“Crime has a new enemy”
Directed by Jose Padilha
Starring Joel Kinneman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson and Abbie Cornish
Prevented by law from selling their combat drones to the domestic law enforcement market, robotics manufacturr OmniCorp sets out to create a man-machine hybrid to fill the gap. Their test subject is almost-dead Detroit cop Alex Murphy, but the programme is soon compromised as chief scientist Dr Dennett Norton (Oldman) is pressured by CEO Raymond Sellars (Keaton) to improve performance by eliminating the very elements of human conscience and emotion that the hybrid is supposed to retain.
The ‘Robocop’ prototype is hailed as a huge success, but as the legislation is withdrawn, the Murphy part of Robocop becomes problematic when his wife (Cornish) and child push for greater access to him. OmniCorp attempts to shut him down, claiming he was killed in action, but this provokes him to come after the entire company for the attempted murder of a police officer.
What’s wrong with it?
Robocop is a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s massively successful 1987 film of the same name, and attempts to match the original’s biting social satire as well as its bloody, brutal violence.
In both cases, it fails (although see below) through its refusal to go far enough. The original Robocop was deleiously over the top, while the remake tries to remain grounded in reality, without quite having the deftness of touch to work the satire in a more muted emotional palette. In addition, Sellars’ shift from ‘ambitious corporate executive’ to ‘about to be a murderer’ is much harder to swallow when the corporate culture depicted is more measured.
Cornish, as Clara Murphy, is underused. When the movie tries to push Murphy’s family to the fore it is his essentially passive son who is made the emotional core, with Clara as little more than an arrow pointing to the issue. Having gender-flipped Murphy’s partner, Lewis, the film is notably short on strong female characters.
Norton’s scruples are a little hard to get to grips with, as he is willing to essentially transform Murphy into a Dalek (what else am I going to call an emotionally-sedated lump of vestigial tissue, trapped in an armoured, heavily-armed, self-directing travel machine) but later draws the line at shutting him down.
Some of the key moments, in particular Murphy’s defiance of the ‘red asset’ protection could have been more clearly marked. Given that the visor of his helmet represented the machine part of him, it feels like an obvious visual signifier that was missed.
What’s right with it?
The film marks itself out as an entity distinct from the original, and while its satirical content is less blunt and biting, the toning down of the violence is no bad thing (even if it was done to secure a 12A rating), as the original was in parts quite horrific.
The film is also telling a different story, and telling it quite well. The original was pure mechismo, while the remake is about the perils of technology and the measure of a man. In this film, Robocop is a name given by the press – specifically right wing pundit and OmniCorp toadie Pat Novak (Jackson, clearly having more fun than everyone else on the picture combined) – while the man is identified throughout as Alex Murphy. This is just one change used to make a more vulnerable, humanised Murphy (in many ways, these changes make it odd that they switch him from an idealistic rookie patrol man to a veteran detective).
In effects terms, the film is of course streets ahead. Robocop and the various drones are well-integrated into the live action, and their fight scenes far more dynamic and engaging than the static shootouts required by a heavy suit.
The film also has the last twenty-seven years of transhumanism to draw on, adding the information overload of the surveillance culture to poor Murphy’s troubles.
How bad is it really?
Robocop is actually a pretty good film, and most of its failures stem from its relationship with a classic which was pitched in a far campier and more outrageous vein. For me, it wasn’t quite its own film, but it made a pretty good fist of it.
On a lot of levels, this Robocop is actually better than the original, but in its struggle to emulate the source while blazing its own trail, it fails to be iconic.
Best bit (if such there is)?
This failing of the movie is perhaps best shown in that its most memorable moment is the one most at odds with its theme and in keeping with that of the original; Pat Novak’s cluster f-bomb strike in the closing minutes. There isn’t really any great stand out in the parts of the movie that are its own.
What’s up with…?
- Manly McDronelover’s antipathy to the entire project? He’s an employee of OmniCorp charged with shepherding the project through; why is he so keen to see it canned?
- Clara’s turn to the news completely blindsiding OmniCorp? They have people to predict trends and consumer backlash. How did Hiccup not see this coming?
- Hiccup? Okay, this is just me not having seen Jay Baruchel in anything before this, but it really weirded me out that the weasely PR guy was Hiccup.
- Dopamine? Dopamine levels are depicted as being the sole cause of emotional states, which is a bizarre oversimplification when specific brain chemistry was not needed.
Production values – The film is beautifully made, with excellent integration of practical and CG effects and good choreography on what could be very messy fight scenes. 4
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is workmanlike, but the science content is occasionally bullshit and there is nothing truly memorable, which for a Robocop remake is almost worse than being bad. 12
Plot and execution – There are some blink and you’ll miss it turns and a few characters whose motivation seems to pretty much just be ‘to be egregiously mendacious’, but the overall structure is there. 13
Randomness – Mostly this isn’t a problem. 2
Waste of potential – Much better than could have been expected, but contextually the failure to include anything iconic or truly outstanding is of more moment than the fact that this is on many levels a better film than the original. 8