Earlier on this year, the Joe Padilha-directed remake of the much beloved 80’s sci-fi film Robocop debuted to mixed reviews. I finally got around to watching it, and while I certainly believe that in a direct comparison, the remake falls flat, I also feel like the newer film has gotten a lot of undeserved flack from critics. In reality, it is an attempt to add a much more personal, human element to its speculative sci-fi aspect, and as a result, resonated more emotionally with me than the original.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to say off the bat that I do really enjoy the 1987 Robocop directed by Paul Verhoeven. It’s a smart, funny satire of military-industrial privatization that showed some serious testicular fortitude in terms of its willingness to show some brutal violence on-screen. If this version were to try to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps, it’s quite likely that Padilha would find himself unable to fill the colossal insteps of the original. It’s for that reason that I believe the creative crew on the remake made a smart choice in taking a different thematic tact than Verhoeven did. True, the jabs at the callous nature of corporatizating law enforcement are still present; Samuel L. Jackson plays this world’s equivalent of Bill O’Reilly on a network that might as well be called Nox Fews, and Michael Keaton fills the role of the profit-driven CEO of arms manufacturer OmniCorp. However, despite attempts to update the discussion for a modern world of unmanned drone strikes, I personally found that their lack of subtlety caused them to come off as a token effort to give people what they expect from a new version of Robocop ’87.
Where Robocop 2014 shines (and in my opinion, outshines the original) is when it decides to take a more inwardly reflective look at the nature of humanity through the eyes of Alex Murphy (played here by Joel Kinnaman). After the attempt on his life, Murphy goes through the same emotional trauma of any soldier who has lost a limb (or worse) in the service of their country. However, in his case, the trauma is magnified by the fact that he’s lost just about everything that he identifies with being Alex Murphy. One particularly effective visual representation of just how much he’s lost physically made me inwardly shudder at how utterly disturbing it would be to go through what he has. At one point, Murphy takes a page from Johnny Got His Gun in asking the doctor who saved him (played by Gary Oldman) to kill him rather than to go on existing as something he perceives as barely even human.
Robocop shines when it focuses on the human element.
While many reviewers complained at how long it takes the film to get Robocop out onto the streets and dealing out justice, I felt the first hour of the 2014 film was by far the most powerful, building empathy for Alex Murphy as a person in a way that the original never did. Seeing the sheer enormity of what he has to deal with; facing isolation from the entirety of the human race, forging an entirely new identity, and fearing that his wife and child will reject him upon seeing his new, mechanized form makes you root for him in a way I never did with Peter Weller’s version of the character.
Later, Oldman’s character tinkers with Murphy’s brain in order to make him a more effective officer, to the point where he only believes that he’s in control. In reality, the computer in his body is running the show. But when he begins (seemingly impossibly) to defy the system, it brings about questions regarding the essential nature of consciousness and theory of mind that are rarely broached in spectacle sci-fi. Padilha and his team of screenwriters deserve credit in taking the franchise both in a new direction, and in making that new trajectory such an intelligent one.
That being said, my biggest issue with the film is its third act. After so many interesting questions, and the introduction of such a strong human element, the film is left with nowhere to go in its last 30 minutes other than to essentially re-create the original’s third act. Much like its imitation of the 1987 version’s political satire, the failure of Robocop ’14 to take the potential it builds in its first hour anywhere new or interesting results in a rather disappointing paint-by-numbers action movie conclusion. That’s not to say that it’s BAD by any means, but I wish that Padilha et al could have brought the same ambition and humanity to the film’s conclusion as they did to its opening.
In conclusion, though it is a mixed bag, comparing Robocop 2014 directly to Robocop 1987 is a wrong-headed approach to watching it. The two have similarities, but in fact it’s when the remake attempts to adhere too slavishly to the structure and characteristics of the original that it loses opportunities to become something more than a hollow imitation. In contrast, when it acts on the chance to place something truly human inside the machine, it creates a powerful and affecting story about loss and re-discovering identity that makes it easily worth your time.
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