Movie Review: RoboCop (2014)
By Stephen Wuchina
Director: José Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jay Baruchel, Abbie Cornish, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson
When news came that 80s classic RoboCop would be getting the reboot treatment, many of my friends groaned in exhaustion. Just another example of the lack of originality in Hollywood, right? I, however, was excited. The ominous messages about man and machine from Verhoeven’s dark 1987 film now seem even more relevant in the information age. With the current atmosphere of cyber-paranoia brought on by NSA spying and camera surveillance, the RoboCop concept could be just as relevant today as it was before. Plus, the original film took place in 2014 anyway. If there were any time to reboot the franchise, this was it. With a Golden Bear-winning director at the helm and Gary Oldman in a lead role, what could possibly go wrong?
Quite a bit, unfortunately.
The plot of the new RoboCop does manage to stick relatively close to the original. In a crime-ridden future Detroit, big business teams up with the government to develop a new kind of law enforcement: a police officer with the technical capabilities of a robot and the moral compass of man. Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), CEO of Omnicorp, pushes a bill through Congress to make the cyborg cops a reality, but all they need is a human guinea pig on which they can test their experiment. They find their hero in Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a paralyzed policeman horrifically burned by a mob-planted car bomb.
Once surgically-suited into his crime-fighting outfit by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), he’s capable of bringing justice in a way no single person ever could before. But where does Lieutenant Murphy begin and the robot programming end? With his newfound technical prowess, RoboCop soon becomes a danger not just to criminals, but to other police officers and, ultimately, himself, which necessitates some serious government intervention, resulting in huge CGI action scenes.
The new RoboCop is not entirely the monstrosity it could’ve been: Along with the aforementioned Oldman as the nervy, yet likable Dr. Norton, the film’s supporting cast also boasts quality performances by Keaton, Michael K. Williams and especially Samuel L. Jackson, whose hilarious role as the Bill O’Reily spoof Michael Novak is clearly a draw for many viewers (myself included). Even Joel Kinnaman does a competent job portraying the title character himself — for a while, at least. When he emerges from his coma to realize the new role for which he has been mechanically reprogrammed, he reacts brilliantly with the kind of horror and disbelief you would imagine someone would waking up in the body of a robot.
The film’s most affecting sequence occurs early on, when Murphy confronts his reflection in a mirror disrobed, seeing for the first time that he’s been reduced to no more than a pair of beating lungs and a brain under his high-powered armor. It’s a chilling moment, and the kind that the film unfortunately fails to achieve again. From that point onward, the film rolls downhill fast. RoboCop seemingly begins with the intention of raising existential questions about what it means to have one’s faculty to reason and free will relegated to the machinations of a computer, but once the titular character starts beating up criminals around Detroit, it’s thrust into senseless action movie mode and doesn’t look back.
Glaring plot holes aside (never mind the fact that the engineers behind the machine explain that they have full control over Murphy’s action but then panic with distress when they can’t shut him down), the movie jumps from one action sequence to another as RoboCop drives a motorcycle around Detroit kicking ass for a majority of the film’s run time. In the midst of all of this, we hardly get any insight into how Murphy processes the actions he’s performing or a glimpse into the psychology of what it means to be a man with a robot body. Instead, we watch his faceless, emotionless acts of violence through the eyes of Dr. Norton and his controllers in the lab. There’s a sentimental element between Murphy and his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan) that is as engaging and convincing as Lisa and Danny in The Room. I’m not even going to get into how bad the dialogue is between the two when Murphy first talks to her after the injury other than saying it’s a definite Razzie qualifier. Even Keaton’s position as the head of the sinister Omnicorp enterprises soon dissolves from being a wisecracking egomaniac CEO to a generic bad guy business villain with a limitless supply of stock lines.
The original RoboCop is a dark, gritty, dystopian thriller, loaded with shockingly gory ultra-violence that, as campy as it may be now, manages to reflect and add to the depraved state of the world in which it takes place. The world of Padhila’s RoboCop, in contrast, is consistently bland, generic and predictable. Even the ultra-sleek CGI fight scenes between huge robot drones feel like a third-tier Transformers scenes and fail entirely in bringing the picture out of the suffocating boredom that it slogs through for a good two-thirds of its run time.
It would’ve been better to watch the movie shamelessly ripped off the 80s atmosphere than watching it maneuver through dull modern action fight sequences and bullet shooting. Many of the scenes that were supposed to be exciting looked exactly like a first-person shooter game, which I would have been having more fun playing at home rather than seeing the film. I struggled to keep myself interested even as the penultimate climax between Murphy and Sellars drew near. The most redeeming feature in the picture is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, which taps into the media commentary that the original did so well. Still, his performance feels odd and out of place amid the empty over-seriousness hovering over the rest of the movie (and the last shot that he is in is absolutely absurd).
The biggest disappointment about RoboCop, however, is how it failed on the promise of what it could’ve been: The first half-hour drew me in, and I was sad to see the movie’s potential fizzle out so soon. According to Collider, director Jose Padilha’s original ideas for the film were drastically cut back by producers in order to switch the rating from R to PG-13 so that it could make more money. This is a movie geared toward adrenaline-hungry teenagers and few others.
Had Darren Aranofsky remained tied to the project, it may have turned out very differently. We may have to wait for a director’s cut to know what RoboCop could’ve been, but as it stands now, this is yet another Hollywood remake you can feel free to ignore.