I think the biggest problem with movie remakes is they seem oblivious to the fact that the reason their source material worked so well back in the day was because they perfectly fit the cultural zeitgeist of their time. The original 1987 “Robocop” was such a smash hit not just because of its fun and bold action, but also because of its satire and critique of the glorified capitalism, corruption and machismo of the Reagan era. So, walking into the new 2014 remake of “Robocop,” I was incredibly apprehensive — and with good reason, I’d discover.
But to the new film’s credit, there are some smart updates to the original story that make it more relevant to a modern audience. As with the original, we start off with a faux newscast, showing us a world in 2028 that’s ripe with issues of ethics and morality. But where the original highlighted more internal struggles of America, this film sets up the issue of relying on drones to “bring peace” to other parts of the world — reflective of the controversies of our military today.
However, the remake hits its messages a little too hard on the nose, whereas the original’s satire was concealed in subtext. At one point in the new film there is a depiction of a drone gunning down Middle Eastern civilians, after which newscaster Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) looks straight into the camera and asks, “After all, what’s more important than the safety of the American people?” Yeah, that’s subtle.
We are then introduced to the new Alex Murphy, a no-nonsense cop and family man who is transformed into the titular Robocop by the robot-making conglomerate, OmniCorp, after being fatally wounded by a drug cartel. With this version of Murphy, we have the second big and smart change. While the 1987 “Robocop” only dabbled in the ethical issue of turning a man into a machine and had a stoic, more-machine-than-man protagonist, the 2014 movie tackles the issue head-on, with the protagonist being more human from the beginning and constantly struggling with an existential crisis. While I might argue this shift undermines a lot of what the original movie set out to do, it seems much more relevant to the current audience with modern science’s ever-expanding advances in the realms of prosthetics and artificial intelligence. And as a result of this emotional approach — and to actor Joel Kinnaman’s credit — this new Robocop is more relatable, charismatic and nuanced.
However, that is where the film’s redeeming qualities end. A majority of 108-minute run-time is just an uninspired and underwhelming blur.
So much of the movie is devoted to the issue of Robocop and his humanity, and it really bogs the story down. The remake goes out of its way to show Dr. Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman) selecting Murphy as a prime candidate for the procedure because of his stable emotions — and then they get rid of Murphy’s emotions to improve his combat capabilities. On top of this, he starts gradually getting his emotions back because, I don’t know, science? And this whole contradictory and convoluted string of issues revolving around how human he still is proves that this movie was more likely the product of several drafts scrapped together, rather than a few people with a vision planning out something that actually makes a point.
To add to this humanity debate, Murphy’s wife and son are much bigger characters in this movie than the last, and as a result, we have to be subjugated to Abbie Cornish’s performance as Clara Murphy. She’s so monotonous and hits the same note of reserved sadness so often that she seems to be the most inhuman of all the characters — and this is a movie about her character’s robotic husband!
Furthermore, so much time is spent dealing with the moral debate between Norton and OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), and interaction between Robocop and Clara, that there is no clear foundation for an antagonist. There’s the crime boss who arranged for the hit on Murphy, but he gets so little screen time that he’s entirely forgettable. Granted, there are hints early on that Sellars also has some nefarious intent, but we really never know his motivation. OmniCorp is established to be incredibly powerful already, so why did they bother going through all the hoops with Robocop? By contrast, the villains of the original were well-defined by their clear ambitions and animosity — the kind of guys who you loved to hate because they would manipulate people or blow them away with a shotgun to get their way. Where’s that engaging darkness in the 2014 “Robocop?”
And that actually becomes the bigger question throughout the entire ordeal. Despite having a shiny new black coat, this new “Robocop” is too light to be a proper addition to the franchise. While the original film faced the ethical issue of having a virtually unstoppable police force, it showed its necessity with rampant crime, drug use and degradation. But the remake’s streets of Detroit are clean and pleasant, again raising the question of why such a militant police force is needed in the first place. The first movie was notoriously bloody and violent to the point of parodying the standard 80s action movie. The new one has flashy PG-13 shootouts set to energetic guitar or bass tracks, engaging in exactly what the first wanted to make fun of. And there was this underlying dread in the original that the bad guys had won in the grand scheme from the very beginning, and thus the movie’s story of personal victory is almost insignificant in the long run. But here in 2014: bad guys die, good guys win and everybody smiles. Oh, how far we’ve come as writers. Also, they turned Robocop’s signature shit-wrecking hand cannon into an over-glorified taser? Lame. Lame. Lame!
Now, not everyone has seen the original, so maybe this movie should be judged on its own merits. But even then, the remake comes up merely as mediocre. I will admit the action scenes are worth watching, showing off much-appreciated special effects — a showdown between Robocop and a couple of giant robot sentinels is probably the highlight of the whole film. However, it’s the kind of thing that has been done before and done better by anything with Iron Man in it. For the most part, the cinematography and sets look great, but often times there’s this shaky-cam a la “Hunger Games” that is migraine-inducing and entirely unnecessary. And then there are some truly great performances from Jackie Earle Hayley and Jay Baruchel as other OmniCorp employees on top of solid, if standard, performances from Oldman and Jackson. Apart from maybe Cornish, any mishaps in the dialogue (including absolutely cringe-worthy appropriations of one-liners from the past) are more the fault of the screenplay than any of the actors.
So, in the end, is “Robocop” an exception to the rule that all remakes of classics fail? No, not at all — which is all the more disappointing given the evidence that there was at least some thought and interesting takes on the source material. I will grant that it could have been a hell of a lot worse, but that shouldn’t be rewarded. “Good enough” is not worthy of a trophy. And the new “Robocop” really isn’t worthy of your time.
Rating: 2.5 stars