The original 1987 version of RoboCop is a dystopian sci-fi movie that focused on a number of social issues, including privatization, gentrification, the media, and human nature. While it isn’t quite Blade Runner or Brazil, it’s earned a well-deserved reputation as a 1980s classic. It’s also an example of a movie that never should have been turned into a franchise because neither the two sequels nor the various television series (animated or otherwise) that followed came close to the original.
Nonetheless, 2014 feels like an appropriate time to release a RoboCop remake because of headlines about the NSA and drone warfare. The technology in 1987’s RoboCop is no longer science fiction but nearly the science of today. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is desperate to find a way to get the American public to accept his robot soldier army to serve as a nationwide police force. Despite the support of cable news talking head Pat Novak (a scenery-chewing Samuel L. Jackson), Sellars realizes that Americans are concerned about the robots lacking a human element. Sellars then tasks his head scientist Dr. Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman) to take a recently critically injured Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) and turn him into a cyborg that could win the American people over with its efficiency and “humanity.” However, Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) begins to realize that RoboCop is not the man her husband was while, at the same time, OmniCorp’s military tactician Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) is out to prove that RoboCop is no replacement for his robots. RoboCop is torn between his duties as an officer and the humanity of Murphy that he still feels.
You can tell that you’re supposed to check your brain at the door in the opening minutes when Novak shows on his television program OmniCorp’s robots speaking English to the locals as they patrol the streets of Tehran. From then on there’s a series of typical action movie explosions and a number of scenes featuring Murphy struggling to feel his humanity that are supposed to make the audience feel emotion as well, although I’m guessing the emotion is humor based on the snickering I heard in the audience at my screening.
To give Kinnaman a backhanded compliment, he’s the perfect actor to portray a robot. I know that sounds harsh — he does a good job on The Killing and I thought he was fine in Easy Money — but either he was told to strip any emotion from his character or he was struggling to find the right accent because he isn’t a good fit for the character in the more human scenes. Abbie Cornish is equally rough in her role, but it’s hard to blame her when she is doing overly dramatic readings of absolutely terrible cliched dialogue. I think the original RoboCop did a much better job with Murphy’s family by having them think Murphy was dead. In this version, it doesn’t make sense that the OmniCorp execs are totally shocked by Clara’s reaction to her robot husband. What did they think would happen when they decided that they wouldn’t let her see her husband? Did they really think a devoted wife would be okay with being told that her husband was too busy to see his family? Have they worked so long with robots that they forgot how humans react to things? Has anyone who worked on this thing ever met an actual human being?
RoboCop might hold the record of having the most actors I really like in a disappointing movie. I figured with Oldman, Keaton, Jackson, Haley, and Michael K. Williams (who plays Murphy’s partner, a small role that’s pretty beneath Williams’ skills as an actor) the movie couldn’t be this dull or cliche. Honestly, seeing the Christopher Nolan Jim Gordon (Oldman) and the Tim Burton Batman (Keaton) interact is amusing from a movie trivia standpoint (especially when Keaton flips into his “You wanna go nuts?” overreactions). But the cast is just a tease because they can’t do much with such a shallow script that has the origin story go on for far too long and dull direction. If you look hard enough, you can see a lot of talented actors here cashing their paychecks.
I don’t know much about director José Padilha‘s work, but I have to think he’s the main part of the problem here. Then again, he is working from a script from novice writer Joshua Zetumer (RoboCop is his first produced screenplay). If MGM and Columbia were expecting to turn RoboCop into a new money-making franchise, why entrust the project to two people who are so clearly clueless on what made the original so striking? Why sanitize the material into crowd-pleasing drivel that audiences will likely see right through after opening weekend? Why assume people would go see the new RoboCop on name recognition alone and not care that it’s about as generic as bad action movies get? Even the social commentary provided by Jackson’s character is done so over-the-top that it’s reduced to a simple “corporations are bad” lesson.
At one point, Keaton’s character is talking about changing RoboCop‘s armor from silver to black because, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Is that what MGM/Columbia thought about this movie? Because they showed it to me and, yeah, we don’t want this.
RATING: The current leader in “Movie Remake that Most Missed the Point of the Original” contest for 2014 (4/10).