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Thursday, May 25, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop: Meltdown (2001)

The first episode of “RoboCop: Prime Directives” set up multiple story ideas the mini-series could utilize in future installments. Would the second episode revolve around the SAINT artificial intelligence, invented by an ominous OCP executive Damian Lowe? Or would the focus turn to James, Alex Murphy's adult son, still unaware that his dad is RoboCop? Both of these ideas are advanced in “RoboCop: Meltdown” but they're mostly saved for the end-of-the-episode cliffhanger. Instead, “Meltdown” focuses on Murphy's relationship with John Cable, his former partner that he was forced to kill in “Dark Justice.”

“Dark Justice” ended by hinting that Cable may be resurrected as the next RoboCop. This comes to past in “Meltdown.” After a trio of superhuman thieves break into OCP, Cable's wicked ex-wife wants to get rid of Robo. So she builds her recently deceased husband into a lookalike cyborg and has him attack OCP's CEO. The original RoboCop is declared a public menace. He is now pursued by RoboCable and a team of soldiers trained to take down cyborgs. While on the run, RoboCop ends up in the slums of Old Detroit, befriending one of the thieves that got him into this mess in the first place.

One complaint I had about “Dark Justice” was the relative lack of action. “Meltdown” certainly fixes that problem. The episode begins with the thieves turning the OCP building's security against itself. Several cops are sliced in half by high-powered lasers! Later, RoboCop tangos with the superhuman ladies. The episode concludes with him gunning down the cyborg kill squad. However, don't get too excited. “Prime Directives” still looks and feels incredibly cheap. The opening barrage of laser-assisted dismemberment is brought to life with some dodgy CGI. The fight between RoboCop and the thieves mostly involves him standing still while the women shoot shitty-looking lightning at him. The climatic shootout is handled better but still features some weak action direction from Julian Grant. He utilizes slow-mo and shaky-cam too often to cover up the show's obvious budgetary limitations.

I suspect the main attraction “Meltdown” offers undiscriminating fans is the promise of two RoboCops fighting each other. RoboCable looks just like Murphy's RoboCop, except with a darker, shinier armor and two guns. The Robo-on-Robo action, it may not surprise you to hear, is fairly unimpressive. The first big confrontation between the two involves Murphy standing still while Cable pelts him with machine gun fire. (Bizarrely, groups of innocent bystanders who were not there the moment before are endangered by this.) This results into a painfully slow foot chase. The car chase that follows is slightly more entertaining, even if it liberally indulges in car chase cliches. The second fight is more successful, as the two cyborgs toss each other through walls.

The second part of “Prime Directives” does expand on the series' world a little bit. The second half is set entirely within Old Detroit. Murphy even visits the old police station, which the mini-series does a decent job of replicating. Old Detroit is depicted as post-apocalyptic, the citizens gathering in seedy clubs and crowded markets. That's fine but the episodes other contributed to the series' mythology is baffling. The thieves that attacked OCP in the first scene have superpowers. They can produce lightning, morph into shadows, and run super fast. RoboCop befriends the young daughter of one of the thieves, who also has these abilities. If any explanation is ever offered for these powers, I missed it. Moreover, the superhuman individuals seem to exist mostly so the mini-series can indulge in half-baked special effects.

Despite its obvious flaws, I do like “Meltdown” slightly better than “Dark Justice.” The second episode is a little more faithful to the original film's tone. There's more blood. There's even some nudity, thanks to two random strippers. The second episode leans on the satirical commercials more. The opening news broadcast paints RoboCop as a hero. After OCP turns on him, the same programs talks about what a menace he is. They even sell a compilation movie of RoboCop's most violent moments! There's some other amusing stuff. A tabloid investigator sneaks into the police station, snooping around the lab RoboCop sleeps in. Amusingly, every time the reporter says something, a corresponding infographic appears at the bottom of the screen. In the back half, there's a commercial for a kids cartoon where a psychotic RoboCop fights “homeless ninjas” and a Furby-style toy that, the small print reveals, may cause seizures. It's not as smart as Ed Neumeier's writing but at least the mini-series is trying to keep up. (Amusingly, the commercials make references to antiqued technology like VHS and pagers. Canada really is another country, isn't it?)

Predictably, “Meltdown” concludes with Murphy reaching Cable's inner humanity and the two RoboCops teaming up. Perhaps showing the filmmakers' pretensions, a quote from Erich Fromm flashes on screen before the credits roll. The problem is, the quote is misattributed to Henry David Thoreau! I'm pretty sure Thoreau never wrote about robots. “Prime Directives” improves slightly in its second part but it's not enough to turn my overall opinion on this show around. “Prime Directives” is still a very cheaply made attempt to cash in on the “RoboCop” brand name. Here's hoping it gets better in the second half. [5/10]

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