Part of my job as film-critic-cum-quasi-philosopher-dingbat involves keeping an eye on trailers for upcoming movies, and so I have sad news to relate: the latest trailer for the Robocop remake is out and promises a film that’s about as subtle as sodomy and not nearly as much fun. It’s actually the second Paul Verhoeven film to be remade within the last twelve months: summer 2012 offered a remake of Total Recall, a film not even worth watching in the original, never mind remaking. You know the one: Arnold Swarzenegger has to get his ass to mars, and a woman has three breasts. There’s a plot in there somewhere but don’t quote me.
Fans of Robocop are up in arms. The original was a biting satire. It boasted funny lines, plot depth and wicked special effects. It’s criminal to remake Robocop! What’s next, a Basic Instinct sequel?
It’s a shame that people are up in arms at all, for Robocop is terrible rubbish, and I only know that because I’ve taken the time to re-watch it. As is often the case with eighties movies, Robocop hasn’t aged well. Unlike films of the same decade and similar subject material, like The Terminator, Robocop comes off as cheap and lame. The special effects are dated, the plot stilted and two-dimensional, and the characters largely superfluous. Robocop, seen through the eyes of a guy two years younger than it is, is a disappointing, hackneyed, lacklustre hodgepodge of banality.
Which brings me to my point: Robocop is a bit like being British. Not in the sense of being disappointing, hackneyed et al, but in the sense that British people (and Americans, but we’ll get to that) are desperate to consecrate the past even though the past sucked.
Example: Princess Diana. Princess Di was married to the Prince of Wales. He cheated on her (there’s more to this story, but that’s the gist). She was a patron of many charities, one of the first high-profile people to bring attention to AIDS and landmines, and was an all-round nice girl. She died trying to flee from the paparazzi who had hounded her all her married life as her car slammed into the wall of a Parisian tunnel. Diana is the British Eva Peron – a saintly, noble woman, a “princess of hearts” and a noble, faultless human being.
Maybe. But that’s nearly half of the story. UK newspapers regularly dredge up her picture to put on the front page as a symbol of the good and pure, but this is propaganda of the lowest sort. In reality she was a manipulator, a high-strung society lady who cosied up to the very Fleet Street editors who killed her, a gadabout who slept around and someone who, up until the very moment of her death, lived the life of a rich nightclubber. In short, she was a whole person, with faults and all. Yet the moment she was cold an immense wave of national grief disproportionate to the woman welled up. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to her funeral. Elton John, the most mawkish sentimentalist of our time, sang “Candle In The Wind”, the most mawkishly sentimental song of our time at her burial. Although she had been dead only a day or so, Diana had become a piece of history.
And we Brits love history. You Americans too. Our history is of the “plucky little nation” and “we few, we band of brothers” that has immortalized The Somme, The Blitz, Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. The second world war is Britain’s golden era, where we “pulled on our boots”,”put our nose to the grindstone” and “all pushed together”. These are halcyon, golden days of national unity. We revel in the kind of history. America, by turn, is a nation proud of its military endeavors, even though the only time in American history when a war was decisively won by battle was during the American Civil War (I can prove this, too, so don’t think about leaving any snarky comments).
Example: history is a favourite topic of British thinking. The progenitor of the largest empire in the history of the world, most modern inventions, and the suit, Blightey has much to be proud of. But every particle of history is picked over to a stunning degree. The National Trust, which now owns a significant number of Britain’s stately piles, reported 19 million visitors and 4 million members in 2012. If there’s one thing we like more than DIY, it’s history. It helps to explain how Downton Abbey, a show in which absolutely nothing of any interest happens, has become a national obsession.
Brits and Americans like to pick over their glory days because, unlike the French or the Germans, they don’t believe they’re going anywhere. The Anglo-Saxon ideal, it’s more or less fair to say, is that everything stays exactly as it is right now. The present is a precarious and difficult mess, the past much more neater. After all, all the bad stuff already happened in the past, whereas the present is too full of all sorts of disturbing things. The future is simply too terrifying to contemplate. The past is an island of stability in a changing world – we may not have much glory now, but by golly we once did.
There are lots of reasons for this attitude, some good, some bad. Unlike, say, Germans, Britons don’t inherit much national guilt. Admittedly, the Brits invented the modern concept of slavery, the philosophy of “The White Man’s Burden” and the concentration camp, but other countries beat this one for scale of implementation. The modern German, however, can look at their recent past and feel gratified that the future can’t possibly be as bad as the past. Quod erat demonstrandum, hope.
Unfortunately, tepid sentimentality and nostalgia are the very things that hold us back. Here’s another example: after the Blitz, many English cities were in ruins. The option existed to re-create these cities anew, as the Germans did with Berlin. They could be light, open, well-designed and functional. What happened? The city councilmen elected to rebuild the old buildings, but to do it in concrete. That’s a hell of a missed opportunity. The reasoning was that things were good the way they were before, so why change them?
Why indeed. Because the past was not a sunlit world of beer-brewing yokels, hazy green pastures and Jerusalem. The past sucked terribly. How do I know this? Well, taking into account lots of sociological factors, crime downturn, people live longer and have more free time. Oh, and nobody dies of fright, itch or grief any more. Case closed. At any other point in our nation’s history the odds of dying of mumps, gout, plague, childbirth, teeth or being savaged by a pig, of being raped, molested or robbed, sent to fight and die in foreign wars, press-ganged, forced to work down mines or in mills were all higher. The past is not a golden sunlit world, but a land drenched in the blood of the poor and brainwashed, a land where the sky is dark with coal-smoke and rent by the sounds of unstable machines. Take your National Trust and shove it.
This backwards-looking respect for the past is often the cause of stagnation. Keep the past and ignore the future could be the watchphrase of our political leaders, who are more keen on preserving the status quo than taking risks. As a result, the growth of the major industrial countries that followed strident economic policies post-2008 is sizeable, while Britain’s is meagre. We would rather do what we’ve done before that didn’t work than try something new that might solve the problem. When we venerate the past as being the site of our glory days, we’re actually standing in the way of our own future. The future is often terrible, usually frightening and always unpredictable, but it’s different. The past, on the other hand, doesn’t change. It’s safe, it’s boring and it’s usually a concoction of half-truths. Which brings me back to my opening point: a Robocop remake might suck, but it can’t suck worse than Robocop.
Personally, I think of the future as closer to that golden, sunlit world. I believe that if we can seize on the idea of the future as being a thing we should embrace, rather than shy away from, we might actually make progress. Above all, I know that great things are going to happen: if there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s that the future exceeds expectations.