Adaptation is a risky business, especially when your source material is the astoundingly violent pop-satire edifice of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 Robocop. The original is itself a paradox—a high-concept science-fiction mockery ridiculing Reagan-era corporate consolidation and, simultaneously, a violent and explicit action thriller. Verhoeven’s near supernatural ability to combine disparate elements is present in all his films. From Total Recall to Basic Instinct, he blends tropes from Hollywood exploitation with sharp cultural critique and a seductively cool style. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Robocop, a film that feels like a seamless android, half Hollywood machine and half man—or, as the film’s original tagline stated, “Part man. Part machine. All cop.”
Director: José Padilha
Producers: Marc Abraham, Brad Fischer, Eric Newman
Writer: Joshua Zetumer
Cinematographer: Lula Carvalho
Editors: Peter McNulty, Daniel Rezende
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Zach Greiner
Premiere: February 10, 2014 — Los Angeles
US Theatrical Release: February 12, 2014
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Director José Padhila and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer lack this particular gift, and their revamped Robocop demonstrates that its two hemispheres (cultural critique and Hollywood action) are distinctly separated. The film opens somewhere in the distant (but not too distant) future with The Novak Element, an O’Reilly Factor-esque political talk show run by Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who laments the lack of fascist robotic shock troops on the streets of American cities. As he goes on to explain, the American military has been completely replaced by fully automatic drones, all manufactured by giant corporate robot conglomerate Omnicorp. Due to a particular American law put forward by the dorky Senator Dreyfuss (Zach Greiner)—a man who dresses like a parody of House of Cards’ Francis Underwood—these war bots can be used overseas but never back home, which infuriates Novak to no end. Some are soulless humanoid robots complete with scanners that qualify humans they encounter as “threat” or “no threat”; and some are turreted walking tanks that resemble the stop-motion Enforcement Droid 209—the military killing tool that is the primary evil in the original Robocop. But Novak wants all of them patrolling what he calls “the worst neighborhoods in America.” We are treated to a ride along with these terrifying robots in a gritty Tehran that is apparently occupied by American forces; the film never really delves into how the world has changed, though it’s clear the global political pendulum has swung toward totalitarianism. These droids, supposed “peacekeepers,” are pure tools of oppression, scanning everyone in the neighborhood while they quiver in fear and blowing away anyone deemed a “threat,” including a little boy with a knife. It’s unclear what threat a knife holds for a hardened steel automaton, except maybe to scratch the slick paint job, but the robots put him down anyway, as their programming dictates. But somehow this unrepentant killing does nothing to dissuade the enthusiasm for new technological advancements, and Novak continues his push toward the cyborg invasion of America.
The film’s primary agents—Pat Novak, our Fox News demagogue, and Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the infinitely slimy Omnicorp CEO—conspire to change popular opinion and overthrow the law banning their robots, toward the noble goal of profits. Through a loophole, they can bring a robotic drone into the American police force if it is a half-man, half-machine Robocop. So rather than a scientific advancement (indeed, the science is basically already there) Robocop is brought back to life as a form of viral marketing for a global murderbot corporation. For their test subject, they choose Alex Murphy (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman), a cop recently destroyed in a car bomb explosion while investigating dirty cops and the illegal weapons trade in Detroit. To build him, Sellars taps one of his top designers, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a man who builds sophisticated robotic prosthetics for amputees.
If this sounds like a lot of exposition, that’s because it is. The film’s first act seems to drag on for two thirds of the movie, with all of this convoluted introduction only followed by months of product testing before Robocop even makes it to Detroit. By the time he is formally introduced—and inserted into the rushed, action-heavy plotline in which he obsessively investigates his own murder—the climax ends up feeling like an afterthought. Clearly this film is most interested in its gadgets and toys, not the profoundly existential situation of reanimation as a cyborg.
The original film also placed most of its emphasis on non-violent police work: investigation, chasing down leads, and stopping bad guys, when necessary, without killing them. The horrifying evil thought at the end of the 1987 Robocop is that this technology, the same tool that can bring a mostly dead cop back to life, would be used by the military as a force of death. Here, in its remake, the robots being brought back to the US already exist as weaponized soldiers, yet somehow the only opposition to the forced subjugation of American cities is an old bowtie-clad senator pontificating on how we “can’t have robots pulling the trigger.” By the time our Robocop hits the city streets, there isn’t enough time for investigation or legwork, just for gun-toting, motorcycle riding action. This Robocop is overwhelmingly powerful, able to tap into the digital communications infrastructure of the city from cell phones to closed circuit cameras, and digitally compute crimes as they occur. But in his ultimate power lies his failing; there’s no mystery or suspense when our main character already knows everything. Plus, the tired attempts and characterization make him into an even blander figure. Much of Alex’s supposed emotional development comes by way of scenes with his loving wife (Abbie Cornish) and his hockey-loving son, but these characters are even more clichéd than the hulking Robocop himself. Tack onto that an unwarranted antipathy between the cop and an Omnicorp robot designer (Jackie Earle Haley) who derisively refers to him as “tin man” and a buddy cop relationship with his partner (Michael K. Williams) and you essentially have the character’s emotional scope.
Even the visual style is relatively bland, a wash of grays, browns, and blacks that compare poorly to the stylized world of the 1987 original. The action sequences have promise, especially when we see POV shots that demonstrate Robocop’s augmented reality viewpoint, with trajectories and targets stylishly displayed like he is walking through a video game. But the fight scenes are the definition of bland, with our behemoth of a cop lumbering slowly around, taking countless bullets, and slowly firing at his enemies. With the kind of CGI involved, one would think we could get acrobatics (or at least some kind of three- dimensional movement through space), but for the most part Robocop simply walks and shoots.
Yet that’s not the biggest failure in the new Robocop; its scope is just too microscopically small. This America is so rabidly pro-establishment that they cheer on a robotic killing machine that shows no remorse in its empty human eyes. Fifty percent of the public (according to polls shown on The Novak Element) want robotic drones patrolling their streets, and all this is without one whisper of propagandized entertainment or brainwashing—the only reference to the original on that front being a sardonic “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar” thrown in as a piece of un-subtle fan service. If this is the world that people want—one where a despotic corporation polices their streets with murderous drones that don’t distinguish motives or cause—then maybe it’s what they deserve. In that case, maybe this is the movie they deserve too—but thankfully we don’t live in that world.