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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It's amazing that an episode of television can involve both the death of a major recurring character and the wedding of one of the series' stars and still feel like nothing happened. This week's 30 Rock, in the wake of Liz Lemon's marriage to hot dog vendor Criss Chros — an event that left me questioning the very fabric of my own world perspective — sets its gazers on two of the show's most toxic relationships: the wholly upsetting Liz and Jenna dynamic, a friendship-turned-enmity, and the far more interesting Jack and Colleen dynamic (Jack's mother, a role played to absolute perfection by Elaine Stritch). Although each of these storylines prevents a major change of course for its characters, neither seems to quite live up to potential.
Jenna Maroney is a character on whom I soured long ago. Gone are the days of her humanity; 30 Rock has transformed what used to be a likable, pitiable person, overwrought by insecurity and self-destructive habits, into a nonredeemable monster. She exhibits no compassion for anyone, least of all Liz, her alleged best friend. And all in the name of what is supposed to be humor, although the laughs come infrequently with Jenna lately. She's just plain hard to watch*.
But at the onset of this week's episode, "My Whole Is Thunder," Jenna seems like she might have an entirely sympathetic conflict: her grief over not having been invited to Liz's wedding. An offhand jab at the heroine for this offense early on in the episode seems to mislead the viewer into thinking that Jenna is simply hurt that her very best friend, her own maid of honor, chose not to include her in her day of matrimony. But this idea is quickly glossed over when the story turns focus on Jenna's ego. She simply needs to be the star of the show, the center of attention. She vies to reclaim this territory by staging her own "surprise wedding" during a Lifetime (.com... /garbagefile) ceremony recognizing Liz as a female role model, but Liz ambushes the ordeal by using her gift for lighting design to make Jenna look horrible and as such recoil into the shadows. Unimportant note: Oprah's friend Gayle is there. This show loves Oprah.
Later on, Liz and Jenna have some words that are meant, presumably, to conclude their longstanding toxicity once and for all: Jenna admits that she is impressed by how far Liz has come and is as such overwhelmed by envy. It's not the sweet and sad kind of "I wish I could be like you" kind of situation; it's more like a horribly bitter "I want you to perish" thing, but it's as close as the late-era incarnation of Jenna is going to come to humanity. The pair makes up and resigns one another back into the sad positions they have for the past few seasons upheld. Liz and Jenna might be a horrible thing to watch, but at the very least, hopefully, we can just put their "friendship" out of our minds for the rest of the series.
Meanwhile, Colleen Donaghy has returned to New York, once again wreaking havoc upon her son's psyche. It's the same old song and dance between them: she criticizes him for everything he does, he counteracts with a combative animosity. But it's all a pleasure to watch thanks entirely to Stritch, who has made Colleen an undeniable favorite among recurring 30 Rock characters. But... well... that's over. Because in this episode, as elderly parents are wont to do in later seasons of programs, Colleen dies.
Her death, brought on by heart attack, follows a fight with Jack about the very nature of their relationship. He calls her overbearing, she calls him ungrateful, all that jazz. But in lieu of an ambulance, Colleen demands that Jack escort her to the hospital in a horse-drawn carriage, presumably well aware that she might die on the way but insistent that she spend her last moments by her son's side, telling him, privately, that she just wants him to be happy.
We'll never know what Colleen's true intentions were in making this statement to Jack, but years of mommy issues have contorted Jack's brain to the point of automatically interpreting this to be one final passive-aggressive criticism; Jack reads Colleen's final words to mean that could hope only for happiness for her son as she believed him incapable of obtaining anything more. Not success, not greatness, not the superhuman stature for which Jack has always gunned. Just happiness. And of course, happiness is not even close to good enough for Jack. With that, he mourns his mother's dying opinion of him, reflecting on how all throughout his life, he understood her to never think he was good enough.
But we know that's not true. We've seen Colleen open up just enough in the past to suggest how proud she truly is of her "good boy." Jack, with that contorted brain and all, can't fathom this as a truth, so he plummets down a rabbit hole of dejection following his mother's death, questioning his own merits and achievements. It would be interesting if we were to see more of this journey, more of Jack coming to terms with Colleen's last words to approach the eventual, happy realization that his mother's lifelong critique of him is what turned him into the triumphant, accomplished person he is, but we really only see the aftermath: Jack pronouncing his realization at his mother's funeral, and going on to give the best eulogy ever. Irish poems, woodwind performances, an appearance from Kermit the Frog... it really is quite magical.
And then, not to be outdone again, Jenna takes the stage, using the platform of Colleen's funeral to finally have her own "surprise wedding." And Jack, acknowledging how irritated and appalled Colleen would have been with this atrocity, laughs heartily to himself and lets Jenna have her spotlight.
Again, it seems like this episode should feel like a big one. Colleen dies, Jenna gets married. But it's moreover a filler episode. Anything not furthering Liz's story at this point will feel that way. But I suppose we do have to give Jenna her happy ending (if only to get her out of the way), and transport Jack to his eventual peace of mind as well. And as for Kenneth and Tracy... well, they hang out in an elevator with a drunk Florence Henderson this week. It's actually quite delightful.
*Based on the novel Stone Cold Bummer by Manipulate.
[Photo Credit: Ali Goldstein/NBC (2)]
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