Before you know what I think about the new RoboCop, it is probably significant to understand what I think about the old one, and it is this: Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 ultraviolent sci-fi satire is easily one of my top five favorite films of all time. Like many movies I love that much, it is one that has revealed itself more to me as I got older, having first seen it when I was 13 and mostly appreciated the action and robots. I also always admired what a consistent, believable future world it created – even now, it doesn’t look much out of date (though I am always astonished when I look back at ’80s media just how much of a threat to world peace we all thought South Africa was going to be).
The new RoboCop is, you will be highly unsurprised to know, not operating on the same masterful level as its source material. But unlike many, MANY other things associated with the RoboCop brand over the years, it also does not suck. And that in itself is kind of a win.
I was going to give several examples of the horrors associated with merchandising the property back in the ’80s, but Charles covered most of them earlier this morning, though he didn’t mention the live-action TV series featuring a Freddy Krueger-looking villain named Pudface. Who, yes, got his own action figure, because nobody doesn’t like to play with their Pud.
Point is, the days of RoboCop being any kind of hallowed property disappeared so long ago you probably even forgot about most of the above, so forgive me if I can’t work myself into a righteous rage. At least the new version is trying a different take. (It does briefly play the classic theme for a cheap pop, which is fair.)
Funnily enough, a large portion of the anger could have been avoided – with very minor tweaks, this Robocop could have been a “years later” sequel a la Superman Returns. The only character to even have the same name is Officer Alex Murphy; he does have a partner named Lewis, but he is a black man, primarily so that one genuinely funny racial joke can be added, and also undoubtedly to counteract the villainy of Samuel L. Jackson’s Bill O’Reilly impersonation, “Pat Novak.”
Director Jose Padilha tries to flip the metaphor this time around, possibly because we’ve gone from an attitude of “Ooh, awesome, computers can do stuff” in the ’80s to, “Shit, my computer crashed and I can’t get a human being on the phone to help me!” So instead of a machine concealing a man, the new-millennium model is a man putting a happy face on a machine (arguably, the metaphor here is President Obama’s smiling face masking drone attacks). The ill-fated Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, looking freakily tall and bony as a human, but just right when bulked up in Robosuit)) awakens from a deadly attempt on his life this time with all his memories intact, but his face, lungs and hand inside a death machine. There is some nice body horror to this, but it isn’t super-lingered on.
Aside: why the human hand? Originally, the idea seemed to be something about laws requiring only humans to pull triggers, but that appears to have been abandoned the moment they realized Robo couldn’t kick some two-fisted action under those conditions. It’s vaguely implied that a human hand is still helpful in opening fingerprint-activated locks – Robo Murphy is allowed to spend time in his house, with his family, though they might wish he had an alternate, less bulk body for quiet time.
As a scientist ironically named Dr. Norton, Gary Oldman’s job is to debug the latest in law enforcement and make him ready for action – when it turns out that Murphy’s human conscience slows down his insta-kill reflexes, the doctor’s orders are to add new safeguards into the brain that keep him from worrying about such trivialities as due process and bringing ’em back alive. But will Murphy’s inherent humanity be able to overcome such things? That’s an important question when he can wirelessly hack every traffic cam and database in the city, much like the lead character in the upcoming video game Watch_Dogs. This Murphy is less Jesus than Frankenstein.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is a movie about drones. It opens with scenes of U.S. occupied Iran, which now resembles a Terminator Judgment Day, as androids and chicken-walking ED-209s roam the streets as flying killer-bots patrol the skies. Conservative talk-show hosts like Jackson’s Novak, and venture capitalists like Omnicorp’s Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) rail against the American hypocrisy of deploying such things overseas while banning them stateside. Unlike in the original, the powers that be are not quite so ruthless as to transfer the best and brightest new cops to the most dangerous neighborhoods in the hope one will become cyborg-fodder, but they are convincing enough to get Murphy’s wife to sign off on saving him, even as organs in a machine body. Yes, there are Tin Man references, but they are mostly sarcastic, thank Oz.
Though the movie is PG-13, the violence is sufficient here that it would have earned an R in prior years, though it’s certainly not as blood-soaked or boobie and profanity laden as Verhoeven’s. You won’t see executives snorting cocaine off of hookers, but none of the action sequences feels lacking, exactly. There is an overall look of relative cheapness, like this could have been shot in any Canadian metropolis today rather than future Detroit, but this could, in its way, be more accurate – the future often looks more like its preceding years than our fictions would have us believe.
Who knows – for this generation, the new RoboCop might be the action movie they dig and grow up to see the satire in. It’s too bad the movie itself doesn’t trust that fact enough, ending everything with a reminder, in so many words, that in case you didn’t get it, this movie was about drones. Finishing an otherwise entertaining flick on such an annoying note risks undercutting any accumulated good will – you want people to exit the theater feeling good, and Verhoeven’s final “Murphy” line sure as shit did that, leaving you to worry about the morality of violence much later when you thought back on it.
I know RoboCop. RoboCop is a friend of mine. And 2014 remake…Well, at least you’re no RoboCop 2. Seriously, the black mayor in that was the original Jar Jar.