Thursday, December 15, 2016

"High-Crotched Federales" - R.O.T.O.R. (1987) - Part 1 of 3

We next discuss a classic of the science fiction/action genre, 1987's R.O.T.O.R. While the critics of your universe look down their noses at science fiction/action films, those in my universe are a lot more enlightened, looking down their noses at only about 95% of them. R.O.T.O.R., I am happy to announce, has earned its place near the top of the other 5%. It represents the perfect blend of thrills, chases, humor, and female bodybuilders/scientists.

As ever, the critics of your primitive universe fail to understand the rollercoaster pacing and the powerful cautionary message of R.O.T.O.R. Your celebrated critic Iama5yrold, for example, calls this film the worst movie he or she has ever seen, and writes, "Richard Gesswein is the worst leading man ever to grace the silver screen." Such hyperbole is, I assure you, quite unearned.  Another of your IMDB critics, gridiron, believes the film was "made by people who simply didn't have the talent or the budget to make something even halfway decent." Additionally, BigGuy writes, "The dialogue is terribly delivered (the best delivery is from the comic-relief robot!), terribly written (contrived, preachy, and generally painful)." These protestations are simply untrue (though the comic-relief robot is, it must be admitted, a highly talented thespian). I must address these ridiculous and wholly incorrect judgments and defend this classic film, the original man vs. mechanical monster story.

The film opens in a wonderfully straightforward manner, with scrolling text identifying a problem (murder, rape, robbery, and arson) and a solution (R.O.T.O.R., being of course the familiar acronym for Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research).

More is explained in the next text frame for those viewers with enough patience to read it all. From the first line, in any case, it appears to be a mission statement of some kind.

After the "reading" phase of the film is completed, we follow the point of view of a radio helicopter pilot flying over the wide-open highways of Dallas, Texas. Cleverly, the filmmakers imply the radio reporter might be an unreliable narrator, as he describes heavy traffic and backups. (This is the first of the film's many opening scenes, an intriguing innovation in cinematic storytelling.)

But enough of the radio reporter. Next we follow a Mercedes driving along a rural highway toward a lake.  (This is the second of the film's opening scenes.) We hear the voices of the people inside--a man and a woman ready for a weekend of relaxation--until there is the sound of a massive explosion. "Paul," the woman asks, "What's that?"

The unsuspecting couple is suddenly thrust into a confusing and dangerous situation.

From the side of the road, what appears to be a werewolf carries a body into the street. Paul gets out of the car.

A reverse angle, however, reveals that the werewolf is an injured man and the body is an injured woman. The injured man flashes his badge--he is a police officer.

But another man, this one carrying a shotgun, steps out of the shadows and accuses the injured man of killing a motorcycle cop.

Paul is nothing if not level-headed. He takes the corded 1980s car phone out of the Mercedes and calls 911. "What's the nature of your problem, sir?" the dispatcher asks.

"I think there's been a murder."

Later, the police have cordoned off the area and have taken one of the men--it is not clear which one--into custody.

We return to the lights of Dallas and follow a police car through the streets. (This is the third of the film's opening scenes.) Now we get a voiceover from Barrett Coldyron (pronounced "cold iron"), a self-described leader in the field of police robotics. He had a simple, noble goal: "To make the streets of the city a little safer, where gangs of punks, dope dealers, and the rest of society's scum could be effectively controlled and hopefully eradicated." What could be more noble than eradicating punks, and others as well?

"A controlled army of police robots could stop the slaughter of the hundreds of policemen who sacrificed their lives every year in the protection of those they serve. But how do you stop a killing machine gone bee-serk, with only a go button and no compassion?" Indeed, that is the age-old question.

Coldyron is eventually revealed to be the injured, werewolf-like man from earlier, taken into custody and driven back into the city. In the back of the police car, Coldyron continues his narration aloud: "There's still another chance. Maybe it can be done. Just maybe."

Next begins the film's celebrated interrogation scene, one of the greatest, though briefest, examples of the staple of the police procedural and one that turns our expectations on their respective ears. 

"You know that this is an unofficial debriefing," a detective says. "Officially not an arrest questioning. Then please state so for the record, Doctor. Unofficially."

The other detective adds, "Officially."

"Officially," the first detective clarifies. 

Coldyron calls his superiors in the police force "high-crotched federales" and fiddles with a gold lighter. Then he launches into his flashback (the fourth and final of the film's opening scenes), in which Dr. Coldyron is revealed to be a cattle farmer as well as a police robotics expert. 

After several minutes listening to a coffee maker gurgle and drip into a mug with "Texas" printed above a long-horn steer, and another moment listening to a rooster crow as soon as an alarm clock turns from "4:59" to "5:00," we observe the appealingly William Katt-like Dr. Coldyron's morning routine.

The routine includes listening to a country/rock song called "What You Do to Me," ingesting a large number of medications with orange juice, and sharing a cup of coffee with a horse.

Later in the day, Coldyron shaves and talks to his girlfriend Penny via Charlie's Angels speakerphone. Then he makes the long drive into the city to his police lab, where a research scientist with a mop dances casually with a robot wearing a police hat.

In voiceover, Coldyron says, "Sometimes it's hard to tell the boys from the toys." (This is one of the only things in the film that actually does not make sense.)

Coldyron enters a conference room and starts a meeting with a recap. "We scientists are like degreed science fiction writers," he begins. A film is projected onto a screen, explaining the R.O.T.O.R. project. It is unclear who the other people in the room are but they ask a few questions. One identifies himself with the jumble of words, "Dr. Bryan, Wilson Institute of Hawthorne."

Coldyron continues, "Another scientist, a Dr. Steele out of Houston, developed a super-technology to construct a combat chassis out of an alloy, an unknown alloy simply given an obscure number." Based on this super-technology, the film shows a skeletal robot dancing, accomplished through advanced stop-motion animation. 

The others are impressed by the versatility of the robot in the film. Coldyron explains that it can do everything from karate to full field combat without using any motors or gears, all due to the unknown alloy. All it needs is a spark of electricity as a catalyst. "The metal itself has already been taught the aerobic movement by particular electrical impulse induced corresponding command. Then the molecules move the chassis into the remembered posture. The metal itself can learn, remember, and teach itself." Fascinating stuff!

A man in the room voices what the audience is thinking: "Well, who are we who create such a thing? Heroes and villains?"

"The only difference between heroes and villains," Dr. Coldyron articulates, "is the amount of compensation they take for their services."

With that profound statement about the nature of altruism, we end Part 1 of our discussion of the classic R.O.T.O.R. Stay tuned for Part 2.