Thursday, February 05, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: RoboCop (2014)

RoboCop (2014) is a top-of-the-line science fiction movie for our time. It features a remarkable cast, strong visual effects and it ponders, with intelligence, some important issues of this epoch.

And yet the reboot -- while never an embarrassment to the long-standing franchise -- is absolutely, categorically, humorless. 

As you may recall, a vital aspect of the 1987 Verhoeven film was its comical skewering of right wing, pro-business policies in a fictional future U.S.A. The ED-209 didn’t just malfunction, for example, he turned an OCP board-member to a bloody pulp.

Meanwhile, the movie’s TV commercials for products such as the board game Nuke ‘Em revealed how the world had become a blood-thirsty, dog-eat-dog world due to rule, essentially, by unregulated corporations.

The new RoboCop finds no humorous corollary for any of these moments, and this, I fear, is a symptom of our times too.

For some reason, horror and science fiction films these days are afraid to be funny, to crack a joke here and there. They are deadly serious, instead, and that level of unremitting “grittiness” can be exhausting.

I suspect it’s the Dark Knight (2008) effect, honestly.

Now, post-Nolan, every genre pic has to be deadly serious and set (largely) at night, so we think it is “authentic” or “real.” It’s funny to contemplate, but Adam West’s Batman (1966 – 1968) cast a pall over superhero productions for a generation by presenting the hero as campy.  It now looks as though the Nolan trilogy has had just as deleterious effects on our age today, taking the genre to such dour, humorless heights that people forget how much fun a good, thoughtful sci-fi picture -- like RoboCop (1987) -- ought to be.

Why do I miss the humor in this RoboCop so much? 

Well, in Verhoeven’s film, the humor made a valuable point about the society as a whole, but it did so without turning the movie into a preachy left-wing diatribe. The commercials and moments of humor leavened the whole thing.

It’s the same reason you want a spoonful of sugar with your medicine, right?

In the original RoboCop, the points about out-of-control right-wing economic politics were still scored -- viciously so, in some circumstances -- but the movie was free to be an action movie, and not a sermon. We could look at all the pieces of the social critique, recognize them, and then laugh at our recognition of them. We could still have a good time, even while nodding in agreement about the nature of the exaggerated, fictional world.

Sometimes, the world really feels this way…

The new RoboCop proceeds from a point of far greater seriousness, and yet its point -- that people aren’t the property of corporations -- doesn’t transmit nearly as effectively as similar messages did in RoboCop, or even the gonzo-bonkers sequel, RoboCop 2 (1990).

This doesn’t mean the new film isn’t intelligent. It’s a smart and earnest movie. I liked it. But I didn’t admire it in the way I still do the original film.

The new RoboCop can be credited, absolutely, with rethinking the details of Alex Murphy’s story for our times. This version of the tale focuses on American military engagements in the Middle East, the plight of veterans who return home less than whole, and the use of drones or otherwise automated hardware against our citizenry.

It’s an intriguing angle for certain, and yet, again, the film somehow doesn’t feel as visceral or as moving as the original RoboCop did, even when it takes the time to explore aspects of the character’s personal life that the original didn’t touch…like the plight of Murphy’s wife and son.

Again, RoboCop is no embarrassment. It’s not a terrible, unthinking, or slapdash “re-boot.” But in the final analysis, it doesn’t carry the ball any further down the field than the original did. Objectively, it’s just not as good as the original was -- even though the argument could be made that the film is quite well-done -- and so its very purpose must be called into question.

Do we need a RoboCop reboot that doesn’t improve on Verhoeven’s original vision?  If so, why? 

It seems to me that this is the most important question that needs answering here.  All the solid work of the admittedly impressive cast and director Jose Padhila, doesn’t quite validate the existence of a film that feels, at times, so mechanical.

“A machine does not understand how it feels to be human.”

In an America of the near future, the corporation OCP wants more than anything to sell its robotic sentinels -- ED-209 and ED-208 -- to crime-infested cities. But CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) can’t open this market because of the settled law of the land.  The Dreyfus Act forbids robotic hardware to be in a position where it can police the American people.

Sellars suspects he can get around this edict by putting a man into such a machine, and marketing that man and his “conscience” to the American people. 

When Detroit cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is grievously injured in a bombing, Sellars has his candidate for that job.  He goes to a well-respected doctor, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) and tells him to build…a Robocop.

When Murphy awakes, he discovers he is not quite the man he used to be.  Only one hand, his brain, his face, his lungs and his throat survived the bombing and the ensuing surgery.  Now he is more machine than man, housed in a complex robot body.  At the very least, however, he will still get to see his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish) and his son, David.

When RoboCop hits the streets of Detroit and proves a success at stopping crime, the U.S. Senate holds a vote to repeal the Dreyfus Act. 

But with that repeal, RoboCop is now obsolete.  He has outlived his value to Sellars…

“It’s great to see American machines helping to promote peace and freedom abroad.”

The new RoboCop could almost be titled RoboSoldier because its primary concern is the post-Iraq War world. The film’s events occur during an American occupation of Iran (and Tehran, specifically), as ED-209s and humanoid ED-208s patrol the streets, enforcing the peace at gunpoint. 

Meanwhile, veterans come home to America physically broken, and scientists like the sympathetic Doctor Norton (Oldman), attempt to make them whole again with robotic limbs. There's a remarkable scene in the film of a man learning to use his robot hands to play the guitar. It's hopeful and sad at the same time.

Although technically not a soldier, Murphy comes home broken too, and must -- with all the changes inside him, and all the horror he has seen -- re-integrate into his family unit and his former life.  But of course, he is a changed man, literally, and again, this is the precise story that many soldiers face upon returning stateside, and to their homes.  

They are not who they once were.They are changed, even altered psychologically, by their war experiences. And Murphy faces this problem too. He undergoes a kind of robotic version of PTSD and doctors reduce his Dopamine level so that he acts, with his family, like a "zombie." He hardly seems to recognize his loved ones.

At the same time, on the home front, right-wing voices of “law and order” on TV demand that the American street be pacified too, using the same machines patrolling Tehran. 

But a liberal senator, Dreyfus, created a bill (and then a law) which prevents the use of such military equipment in American cities. 

Again, this dramatic scenario is ripped straight out of current events. In 2015, more and more police units in metropolitan areas are gearing up with military hardware, and more and more Americans are growing afraid that they could be the target of drones, or other machines of war, during moments of civil disobedience. Are police our protectors, or occupiers of our cities?  Very many, that line seems to be blurred.

The new RoboCop handles this paradigm well, and quite intelligently.  The commentary is smart, and often ironic, but it is never sharp enough, or funny enough, to leave a significant impact. Samuel L. Jackson plays a right-wing TV pundit/bloviator Pat Novak who complains about “robo-phobic” America and stands in front of giant screens of the American flag, draping himself in patriotism that is more aptly fascism.  This isn't satire though. This is an accurate depiction of certain personalities in the current media.

Novak calls the Tehran occupation a peaceful one, and notes -- immediately prior to a boy’s death by ED-209 -- that for the first time Iranian people can raise their children in safety and security.

The point is made ironically, of course. Novak spouts propaganda; and we see for our own eyes that it isn’t the truth. There’s no safety and security here, only an invading force occupying the city.

But the moment isn’t funny, because the new RoboCop doesn’t get the idea that was transmitted so clearly in the original.  

If you want to make a really memorable point about something, then you take reality and exaggerate it. You take it one step further than reality.

Go out of bounds with it a little. 

Instead, the reboot speculates, in dead serious fashion, about the use of military technology in other lands, and here at home. We get serious war scenes, with a youthful casualty. But this footage seems like it could be real, and from today, with just a few exceptions.

Paul Verhoeven, I suspect, would have treated the moment very differently. He would killed that Iranian kid in the most grievous, bloody, over-the-top, politically incorrect fashion, and then, for punctuation, have had Pat Novak label him a terrorist. 

We all would have gasped.

And then we would have heard some nervous titters or giggles from fellow audience members at the bad taste of the whole thing…and yet the point would have been made irrevocably. 

Our words, ideals, and our actions not only fail to line up, that scene would have expressed, they actually have no relation to one another.  

This was the essence of many Media Break moments in the original franchise. Remember in RoboCop 2 how Leeza Gibbons griped about environmentalists who complained about a nuclear meltdown in the Amazon Rain Forest.  

Those pesky environmentalists! They’re always complaining about something!

In the reboot, the ironic event (the death of a child during a “peaceful” robot patrol) is noted, but it just kind of hangs there on the screen, flat. The moment is played dead straight, and so the opportunity to expose Novak’s hypocrisy and propaganda is lost, at least to some significant degree.

To reiterate, I believe it is commendable that RoboCop attempts to tackle a serious subject: American military equipment exported to places where it is neither desired, nor helpful, by corporations who want to open big markets and make money. But the movie has no really illuminating or memorable viewpoint to note about the subject.

It's text vs. subtext, I guess, at least in some ways.

Also, it is commendable, I believe that this iteration of RoboCop expends the time and energy to showcase what Clara (Abbie Cornish), Murphy’s wife, goes through, following his injury and resurrection.  

She goes through Hell, and it’s the same Hell that so many military families go through in real life. A soldier is catastrophically-wounded, on the verge of death. How do you help him or her? How much do you consider quality of life for the injured vets? How much can technology help?

These are serious questions, and I appreciate that this RoboCop goes further than the original (and its sequels) did in charting this aspect of Murphy’s life.

The performances are all very good, too. Gary Oldman projects decency and humanity as the doctor who tries to make things better, but realizes he has gone too far. Michael Keaton is appropriately asshole-ish as OCP CEO Raymond Sellars, a man used to getting his way, and willing to use the media and the government to get what he wants. 

Joel Kinnaman is fine as Murphy/RoboCop too, but the role still belongs to Peter Weller. With Weller, you got a sense of Alex’s kind of gentle goofiness. Remember him trying to twirl his gun to impress his son? Or racing Lewis to the car, and driving it, his first day on the job, over her objections? 

It’s difficult to put this into words, but even though the new RoboCop gives the character more interaction with his family, and a deeper character arc, it is Weller’s Murphy who somehow seems more truly, legitimately human.  The new Murphy wants to solve cases, and bring people to justice. He’s like a cliché movie cop, dedicated, even as a robot, to bringing in a perp.  The old RoboCop wanted to impress his son, fit in on the job, and be a good cop. 

There’s a measure of difference there that’s worth noting.

The new film also fails to make an important connection, one that was so vital to the original work of art.  In Verhoeven’s film, Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker were two sides of the same coin: board room thugs, and street thugs. Here, the plot involving the gun-runner Antoine Vallon, doesn’t really connect meaningfully with Sellars and his machinations. The plots are separate, and the Vallon plot doesn’t really go anywhere.

The new RoboCop also seems to have a lot less action in it too. 

One on hand, people could say it is a more mature film than the original was, since it attempts to focus on emotions and character arcs.  

On the other hand, the old film had action and satire -- it was exciting and smart -- so it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t a more fully realized work of art. This RoboCop takes itself very seriously, yet doesn’t  make its commentary stick in anything approaching a memorable or striking way.  

Again, I don’t wish to present the impression that the remake is terrible, or even bad. I’ve watched the film twice now. Once last year, and then again two nights ago, after finishing up the other RoboCop films. 

Clearly, the 2014 film is much better than RoboCop 3 (1993) was. No one in their right mind would argue otherwise. But by eliminating the humor and satirical angle of the series, this RoboCop film feels just as flat as that film did, at least at certain points.

The story, the performances, the visual effects are all superior, for certain, but this is, no doubt the “Tin Man” version of RoboCop

All head. No heart. And certainly no funny bone.


  1. As a life long Robocop fan, I just couldnt take this you mention, its lifeless, humorless when compared to Veerhoven's ultra entertaining original. That killed it for me. Also, all the CGI, the lack of crazy over the top villains, the acid satire....but as you say, it's well shot, well made, it's just lacking in life and humor.

  2. Yeah "The Dark Knight" syndrome strikes again. There is a strong belief that this what folks want to see in their films these days. I always wonder if it is older fans like you, me and Francisco who lament the loss of the humor and fun of genre movies of ages past. The younger generation often sees those films as "cheesy".

    Veerhoven in particular doesn't strike a chord with a few of the younger viewers I know. That term "cheesy" was used to describe both the original "Robocop" and "Total Recall". Both films are over the top, yes, but it was all done with a satirical target. It just feels like that type of satire isn't appreciated at the moment.

    And while I feel there is a place for this type of story and this type of film, maybe slapping the name "Robocop" on it, is what ends up hurting it more for us older viewers. We know and love the original film and all it's in your face violence and humor. To see the new film completely drained of all the red (blood and emotion) makes the whole thing feel sterile.

    Hopefully the pendulum will swing back. "Guardians of the Galaxy" had a lot of humor in it and seemed to really be a hit with viewers. Maybe it is a sign of things to come.

  3. Another outstanding essay John. I think many of these same points could be made about the "Total Recall" remake too. Not terrible, even arguably quite good, actually involving and entertaining watch, well cast, technically competent, but utterly humorless and just not memorable (outside of the art direction and Kate Beckinsale in the TR remake).

    I think the problem is the lack of auteurs making movies today. I know you are not a big Nolan fan, but he does have very distinctive set of thematic and stylistic obsessions. But aside from him, who are the name genre directors who leave their distinctive stamps on their work? I enjoy the Marvel movies, but they kind of feel all the same, and I honestly cannot tell you who directed what and does it really matter? When we grew up we had Spielberg, Scott, De Palma, Carpenter, Cronenberg, Dante, Zemeckis, Cameron, Verhoeven etc, all with very distinctive styles, thematic pre-occupations, and individual personalities and senses of humor that were reflected in their work. I think that is what is lacking today. Given the current economies of production, I don't think we will ever see another director like Verhoeven (or even a Joe Dante) making big budget studio movies ever again.