Sunday, April 30, 2017

Underappreciated Movies: Robocop (2014)

The 2014 remake of the much loved 80s movie Robocop wasn't very well received by critics or audiences. While I do understand some of the complaints about the movie, I also think it was very interesting in several ways, and actually has quite a few clever and thought provoking ideas, which I'd like to discuss here.

Firstly, though, let's be clear on where the remake fell short of the original. The PG rating, while allowing for a lot more than it used to back in the 80s, meant that director Paul Verhoeven's trademark over the top violence was absent, and that's a big deal. It would be like remaking a Michael Bay film and having a sensible amount of explosions in it!

The other big flaw was poorly written social satire. Verhoeven's sci-fi action movies such as Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers are all loved in large part because of their cynical satire and social commentary. The Robocop remake did attempt to include some of this, and while it worked in places (such as Michael Keaton's excellent performance), other instances such as the Samuel L Jackson satire of a conservative Bill O'Reilly-type character were forced and on-the-nose. Admittedly, this kind of satire is really hard to do well, but nevertheless the remake falling short here really cost it.

But on the other hand, the remake had an excellent cast (Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Samuel L Jackson), great special effects and production values, all things that I think often get overlooked and taken for granted in modern movies and remakes in particular. While of course these things aren't enough in themselves to justify a remake and consider it good, it is worth stopping occasionally and appreciating just how high the quality of movies is these days that we so easily dismiss as "crap".

Where I think the Robocop remake really excelled is in the interesting and thought provoking ideas that it contained, and there were quite a few. Most of these were based around AI, robots, free will, and similar topics that have evolved a lot since the original movie came out in 1987. Back then, general audiences didn't know much about a lot of these things, and probably very few even knew a term like AI. Things have changed a lot since then, and many other movies and TV shows now tackle these sorts of concepts in much more sophisticated ways than 30 years ago (e.g. Westworld, Chappie). The general public is more interested in these topics, robots and automation are an increasingly normal part of our lives, and questions about legal and ethical consequences of these technologies are no longer distant hypotheticals. It's exciting to me that topics I've been reading and thinking about for over 20 years are now actually interesting to other people!

Robots as soldiers/peacekeepers

The first big idea is the use of robots and autonomous machines as soldiers/peacekeepers. We already have autonomous drones and remote controlled robots used in the battlefield to limited degrees, but this is going to really change in the not too distant future as remote operated and/or autonomous robots become viable replacements for soldiers. The general public has an increasing distaste for human death (at least on their own side) and the taking of human lives by other humans, but we're suprisingly much less bothered by the use of machines. For example, people care much less about the innocent people who have been killed in drone strikes in the Middle East than they would if it had been squads of soldiers out there mowing down innocents.

Dead soldiers also make for bad PR back home. The less costs there are to the general public from war, the more likely they are to support it. So there are a lot of incentives to automate military forces, and this is going to keep increasing. The movie does a pretty good job of extrapolating from current technology and trends to what is plausible in the near future.

Moral Accountability

With robot soldiers (and simpler machines like drones) comes the problems related to the ethics of letting machines kill human beings. This isn't a trivial thing, and allowing robots to freely kill humans under some circumstances could be quite risky and dangerous. Any time a software bug or a hardware glitch could result in a machine being able to kill without an easy way to shut it down, that's something to be concerned about. And since a warfighting robot needs to obviously be resistant to attacks and also resistant to being hacked by an enemy, it's not clear how well that can be achieved while still retaining sufficient control in case something goes wrong.

The movie looks at this issue and the likely public concern about killer robots, and tries to gain public trust by making a robot with a human in the loop. It's not the addition of a human because the autonomous versions aren't very good, like the original movie. Rather, it's the addition of a human element in order to satisfy the public that there is proper moral accountability.

This is also one of the better cynical parts of the movie that comes close to the cynicism of the original, as a company looks for ways to appease the general public in order to get a piece of legislation about autonomous drones passed. It's entirely a self-serving motive without the company caring about any of the ethical issues that their technology raises, something that is a very real and pertinent concern in the present day.

Robocop is a Publicity Stunt

This was a great idea in my opinion, and something that I think is a story change that is much better than the original. The whole notion that Robocop is a terrible idea. They already have perfectly functioning autonomous robots, and the addition of a human element just makes one slower and less effective. The company knows this, but is doing it as a publicity stunt to appease the public about accountability.

By making this switch, the movie makes the horror of turning a human being into a big lumbering robot that can no longer live any kind of normal life a lot more real. But it also opens the door to some interesting discussions in the movie about just how much the human part should be in control, how much that human should be drugged and manipulated in order to "function" correctly and have a healthy mental state, and in what ways the human mind can be enhanced to make it work better (at least as far as being a good "Robocop" is concerned).

Suppressing Human Emotions

In order to make Robocop function better, they experiment with suppressing his emotions, making him care less about his family and former life, and more machine like. This raises interesting questions about the use of emotions in our own decision making processes, how they affect the way we prioritize our goals, and how excess emotional states negatively affect us. A lot of good research suggests that emotions are at the very core of human decision making, and if they were suppressed entirely we would quite possibly no longer be able to function properly.

Seeing the effects as they tinker with his emotions is a good reminder to us about being cautious with how much we tinker with our own emotions using drugs like anti-depressants, alcohol, and other things that can alter our moods.

The Illusion of Free Will

This was definitely my favourite concept raised by the movie, since free will is a topic that I've thought a lot about and I think it's one of the most misunderstood concepts not just by the general public, but even by many philosophers (as an aside, I highly recommend Sam Harris' short book Free Will as the best explanation of human free will that I've come across so far).

In order to achieve faster reaction times from Robocop, they come up with the idea of incorporating an autonomous AI into his system, which takes over decision making and control during combat, but when it is activated, he thinks that he's the one actually making all the decisions, and is in full control. This is a really fascinating concept, raising the issue of just how much you can be sure that you are the author of your own actions. Our minds rely on the illusion that we are making our own choices, and in general we're terrible at noticing when outside influences affect us. This is why, for example, so many people think that they're not affected by advertising, and are completely oblivious to the subtle ways their minds are being manipulated.

So to take this to the next level and effectively implant decisions into Robocop's brain such that he thinks he authored them himself is really interesting. And of course it also means that you no longer really have a human in control during combat, making Robocop effectively autonomous, and thus the whole idea of having a morally accountable agent in the loop is negated and Robocop really is just a pure publicity stunt at this point.


I don't know if you find any of these ideas interesting, but hopefully you do, and maybe it's enough to encourage some of you to go and (re)watch the Robocop remake with fresh eyes.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Whitewashing Movies and Color Rinsing Movies

Whitewashing Movies

Do you remember the broad Asian cast that had roles in the excellent Martin Scorsese film The Departed? No? Of course that's due to the fact that it's a western remake of the also excellent Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs.

Do you remember how much western audiences loved all the obvious pandering to the Chinese market in Transformers: Age of Extinction? No? That was the highest grossing movie of all time in China, but did somewhat less well in western markets.

When an international movie like Ghost in the Shell or The Great Wall gets made with white characters in it as an obvious way to appeal/pander to western audiences, there are these days inevitable cries of "whitewashing". Without wanting to pretend that there is no history of racial casting issues in films, I feel that people seem to try and deliberately act stupid with regard to the economic realities of getting $100 million plus films bankrolled and released. This would be fine if it made no difference, but I want to write about it because I think these responses are actually sabotaging the efforts that will help move the industry in the right direction, and hurt the people that the complainers are claiming to be trying to help.

It shouldn't be controversial to say that big name, recognizable actors tend to help a movie to be profitable. Like it or not, people will pay attention to posters and trailers more when they see an actor that they know and like in it. Obviously there are always exceptions in both directions (successful movies with unknown actors, and big name actors not enough to save a bad movie), but these actors don't command salaries in the millions of dollars because movies studios are idiots with too much money to spend.

Are the Chinese just a bunch of racist assholes because the inclusion of famous Chinese actors and Chinese locations in Transformers: Age of Extinction made them go to see that movie more? Are Americans a bunch of assholes because they generally prefer the white, American version of The Office to the white, British version?

People seem to think that there are only two choices: stay authentic and use lesser known actors of the "right" race, or whitwash with some token white actors. But they forget the other obvious option: completely remove the international setting altogether and set it in a western location with well known western actors (usually white, but increasingly less so these days, like how Dwayne Johnson is in everything).

So in the case of Infernal Affairs and The Departed, it probably would have been better for Asian actors in general if an Asian movie had been made with a couple of lead white actors to appeal more to western audiences, rather than having an American version with no Asian actors, and an Asian version that most western audiences haven't seen.

A mixed version is a compromise that allows for increased box office to make the movie profitable, while still giving roles to non-white people and giving those actors more exposure, helping them become more famous and maybe eventually be able to give studios enough confidence to give them major or lead roles. At the end of the day, you can't just make audiences pay to see a movie, and so as long as celebrity sells tickets, you have to work within that framework and provide a path for non-white actors to build up that celebrity.

Take another recent movie, The Great Wall. People complained about "obvious whitewashing" with the casting of Matt Damon in the lead role. The movie has made about $300 million internationally, but less than $50 million in the US, with a budget of about $150 million. But the funny thing is, this movie was a collaboration between US and Hong Kong studios, intended to be the start of doing future collaborations, making movies that appeal to both markets. It stars several big name Asian actors (including Infernal Affairs star Andy Lau), who all could have gotten a big international boost if US audiences embraced this rather than shunning the movie. But for the cause of "fighting whitewashing" they've actually just helped prove that those Asian actors can't draw a profit, or that this joint effort simply isn't worth the risk again.

Color Rinsing Movies

What is quite funny is that the often maligned Fast and Furious franchise gets casting right. By making a generically enjoyable movie featuring action, fast cars, hot women, and just as important, a very diverse cast, you guarantee wide appeal. Vin Diesel I think is responsible in large part for this direction since he began producing the series with the fourth movie, Fast and Furious. Diverse cast and international locations have been a huge part since then. He followed the same formula with the recent XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, being sure to include a diverse cast including the legendary martial arts actor Donnie Yen, Bollywood actress and model Deepika Padukone, and even a cameo by Brazilian football star Neymar.

The fact that movies are struggling more to make profits in the box office (thanks to consumers having better options at home) is forcing studios to care more about international appeal. And this naturally makes them cast international stars to pander to those international audiences. Whether it's inventing excuses to include an international star, or giving a role to an international or non-white star that would have otherwise gone to a white star, the end result is that it's now making economic sense to give roles to non-white people.

The same forces that make studios whitewash movies are now also making them color rinse movies!

And this is a good thing we should be embracing.

Of course it can be a problem when movies get forced to do silly things to their story just in order to pander, and we should be wary of that. 47 Ronin is a good example, a movie that was only supposed to feature Keanu Reeves in a minor role (with about 15 minutes total screen time), and otherwise have an almost entirely Japanese cast, but due to it's bloated $200 million dollar budget, the studio freaked out and forced re-shoots and re-editing in order to make Keanu Reeves' role and screen time as large as possible. The end result was a mess, and the movie did quite poorly as a result.

But when a movie is done well, we need to recognize and, more importantly, support, mixed casting to encourage studios to take those risks more often. In the end it's our money that decides what studios will take risks on, and if we put them in an impossible position where they fear not enough profits if they don't cast stars, or boycotting due to "whitewashing' if they use a mixed cast, they will end up doing an entire remake in a different setting like The Departed did, which doesn't help non-white actors at all, or they will just avoid the project entirely, which also doesn't help.

We should embrace movies that have diverse casts and not always try to find the glass half full and look for shit to complain about. When Fast and Furious 7 has a great diverse cast, complaining because it also has some gratuitous shots of women in bikinis doesn't help. When The Martian casts Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role that in the book is an Indian (ignoring the fact that they actually originally wanted Irrfan Khan but there were scheduling conflicts), complaining that the role "should have gone to an Indian" doesn't help. When Ghost in the Shell casts a wide variety of different races in different roles but people complain because it's based on a Japanese anime, it doesn't help.

We have to keep remembering that, at the end of the day, if we make casting of actors a minefield for movie makers whenever they're unable to put a famous person in the role, then they're just going to say "Fuck it" and recast the whole thing in Boston and call it The Departed. If Ghost in the Shell had been set in New Chicago featuring a full white cast, that would have been of no benefit to Asian or other non-white actors. But if we support mixed casting in movies rather than constantly finding some reason to say "better but still not good enough", then maybe we can actually get the progress that we claim to want, rather than just doing a bunch of virtue signalling back patting that in reality harms more than helps.