The 80s were an edgy time, anyone who grew up in Fresno back then can tell you that. There were a lot of movies that pushed violence and gore to over-the-top levels that we had never seen up to that point. One of the most notable of these films was the 1987 blockbuster RoboCop. Directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Peter Weller in the title role, the film was set in the near future in a crime-ridden Detroit, Michigan, and centers on police officer Alex Murphy, who is brutally murdered by a gang of criminals and is later revived by an evil mega-corporation named Omni Consumer Products (OCP) as a superhuman cyborg police officer. Made on a modest $13 million budget, The film included themes regarding the media, gentrification, corruption, authoritarianism, greed, privatization, capitalism, identity, dystopia, and human nature. It was also renounced for its sense of satire of the world at the time, which, coupled with what were at the time spectacular special effects and extremely gory violence, left a lasting impact on audiences that propelled the franchise and the character into one of the best known action icons of the 80s. Two sequels were made that, sadly, were both made of inferior quality, as well as a television series, two animated series, a television mini-series, video games and a number of comic book adaptations and crossovers.
For the most part the RoboCop franchise was fondly remembered, but lay dormant since the poor reception of RoboCop 3 in 1993 and the release of the TV mini-series RoboCop: Prime Directives came out in 2001. But, like all big 80s properties, the time has come for this character to get a modern-day reboot.
Directed by José Padilha, the 2014 RoboCop is a very different animal than the original, one that old-school fans have already turned against to the extreme. Personally, this examiner was always more of a Terminator fan than a RoboCop fan, and as such my knowledge is more limited than other properties. Even so, I am well-aware of the original film and all that it accomplished and all of the things it had to say is such a satirical manner. And while this new film does hold up well as a science fiction film in it's own right, as an attempt to live up to what the original promises, it not only fails to recapture that magic but it is, at the end of the day, kind of a forgettable film.
The story take place in the year 2028, where multinational conglomerate OmniCorp is at the center of military "robot soldier" technology, supplying the U.S. Military with mechanical soldiers that are used overseas. These machines are effective in keeping the peace, but they also terrify the populace of foreign countries with their emotionless and inhuman nature. It is that lack of emotion and free thought that has stirred public opinion in support of the Dreyfus Act, a law that prohibits OmniCorp from achieving it's ultimate goal to sell their products for use in civilian law enforcement in the United States. Company CEO Raymond Sellars (played by Michael Keaton) speaks with his marketing team, including scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman), about the idea to create a new law enforcement product that would combine human and machine in a way that he believes can be "sold" to the American public. To serve as the prototype for this new "RoboCop" program, they begin looking for a police officer who was permanently injured and therefore could use this so-called second chance of life.
Enter Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit policeman, who is critically injured by a carbomb planted on orders from local crime boss Antoine Vallon (played by Patrick Garrow). Norton decides to pick Murphy for the program, with consent from Murphy's wife, Clara (played by Abbie Cornish). Alex is outfitted with the mechanical RoboCop body and software, and though he initially rejects his condition, he is convinced by Norton to be strong for the sake of his wife and son. But while Norton genuinely cares for Alex's well-being and Sellars sees him as a means to an end, OmniCorp's military tactician Rick Mattox (played by Jackie Earle Haley), is skeptical of Alex's abilities in comparison to the company's fully-machine drones, and Alex's initial trails seem to confirm this. So, in order to make Alex perform better, Sellars pressures Norton into tampering with Alex's brain to make him believe that his tactical decisions are his own when he is actually executing programs.
Alex's public unveiling as RoboCop it a huge success, but due to a moment of emotional breakdown before the event, Norton was forces to alter Alex's brain chemistry until he became void of any emotion. This leads to him arresting a wanted criminal at the event, but also completely ignoring his wife and son, from whom he has had little-to-no contact with for several months. As RoboCop becomes a public relations success, and drastically reduces the crime rate in Detroit, public opinion on the Dreyfus Act begins to turn. But Alex continues to be kept from his family for the sake of his performance, until one chance encounter motivates him to override his programming and begin investigating him own murder, something that goes completely against his programming. What Alex discovers in his investigation is a web of corruption and betrayal that may endanger not only his own life, but also his family, not to mention the role it all may play in the fate of homeland security all across the country.
The main thing that this movie does different in comparison to the original is that is strive to create more of an emotional journey for this character and put greater emphasis on the emotional journey of someone who become both man and machine. When we are introduced to Alex Murphy, he seems like a pretty good guy and a good cop, one who seeks justice on the streets and who is clearly a loving husband and father. After he has his accident and get rebuilt as a cyborg, you can't blame the guy for reacting badly at first, including an attempted breakout from the facility that, of course, doesn't work. This is a departure from the original where his emotions and memories of his past were wiped from the beginning and the rest of the film was about him getting them back. Here, he is allowed to keep his emotions and memories for a good long while, his desire to see his family being his driving motivation, and it is only right before his debut to the public that those things get shut down and he becomes the no-nonsense robotic crime-fighter we expect. In the original, his relationship with his family is only touched upon, them having already moved away believing him dead by the time he returns to his former house in robotic form. You could argue that this allows us to care a lot more about Alex's struggle, and for the most part we certainly do; the image of Murphy with the robotic body taken away piece by piece to reveal nothing left of him but a head, spine, heart and lungs is a shocking image.
However, that extra time spent on the emotional journey also contributes to what has perhaps been the biggest criticism of the film, that is skimps on the action. Thinking back on the film now, I have difficulty thinking of anything that RoboCop did to anybody that is going to stick out to me after leaving the theater. Sure, a lot of bullets are fired, and he gets to take out a few criminals with his taser gun, and he is seen driving all over the cit on that sleek black motorcycle of his, and he does get to go mono-a-mono against several robot, a mob of criminals, but those scenes are not very memorable at the end of the day. The only action sequence that really had my interest was the showdown near the end where they pull a King Kong on by having him fight not one, but three ED-209 robots, and I will have a bit more to say about that later.
I think the big reason why the action underwhelms here can be boiled down to four syllables: PG-13. Even if you have never seen the original RoboCop, you know that it is notorious for it gratuitous, over-the-top violence, including, but far from limited to, the extremely sequence where Alex is tortured and shot to death. Here, the machine-gun murder and torture is replaced with a carbomb...just a car bomb, and one where we never clearly get to see a good shot of the damage done to his body. Come to think of it, for all of the people RoboCop shoots in this film, many of which his uses a high-energy taser gun for, I cannot recall a single instance of blood anywhere. Even the sequence where he storms Vallon's compound and he is being shot all over place, the whole thing is filmed in the dark so the only way we get to see anything is through infrared POV shots. listen, I am not trying to come across as a sadistic moviegoer who craves a lot of gratuitous violence, far from it, but from a property like RoboCop that is expected (heads up to those working on the Terminator reboot).
Then there is the satirical element of the original, which is pretty much downplayed to near non-existence here. There are some serious question about efficiency of robotics taking over or day-to-day lives and exploring the balance between man and machine, both of which are common themes in science fiction, as well as the strength of free will over control and of human judgement in an increasingly computerized world. These are all great, worthwhile places to explore with the concept, and I completely give the film credit for trying to inject as much intellect as possible into the piece, but it becomes so much at the forefront of the film that it looses sight of the satirical nature that made the original so popular.
Oh by the way, about the city, in the original film Detroit was such a distraught urban nightmare that OCP's plans for it could at least be justified (kind of like how in Batman Begins Gotham City was portrayed so miserably corrupt that Batman's presence was a necessity), but here Detroit look, for the most part, like a fairly stable town to be patrolled by a hulking black robot. Not a big deal, just some food-for-thought.
The biggest element of that original satire that does remain, however, is a recurring TV personality played by Samuel L. Jackson who lobbies enthusiastically in favor of mechanized crime control and who argues violently against the Dreyfus Act. This character keeps appearing several times and his arguments are totally over-the-top and shamelessly bias that it really does call back to the spirit of the original. There is even one point where he hosts an argument between Sellas and the senator lobbying for the bill and he rudely cuts the senator off just as his argument is getting tracking. He won't even hear the other side of the argument, kind of like a lot of news punants we see on TV today; seriously, how does it not occur to either this guy, or any else throughout the entire film, that robotic policemen would instantly put all of our men in uniform out of work? What is especially humorous about this is that not only does this character open the film with this argument (with some amusing sound effect of his own making looped over the MGM logo I might add), but he also closes the film making those same arguments again as if the events of this story have made him realize nothing whatsoever. I have got to hand it too the filmmakers that this idea was pretty humorous, in a film that was seriously crying out for it.
I suppose I should take a moment to briefly talk about the redesign of RoboCop himself. When he first appears in robotic form, the character looks like what we all remember from the 80s, visered helmet, chrome-silver color, big and imposing figure...again, the image everyone knows. This looks last a little while and I loved seeing it on the big screen, but at one point Sellas decides to make his creation more marketable saying, "People don't know what they want until you show them", and decides to give him new black armor. While the black armor definitely grows on you and it makes him look a lot bigger and more intimidating then he seemed in previous images, saying that line kind of comes off as giving a blatant middle finger to the fans. I would have been fine with it if, after the main plot of the movie is resolved, then then went back to the original look (and indeed, for a moment I really thought they were going to end on that)...but no, this is how RoboCop looks now so we just have to accept it.
The last fanboy grip I need to lie down is the battle with the ED-209 robots. In the original there was only one robot and the battle between it and RoboCop is arguably the most iconic moment in the franchise. Yes, the original ED-209 was a stop-motion puppet, but it was nevertheless a classic, over-the-top 80s action scene that we all remember. In this version, ED-209 is one of a series of robots that are all CGI and by the end RoboCop has to fight off at least three of them, much like how Peter Jackson updated the iconic T-Rex fight in his remake of King Kong. My gripe with this is not that the robots are CGI; truth by told the models look very good. My problem is that the ED-209 get so little focus or buildup; in the original it was a major part of the plot and was built-up as the next step in the villain's plans, making ED-209 a major villain in its own right for RoboCop to finally take down, but this time they establish at the beginning that these things are already keeping the piece on the Middle East and then they are totally forgotten about until they are brought back as mere security drones a the end.
Okay, I've bashed this film long enough, so what did I like about it? Well, as cliche as it sounds, the visual effects are all solid. There are numerous shots where we see from RoboCop's point-of-view and graphics appear on screen telling you how he see the world while logged into the city's police database. Sure, it at time feels like a video game, but it was still really cool to see all of that stuff to better get into this guy's head. The robots, namely the ED-209s, look fantastic, as do the numerous holographic displays seen throughout as well.
As I said earlier, the film does try to raise a lot of ethical questions about turning man into a machine that were worth exploring. Also, the relationship between Alex and his family served as a spine for the film that grounded it effectively. I also liked the relationship between Alex and his partner on the Detroit police force, as well as the duel-faced portrayal of Dr. Norton, who despite all the inhuman things he does and is continuously pressured into doing, you know that he is a good man at heart that never looses sight of the fact that Alex is a human being with actual loved ones, and not just a piece of company property to be exploited or discarded as necessary.
In fact, the ultimate saving grace of the film is in the performances. Joel Kinnaman is not a hugely impressive actor and is certainly no replacement for Peter Weller, but he does a very good job filling the metallic shoes of Alex Murphy, a.k.a. RoboCop. He plays the character with a great deal more emotion that serves well for the story; plus, he has this every man feel to him that carries the character throughout the story. Sure, he could have been more of a badass, but not a bad portrayal either way. Gary Oldman brings his natural talent to the role of Dr. Dennett Norton, breaking from his more familiar streak of portraying villains to instead present a man who is simultaneously proud and regretful of what he has done and who clearly resents doing anything that takes the man out of this machine; his relationship both with Alex and his family are a major driving factor of the story. Michael Keaton is delightfully sleezy as Raymond Sellars, playing the typical money-hungry CEO that will do whatever it takes to secure the bottom-line. It was admittedly odd at first seeing my generation's Batman in a much more antagonistic role, but he sure did it justice. Samuel L. Jackson appears in a recurring role as TV host Pat Novak, representing the parody of radical political personalities like Bill O'Reilly, and providing the primary comic relief of the film. Abbie Cornish is good as Clara Murphy, coming off as a loving and occasionally defiant woman who will stop at nothing to see her husband again and get him to come home. Jackie Earle Haley is another great supporting player as Rick Mattox, a man who immediately serves as a minor antagonist to RoboCop, calling him Tin-Man constantly and even playing the song "If I Only Had a Heart" during his training exercises just to push his buttons. While he did come off as less extreme than in other roles I've seen him in, he was still a terrific addition to the cast. Other performances include Jennifer Ehle as Liz Kline, Jay Baruchel as Tom Pope, Aimee Garcia as Jae Kim, John Paul Ruttan as David Murphy, Patrick Garrow as Antoine Vallon, Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Karen Dean, Douglas Urbanski as Mayor Durant, and Zach Grenier as Senator Dreyfus.
Overall, RoboCop is an okay science fiction film that sets out to explore a lot of questions about the line between man and machine, and it have some solid performances driving it. But it inevitably cannot escape the shadow of it's predecessor and fails to deliver the kind of over-the-top action spectacle mixed with social satire that people expect to see with this franchise. Still, if you are by yourself or with a couple of friends and you aren't picky, and you are looking for a way to kill an afternoon, then I'd say that this is still worth a matinee showing. I'm giving it a low three stars out of five.