[12th February 2014]
[MGM, Columbia Pictures]
Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish & Jackie Earle Haley
In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.
The original Robocop was a graphic science fiction action film from smutty European mastermind Paul Verhoeven during the peak of his Hollywood directorial career. It was, like much of his work, deeply satirical and critical of the state of America. Verhoeven decided to set the story of Robocop in Detroit, a city plagued by crime and (at the time), a corrupt auto industry that mistreated the work force that filled its factories.
It was a story about the commodification of the soul; the replacement of man for machines (automation of the factories), and the corruption of human values in the service of higher profit. It was a profound film for its time, operating on multiple levels both as a fun, gory action film, but also one featuring philosophical content about which people would later write books. It was challenging and entertaining in equal measure, and it still holds up to this day, although understandably the values on which its discussion are focussed are now a little outdated, and less specific.
As such, a remake, while not a welcome prospect, certainly has some potential to shine a light on recent, more pressing issues. This is unfortunately where this new version of Robocop fails to deliver its premise.
It must be said though, there are some intelligent decisions made in Robocop. The aspect of modernisation is well handled, and the world feels plausible enough that it could actually exist in the near future. The film’s opening in Tehran, demonstrating the might of Omnicorp’s cybernetic forces (and attempting to parallel our current forays into the Middle East), is an impressive one. If anything, Omnicorp’s robotic forces seem like a much more effective process than the one we currently employ with our own drones.
This is where the new Robocop unfortunately falls at the first hurdle. Throughout the film we are shown a world where the products of Omnicorp actually work incredibly well, and save lives in the process, which is their entire purpose. The point of the original was that the company’s products were faulty, and would cause innocent blood to be spilled, yet the company was going to release them anyway, and silence anyone that threatened to expose them. The remake is an oddity in that it never really shows Omnicorp being particularly “evil”, which makes the conclusion to the whole fiasco a nonsensical and jagged pill to swallow.
Somewhat ironically, where this adaptation falls down the hardest is during the scenes that are slavish to the original. Robocop seems like a fractured experience, one that does have a few notions of its own, but is tied to trying to replicate as much of the original as possible, without any real cause to. The redesign of Robocop is well executed and has a particularly unique twist to the tale – but then is undermined by random asides where they crowbar in references to the original suit – and then promptly never use them again.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of the film is the decision to start with a very human Robocop, before progressively (by controlling his dopamine levels) making him more and more inhuman. It’s an interesting approach, at first, but one that actually defeats the entire “human element” argument that the film tries to hinge on. Robocop is at his most effective in the climax of the film, when any sense of drama or intensity is replaced with a blur of CGI combat, forced villainous activity and an overwrought sequence between Robocop and a squad of ED-209s. Throughout this action sequence there are flashes of ingenuity, but unintentionally – all it does is showcase that Robocop is probably the closest thing we have as a villain here.
In terms of performance; supporting players like Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, and Jackie Earle Haley all do well with what they’re given, which admittedly in the case of the latter isn’t much at all. What’s more, Keaton and Haley have the villain label unfairly foisted upon them in the third act, which they do nothing to deserve compared to the well crafted iconic psychopaths that graced Verhoeven’s ultra violent original. Robocop himself Joel Kinnaman doesn’t fair as well as his talented supporting cast; seemingly unable to fully convey the breadth of emotions that the film is trying to hint at. Abbie Cornish fairs worse still, playing a thoroughly unconvincing distressed wife to Robocop – even when the two are together before the incident that creates the iconic character, they have zero chemistry and watching the two of them “connect” is like watching two IKEA tables perform a mating dance as they awkwardly shuffle around the room.
Samuel L. Jackson exists on a separate plane of existence to the rest of the film. Jackson embodies the satire element of the film by shouting at the screen during television show interludes, formatted like many other political talkshows. Jackson does what he does best here – wears a ridiculous hairpiece and screams at the screen. It’s an act that is beginning to wear thin, and any sense of satire in this film is laid on so thick, by literally having someone SHOUT it at you that it renders it laughable at best, aggravating at worse.
If anything can be said about Robocop, it inadvertently shines a light on our modern “dumbed-down” culture by providing a modern, dumbed-down version of a classic. There are brief moments of ingenuity scattered throughout, but they are absolutely undermined by everything else that features in the film. It was a valiant effort from Elite Squad director Jose Padilha and co. but one that ultimately fails to capture the unique nature, or purpose of the original film. Certainly worth a look more than most remakes out there, but this reviewer would argue that if you only have two hours to spare, and access to both versions – go with the original every time.