Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
February 2014

RoboCop

New suit, old hat

Misguided 'RoboCop' remake fails to expand on its modernized ideas

RoboCop
Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: José Padilha
Screenplay: Joshua Zetumer, based on a 1987 screenplay by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Michael K. Williams, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Patrick Garrow and Samuel L. Jackson
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 48 minutes
February 12, 2014
(out of four)

José Padilha's RoboCop is less like a remake and more like an overenthusiastic little brother, looking up in awe at the 1987 original and desperately trying to impress it, and to live up to its lofty reputation. "I turned my action movie into a sociopolitical allegory, too! Aren't you proud of me?"

But the motivation is all wrong. Nothing about this incarnation of the story feels self-generated. Paul Verhoeven and original screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner set the template for the franchise by embedding a biting satirical comedy inside the familiar model of a bloody cop drama. Its cheerful mockery of Reagan-era capitalism, consumerism and militarism (among other things) is the primary reason its cultural status has grown in the years since its release, and remains the film's most satisfying element.

And so, when the remake committee inevitably came calling, the new filmmakers naturally felt the need to replicate the formula. They came up with a new political analogy and fashioned the modern version around it. ("See? Our version is socially conscious just like the other one!") As if doing so would somehow placate the existing fan base.

In other words, this RoboCop seemingly wants to be accepted more than it wants to be good. It wants to be considered intelligent and subversive like its predecessor, but just for the sake of appearances. It blends a social conscience with action-movie tropes only because that's what the first movie did. The difference is, Verhoeven's ideological framework dovetailed crisply with the premise itself (and, by proxy, with the type of movie the studio presumably thought it was getting), and thus he was able to leverage one against the other.

The 2014 version, from Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer, takes on the same simple idea - the creation of a part-man, part-machine, robot cop to patrol the streets - and redirects its allegorical energies toward modern concerns like the expansion of drone programs and continued American occupation in foreign territories. Those are natural enough parallels to draw, but the film finds little to say about them - and next to nothing about the premise's obvious implications of imperialism, military fascism and, more obliquely, gun control and nuclear proliferation.

The film posits a near future in which most of the world is policed by unmanned robots - the ED-209s that roam the streets of Tehran early on will be familiar to those who've seen the original - with remarkable success. But despite being the primary source of said robots (courtesy of OmniCorp), the United States is the one holdover whose citizens have roundly rejected the idea of robotic police forces. For all the grandstanding done by hyperbolic talk-show hosts like Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), the voters (and many in Congress) have not yet warmed to the idea.

And so OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) comes up with a compromise - put a man inside a suit. Give the robot a human touch, and the people will be more amenable. More importantly, it'll give him a loophole around a current law that prohibits the use of robot police officers.

With the assistance of pioneering scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who specializes in advanced robotics and bionics, Sellars finds his perfect candidate in the form of the recently injured Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who was nearly blown up by a car bomb and is only barely hanging on in critical condition. His wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) signs over the rights to use Alex to create the initial RoboCop prototype (it's essentially the only way to preserve his life), and the experiment begins (to significant public fanfare).

Ideas abound regarding Alex's humanity, and to what extent it's been stripped away by the time the transformation has been completed. In a reveal that is one terribly silly detail away from being a nice piece of body horror, we see exactly what remains of Alex's physical body and what is just machinery. As the process moves forward (at Sellars' behest) toward becoming public policy, Alex's humanity is constantly manipulated and altered until the man he was has been almost completely removed. He's separated from his wife and child (despite Clara's constant pleas to OmniCorp) and gradually turned into an automated crimefighting machine.

What's strange about this RoboCop is how restrained it is from an action standpoint - by modern tentpole standards, anyway; there are only a few big action sequences - yet how tedious it remains. The first half of the film is mostly about the design, creation, training and marketing of Alex/RoboCop (which provides fresh opportunities to examine Alex's dehumanization process and satirize corporate culture, only for the movie to squander them both), while the rest focuses largely on two half-baked subplots that Alex attempts to unravel.

Making an apples-to-apples comparison between this RoboCop and the 1987 version is an unfair endeavor, I admit; but it's useful in considering how the industry handles its properties, and treats its audiences. All cards on the table, I am personally - despite my stated appreciation for its vision - not particularly fond of Verhoeven's original film. I remain baffled about the amount of credit given its modest portion of brilliant satire, in comparison to the thin, clunky, underdeveloped crime thriller that is its overwhelming majority. Not to mention its laughably un-intimidating villain (who didn't even have the courtesy to possess any charm or wit in lieu of menace), or the sheer magnitude of its bad '80s cop-movie cliches that no amount of "but it's meant to be ironic!" protestations can ever justify. It strikes me as a movie that's celebrated simply for having higher-minded ambitions and political ideas in the first place, rather than for its execution of those ideas.

Still, at its best, the original was savagely funny, and more thoughtful and clever than many gave it credit for at the time. (Enough to make me sincerely wish it was the great movie it wants to be.) 1987 RoboCop was a deceptively smart movie designed to appear dumb at first glance; 2014 RoboCop is a really dumb movie that badly wants to look smart.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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