To better appreciate this film, I recommend reading up a bit on short story writer Raymond Carver, and his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film plays out as sort of a movie within a play within a movie, linked with an abstract narrative about self discovery and self release. The reason I’d recommend knowing a bit more about the background of Carver and the story is to diminish distractions like trying to figure out how the play revolves around the story–it may make things less confusing.
The main story of the film is about a has-been actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who was once a big star because of a superhero movie called “Birdman”. Since that fame, he has faded into obscurity and a generation of parents whose kids have no idea who he is. His irrelevance bothers him, so he wants to try and do something else–but something with more substance. He wrangles up some stage actors and gets some money behind a production of one of his favorite writers, Raymond Carver, and adapts his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” into a Broadway play. None of the people involved have that much experience. His main actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), has never been on Broadway. His producer and friend (and lawyer) Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is doing his best to keep Thomson together emotionally, while the production has a bit of a problem since a light falls on one of the principal actors. The actor, whom no one thinks is very good, is replaced by a much more seasoned–albeit dangerous and unscrupulous–actor named Mike (Edward Norton). Mike can recite the lines before even knowing what they are, and has the ability to lose himself in the character while being on stage. His problem is that he is very unpredictable, and that he’s almost impossible to control. He starts to take a liking to Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who Riggan hardly knows due to all his years spent acting instead of being a father. Riggan and Sam share an understandable strained relationship, but it still seems amicable.
While Thomson tries to whip the show into shape during its preview run, he is tormented by the voice and sometimes appearance of his old character, Birdman. Birdman represents his “dark side”. Birdman believes that Riggan is denying himself the joy of being a superstar by trying to do something as small as theater. Thomson tries to get him out of his head, but he nearly tears his dressing room apart while battling the imaginary “devil on your shoulder”.
He desperately wants to be recognized. He knows that he does not have a good reputation in theater, and is afraid of a prominent critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), will eviscerate his efforts and make him look bad once the play opens. Without even seeing it, she tells him, she will write a bad review.
With every doubt in his mind, Birdman becomes more powerful and manifests himself more to Riggan. His ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) doesn’t believe in him, and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) simply seems like a replaceable understudy in Riggan’s life.
The film is shot to give the feel of watching a play. There are no cuts, only occasional fades that let us know that time is passing. Most of the film feels like it’s one ongoing shot. So in a way, Riggan is on stage throughout the entire movie. When he’s acting in his play, he can come undone just as easily as he can when he’s in his dressing room hearing voices.
The performances are very strong, with a spotlight on Michael Keaton, obviously. He is at his best in this film, utilizing his entire range from ominous to manic to brooding to bright. He is everything at once, and can fall apart at any moment. Norton is also exceptionally funny as the “foil” in much of the storyline, and Emma Stone is appealing as always, as well as Watts and the rest of the “actors”.
There are two titles for this film, and I kept both in tact for the review. “Birdman” seems obvious, but what about “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”? What’s that supposed to mean? Well, the meaning to that title comes within understanding the film itself. And that can be a few different things, culminating in the film’s mysterious and purposely puzzling final shot. But you are definitely watching more than one story when you watch this film. That’s why you’re talking about more than just love when you’re talking about love. The emotional states the film touches on, the play on people’s actions and reactions, mixed with some satire and black comedy, all make for a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking film.
I had initial reservations about this remake–first, because I’m tired of remakes. Second, because what exactly was lacking in the 1987 film? It never really left you wanting more as far as themes and characters go–and even if you did, you had 2 sequels to…well, enjoy may be a strong word.
In the past few years, though, there were talks about a reboot. Names got thrown around like Darren Aronofsky and David Self. But it was like one of those things you just wanted to pretend wasn’t happening. It seemed to be more of a realistic thing coming to fruition when the “Total Recall” remake was released. And then we knew it was only a matter of time.
So, now, in 2014, ready or not, we have “RoboCop” the remake, directed by Jose Padilha (director of the “Elite Squad” films). I didn’t have high hopes going into the film; but from the opening sequence to the final frame, I have to say this is a remake that does what few remakes do–have its own story and idea.
There are films I”d love to see be remade–such as “The Stuff”, which is a timeless plot about consumerism and certainly has plenty of relevance nowadays, and the original film was actually kind of weak. “RoboCop” was certainly not one of them. But this film takes the idea of a cop KIA turned into cyborg and does something a little different. For one thing, this time, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is not killed. He is set up after a sting goes wrong with a criminal syndicate, and a bomb is planted in his car. He is horribly burned and loses most of his body parts–but his brain is very much intact. His wife has to make the decision to keep him alive.
Meanwhile, OmniCorp is a very successful robotics corporation run by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) who is not allowed to produce robots for the United States, but has a highly lauded campaign going on in the Middle East with robot soldiers that are cleaning up the streets much like police officers would. Detroit is a city that’s still riddled with crime; and, according to Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), host of the show “The Novak Element” (serving as the bookends of the film), we need these machines just as badly. But, there is a bill in Congress known as the Dreyfus Act which denies the use of robots as enforcers, because they don’t have morals or a sense of right and wrong. They’re too clinical. Sellars tries to convince the Senate that the Dreyfus Act should be repealed, but he isn’t getting any support. He believes it’s due to the fact that Americans need a “face”. So, “put a man in a machine”, and suddenly there will be support.
Murphy is one of the candidates for the program. Chief Scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman, borrowing his Commissioner Gordon accent and persona) is hired to create what’s going to be known as RoboCop. He designs a mechanical body for Murphy, covering most of his eroded body. Murphy is at first horrified by his appearance and wants to shut down the program and be put down; but the whole operation came about because his wife authorized it, and she wants to see him again. This, along with wanting to be with his family again, prompts Murphy to continue with the program.
Then, RoboCop is completed and becomes a powerful tool of the police, cleaning up crime easily. But there’s a problem–he has a conscious, and he’s still haunted by his attempted murder and wants to find the men who did it. He has a new set of tasks, however, and isn’t authorized to continue his search. Unfortunately for Murphy, he is mostly machine and can be controlled. Norton is ordered to shut down his emotional system in order for him to perform his duties clinically, as a machine would. But this alienates his old partner (Michael K. Williams) and his family which is tearing them apart.
Norton then finds himself with his own moral dilemma, and decides RoboCop should retain his emotions and memories. What RoboCop uncovers after changing his prime directive back to locating his attempted killers drives the climax of the film, and it’s a satisfying one. There’s a character, Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) that comes into play as a somewhat shady guy and has a lot to do with RoboCop’s programming and de-programming. It’s a bit of a predictable angle, but Haley adds a nice touch to the character where in some situations he’s borderline likable; and other times, you love seeing him get his. And speaking of performances, Kinnaman’s is very strong as Murphy/RoboCop. He isn’t your typical cardboard cut out hero. There is a lot of pain behind the visor, and we see that come through.
But what really makes the film separate from the original is that it constantly asks questions about compromising our emotions in favor of efficiency. Are we losing our touch with humanity? Do we want to? As amusing as the Novak Element is, it stands as a symbol and a commentary on where the world seems to be right now. We have all of this access to social media and everyone has a voice–but does anyone really know what to say? Or are we content with drones carrying out our dirty work?
The film could have developed these questions further–but it only has so much time and has to sew up its plot in two hours. What I’d like to see is a TV spin off that allows the characters to grow along with the themes the movie introduces us to.
Overall, though, the film works enough and is entertaining. The second half of act two drags a little bit, just because so much is going on and it starts to break down in its direction on where it’s going–but it certainly finds itself enough in the end. There are a few nods to the original; I definitely missed the amusing satirical ads such as “Nuke ’em!” and the interview with Keva Rosenberg. Other than that, though, I actually started to forget about the original while watching this film–and that hasn’t happened to me in regards to a remake in a long time.