Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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Hollywood’s preeminent zombie-hunting ex-model, Milla Jovovich, took time out of her busy shooting schedule on the Germany-based set of The Three Musketeers, her husband Paul W.S. Anderson’s foray into the realm of period-accurate, 3D adaptations of cherished literary classics, to chat with me about her gripping new drama Stone, in which she stars alongside Edward Norton and Robert De Niro. To her credit, she successfully parried my repeated attempts to bait her into making fun of the curious hairstyle that adorns Norton’s head in the film. You win this round, Jovovich.
Your role in Stone is quite a bit different than what we’ve grown used to seeing from you. I was curious about how it came up on your radar, and were you surprised that it did?
I definitely was really happy to get the script. Since having my baby, I’ve felt very much more open to just going out, performing, writing and being an artist in general, and feeling like this newfound confidence as a mom and a newfound confidence in myself. Part of that bled over into my film career in the sense that I really wanted to go out and audition for things, really keep on my toes. I was really just into the whole process of being a performer again, just going out and reading for a lot of different stuff. When this came up, of course I just jumped on it ... I compelled by these sort of flawed personalities and these grey areas and the fact the script didn’t really put everything in a neat little package for people. It’s very rare that you get scripts that don’t sort of shove an opinion down your throat, and this is one of them. So I was very interested in the subject matter and very interested in the characters and of course, working with Edward and Bob was unbelievably attractive. What actor wouldn’t want to work with such amazing artists?
When you say “Bob,” you’re of course referring to Robert De Niro. You got to be a part of that exclusive club of people who get to call him Bob.
Everybody can call Bob “Bob.” You never feel like you can, because his movies sort of precede him into the room. So, you know you’re always on your best behavior and he’s always like, “Just call me Bob.”
So you go from killing zombies to seducing Robert De Niro. That has to be a little daunting in certain respects, right?
I think the whole script was daunting. The seducing Robert De Niro part, that was sort of just one of the elements that would seem a bit intimidating, but I think the character as a whole – she is very much a flawed personality and at the same time very beautiful and very joyous, and brings a light to the film and the script that I think was really important for the movie. So there were so many elements that I was sort of trying to put together for this character to not make her just one thing or the other and to kind of follow in the footsteps of the script by not making it so obvious. I think it’s always a journey to discover who people are, and it doesn’t all just unfold in an hour and a half, you know? I think that’s what the movie leaves you feeling, that there’s so much more to discover about these people.
With all the characters in Stone, there’s this great sort of ambiguity and a gradual getting to know these people that I think is my favorite aspect of the film. So let me ask you, how long did it take to get used to Ed Norton’s cornrows?
(Laughs) I mean, Edward’s amazing and his process is so beautiful because he spent a lot of time interviewing and hanging out with the prisoners at the Jacksonville County Prison and interviewing these guys and putting them on tape. He let me listen to some of these tapes and it’s just amazing how open these people were to sharing their experiences. And he would pull one thing from one person and one thing from another. The voice is one particular guy and the cornrows were somebody else and it was beautiful to see the character come together for him.
That’s interesting, because I have to admit it took me a while to adjust to that hairstyle.
I think that’s the great thing about Edward is that he really very much slides into every part he plays in a different way and I think definitely the whole persona was something that he wanted to sort of encase himself in because he said, “You know these guys in prison, they really take on these personalities.” They sort of encapsulate themselves in these tattoos and cornrows to sort of protect themselves.
So you’re filming Three Musketeers right now in Germany, and I noticed you tweeted about “climbing castle walls in corsets.” Is that as difficult as it sounds?
It’s pretty difficult. Anything in corsets is a challenge, especially sports or any athleticism in particular. I mean, corseted women were meant to just sit and do nothing, and I’m sort of doing quite a lot of climbing and sneaking and action. One of the more challenging aspects of this movie for me was how I would actually do all these things with the corset on, because definitely by midday you’re like “Get me out of this thing!” I need to breathe, I need to stretch, I need to like bend my back a little bit.
Are there times you look at your husband and say, “What are you putting me into?”
I think it’s wonderful to see Paul doing a historical piece and I think definitely we both share such a love of history and we spend our time off – the rare time that we have it – always talking about history. It’s a pet subject for us, and we’ve always wanted to do a historical movie and of course he loves the action, so Three Musketeers was very much kind of already tailored for him in a sense. But it’s beautiful too, because I think he’s taking the 3D aspect to a whole new level because we haven’t really seen 3D done like this before. To see it done on a historical piece, it really, you really get immersed into this world, the castles and the scenery and the statues. It’s very interesting, and it’s kind of taking it out the whole sci-fi world and the horror world and the action world and taking it into a whole other era to immerse people into the past. It’s beautiful.
So you can confirm that there are no zombies in this version of The Three Musketeers?
(Laughs) Nope, not that I’ve seen so far.
You also recently talked about doing a fifth Resident Evil film. How long do you think you can keeping doing these movies? It has to be exhausting for you.
Well, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve definitely said, “Let’s go RE:5,” but I didn’t say, “We are doing another one,” just that I would love to. Of course for me, I would love to do another movie Ali (Larter) and Sienna (Guillory) ... I love the franchise. I mean, we built the franchise from its baby stages into what it’s turned into today. It’s wonderful to see a four-film franchise with a woman in the lead having so much success and it’s definitely our little baby in a sense. So I love it, and I have a lot of fun doing it. I love doing the stunts, I love doing the training for it; it’s something that’s always been attractive for me. I grew up watching the Thundercats and She-Ra and stuff, so I always had this feeling as a kid that I wanted to be this sort of magical, powerful woman who could fly and do crazy stunts and sort of be a superhero.
Maybe we need to see a live-action version of Thundercats.
That would be awesome. They’ve been talking about doing it for years, but I don’t know. There’d be a lot of makeup involved.
Stone opens in select theaters this weekend. The Three Musketeers is currently slated to open October 14, 2011.