Thoughts on the ROBOCOP reboot (spoilers)
I’ve talked in the past on this blog about my fondness for RoboCop: The Series and my opinions about the movies, so it seems appropriate to post my thoughts about the new movie version directed by José Padilha and starring Joel Kinnaman. I’ve seen mixed reviews, but it seems to be more popular with audiences than with critics, at least going by Rotten Tomatoes, so I figured it was worth a try.
I was never opposed to the idea of a RoboCop reboot; if anything, the issues of corporate power and robotic law enforcement are even more relevant today, so it seemed like a worthwhile and timely idea to revisit the concept in a way tailored to 2010s concerns rather than 1980s concerns. I wanted a film that would not try to copy the original, but would instead take the core concept in a distinct and fresh direction. Now, the last remake I saw of a Paul Verhoeven film, Len Wiseman’s 2012 Total Recall, was a big disappointment in that regard, superficially attempting something new but ultimately too slavish in its imitation of the forms of the original without the substance. So what I heard about this film’s fresh approach was encouraging.
And in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed. Padilha’s RoboCop is a radically different take on the premise, a more serious and realistic film than the comedy-satire Verhoeven made — perhaps fittingly, since its premise of a cyborg enforcer in a decayed Detroit is far closer to reality today than it was in 1987. Its version of Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) doesn’t even die; he’s just horribly injured and retains his identity and memories. And the story focuses more on his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son, and on the scientist who creates and mentors him, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), than on the criminals who attempted to kill him — although the machinations of the corporate executives led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) are about as prominent as in the original. It definitely meets the criterion of being a novel take. There are a couple of subtle nods, but they don’t get in the way of the new story being told: The Basil Poledouris theme is briefly heard at times; the original Rob Bottin costume design is glimpsed as a “combat mode” concept (and there are some nice echoes of Bottin’s classic work in the first version of Murphy’s armor); a character at one point says “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar”; and there’s a variant on the original’s Directive 4, a program block prohibiting Murphy from turning on his corporate controllers, though it’s handled in a very different way (and Chekhov’s-Gunned in the opening sequence of the film). And the line “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” is used, but in a way that cleverly inverts it and gives it new meaning. So even in those rare cases where it references the original, it doesn’t feel gratuitous or derivative. (Though I admit, I was a little disappointed that Murphy never said “Somewhere there is a crime happening.”)
It’s also a very well-made movie, with good designs and cinematography and convincing CGI, though a couple of the big action set pieces seem a bit video-gamey. The cast is solid and effective. (And as a fan of the TV series, I’m pleased that much of the location filming was done in Toronto, where R:TS was made.) I don’t get why they had to gender-swap Lewis (Michael K. Williams), but they also replaced Sgt. Reed with a female Chief Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and built up Mrs. Murphy’s role as well as giving prominent roles to Jennifer Ehle as Omnicorp’s legal executive and Aimee Garcia as Norton’s assistant, so I guess it balances out.
But is it a good story? I felt it was rather slow-paced in the first act, taking quite a long time to establish things that could’ve been handled more concisely. But I appreciated that increased level of detail when it came to delving into Murphy’s family life (in the original, we barely met him before he was killed) and into the mechanics of his rehabilitation and operations. Once it got into the meat of the story, it held my attention quite adequately through the end of the movie.
But after the movie, I began to realize some things were lacking. For a movie inspired by contemporary concerns about drone warfare and the surveillance state, it didn’t really do anything with those concerns. It set up a political conflict between a senator and his constituents who didn’t want unfeeling robots to wield deadly force on US soil and the corporation that sought to increase its profits by putting drones n the streets, but we never saw any actual negative consequences to individual liberty or safety once Murphy’s emotions were suppressed to let him operate in full-on drone mode. If anything, the movie presented ubiquitous surveillance as a pretty unambiguous positive, letting Robo track down bad guys in mere moments. (And it just now occurred to me to wonder, why couldn’t the rest of the police use the same tracking software?) The only people he endangers in emotionless drone mode are criminals and corrupt cops. The only negative consequences to Omnicorp’s progressive dehumanization of Murphy were the emotional consequences to Murphy himself and his family, and those prove pretty easy to overcome. So not only does the film not have much to say about the issues it superficially engages with, but it has little in the way of stakes. It tries to make Murphy the test case and linchpin for a national debate about drone warfare — played out through talk-show segments hosted by Samuel L. Jackson as the type of pundit of which Stephen Colbert is a parody — but it’s all just Greek-chorus exposition that doesn’t really connect to the small-scale story of Murphy and his family and doesn’t have any real payoff or impact. So the attempt at social commentary is all telling and no showing, and no clear point of view on the issues really comes across.
Also, Oldman’s Dr. Norton is somewhat unfocused as a character. He seems at first like a total do-gooder, but then is shown being willing to do some pretty nasty and dehumanizing things to Murphy in the name of Sellars’s profits, but then ends up on Murphy’s side once again in the final act. Maybe they were going for something about how easy it is for decent people to be persuaded to obey immoral orders, the Milgram experiment and all that, but Norton’s inner life isn’t examined enough for any such arc to become evident. It’s more like he’s just switching back and forth between two ethical states to serve the momentary needs of the script.
So in the end, I think all I can say about this movie is that it’s decent. It’s easily the second-best RoboCop movie, but only because the two sequels to the original were so weak. It’s an adequately well-told and extremely well-made story without a lot of substance to it. It’s nowhere near as good as the original — not because it’s different, since it should be different, but because it’s just not as interesting or clever or substantial. It’s worthwhile for the production values and the performances, and for the freshness of its take on the concept, but it had the potential to be so much more, potential that it never really embraced.