I saw The Lego Movie and Robocop as a self-designed double feature this week, and that became an unintentionally fascinating set of films to pair together. For one thing, both are adaptations of existing properties, one a toy a la Transformers, and the other a cult-favorite sci-fi satire. And, in both cases, they wound up being singular visions realized in spectacularly big-budget fashion with plenty of entertainment and commentary to be had. They seek to play into viewers’ expectations, either finding ways to match or subvert them, and both are heavy on the social satires. In other words, they’re more similar than they are different, and the successes and failures of each became clearer when compared to the other. You can read my Lego Movie review here. So the main attraction here was always international Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha. He directed a set of satirical action pieces in his home country and seemed well suited to the material, but bloggers remained skeptical on how he would reinvigorate a frankly unwanted remake. So much of the original is distinctly ‘80s, which would make a reverent remake dated. But, what made Robocop work is tied to the exact era in which it was released, so go too far off the reservation and it risks failure too. Of note might be how art house favorite Darren Aronofsky almost landed the gig before pulling out, much like his experience on The Wolverine. In the case of Robocop and The Wolverine, Aronofsky involvement would’ve propelled general interest through the roof. As is, Robocop remained a curiosity without much hype or buzz, dumped in the stagnant month of February. Luckily, Padilha did pretty well.
Padilha had a few options on how to approach the character and the remake, but two stand out as the most likely: do a straight remake or a loose remake. Luckily, he makes it his own and uses only the skeleton of the original film to construct his new one. No pun intended. The Robocop of 2014 differs substantially in its intentions from its 1987 counterpart, looking to modern day inspiration as its basis for satire. There’s frequent mention of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but especially frequent mention of technology. Joshua Zetumer’s script creates a linear and causal link from our current uses of drone technology to fully robotic soldiers and tanks that walk on two legs. Both forms of robotics are seen patrolling Middle Eastern neighborhoods, and despite Sam Jackson’s newscaster telling the audience the citizens of that vicinity love feeling safe and secure due to the presence of these machines, it’s clear that’s despairingly far from the case. This is all told through visual exposition in the opening sequence. The chief weapon of satire is exaggeration, and in the opening alone the viewer is explicitly shown that in the world of the film, the United States has only grown more oppressive to countries overseas. The comparison I’m sure we were supposed to make is one of militaristic rule overseas. So when Michael Keaton’s head of the robotic company Omnicorp wants to bring the robots to America, there’s more than an implication of similarly oppressive system reign, thus, the stakes of the picture are established.
And so enters Robocop. For those that don’t know, the basic plot follows a man who was injured and put into a mostly robotic system. The inevitable question becomes this: is he more machine or more man, and if he’s more machine, does he have a soul? It’s a classic science fiction question asked in an innumerable number of texts, but perhaps has never been more poignantly captured than in a film that hit theaters five years before the original Robocop: Blade Runner. It’s important to say that, in the same way Cabin in the Woods fundamentally changed the paradigm on how to think about horror movies, Spike Jonze’s Her changed the way you think about Artificial Intelligence. That’s quite an accomplishment, but it also means how Robocop handles these themes feels hollow next to the much better Her. There’s certainly moments of depth, such as when Gary Oldman’s Dr. Norton becomes increasingly uncomfortable at lowering his dopamine levels to the extent he can no longer feel. Instead of focusing on the cognitions of humans versus machines, this narrative turn focused strictly on the heart. Does a man without feelings make him not a man but a machine? Robocop needed more moments that, if they lack originality, at least bear a unique signature in its execution. Unfortunately, the satire is broken too—it’s too literal. That undermines the moments of freewheeling satire, seen most often in Samuel L. Jackson’s campy-as-hell news reporter who at one point accused the Government of being “pro-crime.” As much as my readers know I’m a fan of Chris Nolan, it’s been an unfortunate consequence of his Bat films that too often filmmakers stick films more firmly in reality than they have any right to be.
This all sounds terribly harsh, and it’s true the film has many virtues. For one, bravely embracing a new take on the character grounds him (it?) with appreciated relevancy that works more than it doesn’t. For two, the performances largely work for the B-movie genre that it’s in, with special mention, as always, for Gary Oldman. If he chose more dramatic material more often than he does, he’d have at least one golden statue on his shelf. That it took him until his tremendous performance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy reveals the bullshit of the Oscar system, but he’s nonetheless one of the most enjoyable facets of the film. Joel Kinnaman was miscast as the title character, which is a crime to itself, but that he doesn’t have enough to do for it to make any difference is a much worse offense. It’s a shame, since he’s already proven himself to be a highly capable actor in The Killing. The action is all well directed, and a late-film action sequence reminiscent of the hit anime film Ghost in the Shell is a particular highlight.
Robocop is a melting pot of compelling ideas, but few were allowed to cook properly. What’s left then is a functional and passively fun remake that has no reason to spawn the franchise it hopes to.