It’s curiously apt that the EM-208 robot soldiers (don’t worry, there are also more ED-209’s than you would be unwise to shake a stick at) which appear at the start of this new “RoboCop” look almost exactly like the Cylons from the 2004 reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” because there’s a very clear sense that ‘all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again’.
The reimagined 2014 model of “RoboCop” boasts better effects, sleeker styling, and more features included as standard, is probably more efficient in its fuel consumption and carbon emissions and, although it’s not explicitly mentioned, undoubtedly has more cup holders. However like cars, the enhanced safety and comfort has come at the expense of the visceral and kinetic experience of the earlier models.
Much of the basic story remains intact: officer Alex Murphy is mortally wounded and mutilated in the line of duty and is kept alive by the intervention and cutting edge technology of OmniCorp. In the background is a political struggle being fought on the battleground of public opinion between the US Government which has banned the use of robotic law enforcement on US soil and OmniCorp which stands to make billions of dollars if the law is repealed.
This film differs from its predecessor in that it spends a lot more time focussing on the emotional impact of Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop and there’s an increased role for Murphy’s wife and son in dealing with the change which gives the film a bit more emotional depth but comes at the expense of pacing and action. How many sequences of RoboCop looking sad or middle-distance staring faces with tears running down their cheeks is too many for a “RoboCop” film?
The action sequences are decent enough, but become repetitive by the end of the film and are often filmed in a swooping, quick cut shaky cam style that ends up muddling the visuals. There are none of the gruesome, gloriously inventive kills of the original, no doubt excised by the need for an teen-friendly certificate, and the black humour which laced the original is entirely absent. There are some clever interpretations and updates of the gimmicks from the original, such as the Primary Directives and the way Murphy’s free will is curtailed but where the original spends time showing RoboCop doing his duty and dealing with crime, in this one it seems to take very little before he sets off on a quest for vengeance. Although it’s not really made clear, it does feel that RoboCop’s motivation is personal payback rather than the interests of justice.
The city of Detroit is, we are told, plagued by crime and corruption and yet everything we see on screen shows us a gentrified city of leafy suburbs, gleaming glass skyscrapers and immaculately landscaped open spaces. There is no sign of a city on its knees which would be crying out for a robotised response to controlling crime. The villains, such a vital and propulsive part of the original, are a bit vanilla here and the film suffers from the absence of a Clarence Boddicker or Dick Jones. The whole plot involving a criminal gang and the secret ambitions of the OmniCorp CEO seem diffuse and ill-defined, almost an afterthought.
The movie tries hard to replicate its predecessor’s razor-sharp satirical social commentary and while it scores a few easy points going after the obvious targets (US Foreign Policy, hawkish ‘news’ shows, corporate greed) it spectacularly fails to grasp the opportunities on offer. We actually live in a world where giant, omnipresent technology companies are buying up smaller robotic and AI companies in pursuit of undisclosed agendas; where cities like Detroit and even whole nations are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and where Government agencies are routinely spying on their own populations and actively curtailing civil liberties in the name of protecting freedom. The 21st Century reimagining of “RoboCop” has an embarrassment of riches to aim at and fails to hit a single significant target. Perhaps the calibration programme is a bit off?
The cast are decent in their roles, although most are underwritten and two dimensional. For all the attempt to inject more emotion into the story, none of it feels natural and its forced upon us thought dialogue and exposition rather than flowing naturally from events. Joel Kinnaman is adequate as Alex Murphy but lacks the screen presence and charisma of Peter Weller while Michael Keaton, Jay Baruchel and Michael K Williams (as Murphy’s partner Lewis) are wasted. Gary Oldman seems bored and a little embarrassed to be there, Jackie Earle Haley is given nothing to do but be nasty for nasty’s sake and Samuel L Jackson’s segments as TV Host Pat Novak are, in the end, lazy plot devices used to dump a bunch of exposition and move the story forward when the actual events run out of steam.
I don’t believe it was wrong to try to reimagine or reinterpret “RoboCop”. Yes, the original is a classic, but it’s also of its time and times have moved on. Where this adequate but ultimately indifferent film disappoints the most is that a “RoboCop” made now, against the backdrop of the world we live in, could and should have been so much more. I’d still buy it for a dollar – but it’s clear that a dollar doesn’t go anywhere near as far as it used to.