I should really stop watching the original classics right before catching these remakes. 1987’s RoboCop was a 80s action masterpiece, a subversive bloodbath filled with biting social satire and a wildly prescient future forecast. It was, I think, Paul Verhoeven’s finest film – not only has it stood the test of time, it seems to get better every time I see it.
2014’s version – with a bigger budget, state-of-the-art special effects, and a higher-profile cast – is slick and polished, packed with lots of neat ideas (many of which are cribbed and/or altered from the original film), and well directed by José Padilha, who previously made the riveting documentary Bus 174 and the adrenaline-rush police saga Elite Squad films.
And it’s also an utterly conventional Hollywood product that contains elements of the original on a superficial level but misses out on everything that made that film so good. Don’t get me wrong: this RoboCop is (mostly) a solid and enjoyable ride, and leagues better than the Total Recall remake from a couple of years back. But it’s a formulaic product just the same.
RoboCop 2014 crafts roughly the same outline as the original, with some minor variances in the details. Detroit cop Alex Murphy (played by The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman) is critically maimed in a violent attack, leaving him on life support. Luckily, mega robotics corporation OmniCorp is searching for the perfect fit for their new cyborg program, and quickly scoops up Murphy’s remaining parts.
Here, there’s much more detail in the backstory: Padilha’s film goes on for over an hour before Murphy finally gets back to the streets of Detroit, as we look at modern warfare that incorporates robotic soldiers, the politics that prevent the same technology from policing the US streets, and the corporate and marketing environment that fosters the creation of a human-robot hybrid that the public can rally behind.
Thankfully, all that stuff is actually pretty interesting. Murphy retains his human side this time around, and is shocked when wakes up to see himself inside the robotic armor. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, he’s even more shocked at what remains of himself without the armor: just a head, a hand, and vital organs – heart, lungs – encased in plastic housing.
Michael Keaton stars as OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars, who greenlights the RoboCop program in order to sway public opinion in favor of his company’s robotic technology. But he discovers that a man inside a robot suit still has the same weaknesses as a man without the armor: Murphy’s response time in combat – particularly in a hostage scenario – rates considerably lower than his emotionless fully-robotic counterparts.
So Sellars makes the call to turn the man into a machine: when Robocop’s visor comes down, the computer takes over, even though Murphy still thinks he’s in control. Later on, when Murphy is overloaded by data and his emotions get the better of him, the decision is made to completely dope him up and level him off, turning the character into the familiar RoboCop we all know and love. Still, the choice to actively shut down the human element is an interesting angle, even if the film takes its sweet time getting there.
Gary Oldman stars as the doctor faced with the moral dilemma of consciously turning Murphy into a machine; both he and Keaton, by the way, are terrific, and give the material a much-needed boost. Jackie Earle Haley is the robot trainer who bears a grudge against Murphy for his human side; Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle star in the thankless roles of Sellars’ corporate advisors. Samuel L. Jackson drops the ball as an aggressive, Glenn Beck-like TV personality; this film’s ham-fisted satire is one of its weakest aspects.
But Abbie Cornish fares well as Murphy’s wife, who (along with John Paul Ruttan as his son) has a much bigger role in this version as the family struggles to come to terms with what has happened to Murphy. The man vs. machine angle is the driving force of the first half of the movie, and while there’s little in terms of action or even active storyline, the well-detailed backstory is pretty compelling stuff.
But it’s all downhill from there; surprisingly, the action scenes that feature heavily in the second half are a total bust. Director Padilha displayed a more-than-capable hand at suspense and action in his previous Brazilian films, but that’s lost in an incoherent blast of gunfire this time around: it’s just shoot, shoot, shoot until RoboCop is still walking and the bad guys are dead or incapacitated (and because Murphy shoots with both a taser and a gun in this mostly bloodless PG-13 outing, we often can’t tell the difference).
By the time the anti-climactic finale takes place – Murphy takes down a group of ED-209s (which are fluidly animated, but lack the stop-motion charm of Phil Tippet’s original creation) in uninteresting fashion before a Directive 4-influenced (and completely mishandled) final showdown – the film has become everything that is wrong with contemporary remakes. A horrific line reading of “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” is just the cherry on top.
This RoboCop is shiny and new and competently made, but doesn’t hold a candle to the Verhoeven classic.