In terms of both science fiction movies and 80s cinema in general, RoboCop was a true one-off. Made by a group of actors and filmmakers at the top of their creative powers – not least director Paul Verhoeven, firing on all cylinders in his second English-language movie (his first being Flesh & Blood) – RoboCop was so much more than an action film.
It was a sci-fi western about a cop out for revenge. It was a satire of 80s politics and corporate ruthlessness. It was a meditation on the nature of existence, like a retelling of Frankenstein. It was a black comedy that took precise shots at contemporary American media.
The makers of RoboCop’s sequels singularly failed to capture much of the tone and power of the 1987 original, so it’s unsurprising that, despite the exceptional talent of Brazilian director José Padilha, the remake doesn’t quite manage it, either. But RoboCop 2014 comes closer than you might think, and unlike other recent remakes and reboots, it doesn’t feel like a sanitised, defanged version of the original – or, even worse, a comic book movie designed to sell toys.
RoboCop’s opening, backed by a welcome revival of Basil Poledouris’ strident theme, is a strong one. It’s about 15 years hence, and America’s still embroiled in wars in the Middle-East. But by now, flesh-and-blood forces have been replaced by heavily armed robots, allowing for the pacification of foreign territories without the threat to ordinary soldiers. The Republican media, as represented by Samuel L Jackson’s opinion-editorial-spouting TV presenter Pat Novak, counts this as a victory, and argues that a law forbidding the use of mechanical enforcers on American soil should be repealed.
The creators of those robots, OmniCorp, is irked by the US government’s refusal to replace human cops with security droids, and CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) hatches a public-relations plan to win over both suspicious politicians and their voters: fuse the body of a human with a robot, thus creating a deadly product that will do its superiors’ bidding while retaining the appearance of an ordinary beat cop.
After a brief search, Sellars and cybernetic scientist Dr Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) settle on Alex Murphy as their candidate. A Detroit cop seriously injured by a car bomb, Murphy’s life is signed over by his grieving wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) at the behest of OmniCorp’s hawk-eyed lawyers. Alex wakes to find his body transplanted into an armoured machine, and as he’s pressed into back into service as a prototype lawman, he becomes the unwitting hub of a corporate and political PR campaign.
There are plenty of new ideas to be found in the first hour of RoboCop, some of them genuinely thought-provoking. The opening sequence, partly set in an anonymous Middle-Eastern city, is effectively staged, and the sight of the remake’s new, towering ED-209s barking “Peace be upon you” to terrified civilians quaking on the pavements is a memorable one.
Joel Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy, here a tough undercover cop partnered with Michael K Williams’ Jack Lewis, is a solid lead, and despite a somewhat brusque introduction, really comes into his own when he wakes to find himself inside the metal prison that is his RoboCop outfit. That he’s effectively standing up when we first see him (rather than seated in a throne, as he was in the 1987 version) immediately recalls Hayden Christiensen’s transformation into Darth Vader in Revenge Of The Sith, but no matter: the performance itself quickly dismisses those parallels, as he cycles through anger, grief and begrudging acceptance as Oldman’s scientist gently calms him down.
In these emotional moments and the scenes of loud action that interrupt them, Padilha displays much of the remarkable talent he brought to his Elite Squad films – and explores similar themes in RoboCop – but he’s let down in part by a script that never quite clicks into gear. Where Verhoeven’s film strode purposefully from Murphy’s brutal murder to his resurrection and subsequent vengeance, the new iteration – written by Joshua Zetumer – loses its way somewhere in the middle, fumbling with an unremarkable plot involving a gunrunner and several corrupt cops.
The story also suffers greatly from the lack of a villain as unhinged or as charismatic as Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker from 1987; Jackie Earle Haley snaps at the hero’s heels as a bullying military type who dislikes the idea of people inside robot suits, while an oddly-cast Keaton merely smirks from behind a desk as the corporate puppet master, but they’re a wan substitute for the brutal thugs of the 80s version. The new, beefed-up and more numerous ED-209 security droids are introduced as the film’s one truly credible threat, but they’re seldom seen until the final third, which feels too rushed to truly satisfy.
Yet despite all these problems, something of the first RoboCop’s brilliance shines through. Some quite striking – even disturbing – visuals threaten to rival some of those in the first, and several of the new themes presented here really hit home. Padilha’s RoboCop isn’t the future of law enforcement so much as a gimmick – a lure to fool the government into boosting OmniCorp’s profit margins. The original themes of corporate greed become something else here: the new film’s more about how big business and media can manipulate popular opinion, and how technology can trap us while providing the illusion of freedom.
Before its release, there was much nervous speculation over the design of the new RoboCop suit, and whether the remake could possibly match the sheer savagery (both in terms of cutting humour and violence) of the original. As it turns out, the suit actually looks perfectly serviceable in the context of the story, and Padilha gives the violence a harsh, unvarnished kick.
Really, though, the brilliance of the 1987 RoboCop didn’t lie so much in the design of its suit or its action – though these were undeniable factors in its success – but in the plight of the character at its centre. Alex Murphy was always a tragic hero, and he remains so here. He’s a lost soul kept unwillingly on life support rather than a messiah with a gun; a slave to his own software. And just as the terrible fate that befell Peter Weller’s Murphy made us empathise with him, so we want to see Kinnaman’s Murphy become something more than a walking, shooting iPad.
While the remake is fated to live in the shadow of the original, RoboCop at least avoids the fate of becoming the studio-approved, toothless merchandising machine some might have feared. It’s a difficult film to score in terms of star ratings, but on balance, we can’t help but conclude that RoboCop‘s achievements far outweigh its problems. Look beyond RoboCop‘s manifold flaws, and you’ll find more than a shred of the 1987 film’s dark spirit still thriving inside it.
RoboCop is out on the 7th February in the UK.
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