys have cool video games to play, which we lacked in 1987. The population is also older, so they need to try and get some 40 year olds to see the films. In 1987 they made no attempt to get anyone over age 30 to see this film, and those over age 35 would mock the film as mindless violence corrupting the youth of America. My uncle, who was into film, was 34 years old at the time and would never consider seeing Robo-Cop.

  2. I've never seen the original Robo-cop but it's definitely at the top of my list. I like the concept of "gratuitous wives and children" though. As a part-time stand-up comedian, I can attest that that a lot of amateurs make the mistake of inserting this exact thing into their act to win audience sympathy, and it winds up alienating the audience instead. There's nothing wrong with talking about your children in the context of something truly hilarious they did but these guys will go on and on about trivial family background information. When you only have five minutes on stage to PERFORM STAND-UP COMEDY, you need to make it count by fucking telling jokes.

  3. "Even there, new movies do it worse than the '80s originators. The movie Taken, for instance, is nowhere near as adrenaline-pumping as Commando,"

    "80s kid that I am, I saw COMMANDO when it first came out with a bunch of my friends, and I don't recall that we felt much of an adrenaline rush from the film. We saw it as a goofy, quasi-spoof. It certainly was not nearly as as heart-pumping as TERMINATOR , LETHAL WEAPON, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD II, or PREDATOR.

  4. If you were a kid, you might not have identified with the father who was fearing for his little daughter. I don't know if you'd get the same feeling today either, now that the threat of kidnappers, molesters, etc., are much lower.

    Sure, Commando isn't as edge-of-your-seat as the others you mentioned, but compare it to its present-day counterpart. It's way more engaging, and that simple difference in the motives of the characters makes a big difference. Purposeful / vengeful vs. random / profit-driven kidnapping.

  5. "a lot of amateurs make the mistake of inserting this exact thing into their act to win audience sympathy, and it winds up alienating the audience instead."

    Right, it's a cheap shot at the audience's heart. It's not like cynical pandering, the way that it would be coming from an advertiser, but more like a signal of distrust of the audience, a refusal to be vulnerable on stage.

    "I refuse to open up to you guys and let it all hang out. Instead, I'll take a lowest-common denominator approach." Might as well chat about the weather we're having.

    Glad to hear that stand-up comedy audiences are resisting that more than other audiences.

  6. "I doubt many people over the age of 30 went to this movie."

    I remember my dad and folks his age going to see these kinds of movies. Predator, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon (and Dirty Harry before that)... these were hits with Baby Boomer males, where they knew the one-liners, the characters' names, etc. And all those Vietnam movies.

    They might not have gone to see them again and again in the theater, going the video rental route for seeing it again. But they were big with the over-30 crowd back then.

    These days, movies are not so much geared toward old people but toward children-and-parents, so that it'll be a "fun for the whole family" activity. I.e., bore the whole family. Too grown-up for kids, too kiddie for grown-ups.

  7. Dang, yeah this new Robocop reboot keeps sounding worse and worse! I remember seeing the previews a few months back, grimacing at how weak and impersonal Murphy's "murder" was compared to the original. All signs point to it being a weak, boring, BS movie compared to the original, all in the name of promoting "family values". Blah!

  8. I worked at a movie theaters from 1985-1986. And my best friend worked at a different theatre from 1987-1989. So I got to see almost every movie I wanted to see for free. Where we lived we rarely saw any patrons over the age of 30, especially for a movie like Robo-Cop. In the 80s, most adults over 30 years old were married with kids, and had less time to attend movies than this age group today. My parents were born in 1943, they went to the movies about 5 times a year in the 70s and probably once per year in the 80s. The last movie we attended as a family was probably Ghostbusters.

    I just found a survey from 1985 indicating that 65% of Mover goers were 18-29 in 1983, 1984 and 1985, and 76% were between 18 and 34

    a 2011 survey indicates just 12% of movie goers are 18-24. with just 30% 18-34.
    One reason for the vast difference, America had many more Americans aged 20-30 back in the 80s compared to today, as the average age is 15 years higher today than in 1985.


  9. This reminds me, all of the Winter Olympics commercials are bad. They are all sappy or corny.

  10. Hollywood totally sucks nowadays. Why can't we just live with our memories of RoboCop? Do they have original ideas anymore?


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