Review: ‘RoboCop’ in theaters
It’s a difficult thing to accept – for those with a certain rebellious fondness for the character – that RoboCop was always a goofy superhero, really. Despite the original’s blackly comic satire and over-the-top violence, provided by director Paul Verhoeven’s memories of the Second World War, 1987’s RoboCop was poured from an arcane mixture of Judge Dredd, Iron Man and Rom the Space Knight. What Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier managed to do, to great effect, was imbue a relatively archetypal story – the superhero origin story – with religious allegory and bald-faced frustration with 80s corporate power.
So, after a decade and change of successful “comic book” superhero movies, why not dust off good ol’ RoboCop and give him a more straightforward superhero origin story? The new RoboCop remake, directed by José Padilha and starring Joel Kinnaman as the titular hero, is sorely missing much of what made the original such an Important Movie. RoboCop instead focuses on whiz-bang action and a less fearful fondness for clean, sharp technology in its story, production design, and special effects. The crime-ridden Detroit of 2029 looks more like an episode of NCIS than the dirty, grimy dystopia of the original (and possibly the modern day), and – up until the final act, anyway – every motivation is plainly stated by every character, with little room for nuance or interest. But once it gets its gears turning, though, it’s a fast-paced entertainment machine.
This time around, Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy is a detective, which gives him ample time in plain clothes and just enough time to have a little more broadly sketched background. He’s just stumbled onto a far-reaching conspiracy when those he’s looking to bust car bomb him into the next world. Meanwhile, Omnicorp CEO Sellars (Michael Keaton) needs a federal law repealed to allow his robotic enforcers – you know… Drones – deployed on U.S. soil. His solution is to put a man in a machine, tapping the skills of robotics expert Norton (Gary Oldman, doing a fantastic job taking this all very seriously) who normally specializes in fitting amputees with cutting-edge prostheses. Conveniently, most of the world building is done through broadcasts of The Novak Element (only somewhat reminiscent of the original’s MediaBreak) with a corporate-friendly, Glenn Beck-esque Samuel L. Jackson decrying the Senate’s “pro-crime” stance and America’s “robo-phobia”.
Oldman’s ethical physician is exactly the kind of person we all hope is in charge of this kind of technology when the time comes, but his corporate masters are not. Yes, the edge is filed off the violence with bloodless discharges of thousands of rounds of bullets, but RoboCop suffers most from too much time dedicated to boardroom shenanigans and political maneuvering. Before, “Alex Murphy” was the organic component designed to drive the RoboCop product. There was a cold brutality to his demise; he was expendable, as was the city of Detroit, and the world. Here, Alex Murphy remains a fully formed man whose mind and body have been co-opted by a marketing scheme. His humanity is manipulated, but for no greater purpose than to create a more effective product. The Omnicorp higher-ups aren’t selfishly destructive, just… driven. Other than a few throwaway lines, the moral and philosophical quandary of technology replacing the organic is never really addressed. In RoboCop’s world, the robots are the better enforcers… People seem to just get in the way. It’s not only a somewhat troubling message, but also a missed opportunity at real 21st century commentary.
Probably due to its release just before Valentine’s Day, RoboCop’s marketing has made much of Alex Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish) in the proceedings, but that part’s relatively underplayed. Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay stuffs RoboCop full of plot – there’s also a snide weapons expert (Jackie Earle Haley), Alex’s partner Lewis (Michael K. Williams), and Murphy’s son’s struggle with his robot dad – but very little actual story. Where the original was fleet and anarchic, this one’s slickly packaged, if a bit… robotic.
However, the original RoboCop was a product of its time, and this one is, too. There’s plenty of action – the sound mix I saw was spectacular – and Kinnaman does a good job as a man facing what is, essentially, a terrifyingly existential disability. Technology, simply, isn’t as dangerous and mysterious as it used to be, and serves here as Alex Murphy’s only salvation. Like any good superhero movie, RoboCop leaves the audience wanting more; when the hero can spend more time being hero, than figuring out how he got there.
RoboCop, a Strike Entertainment production distributed by Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, is 118 minutes long and rated PG-13.