I’m “biast” (con): …but saw little point in remaking it
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I was not feeling optimistic about any reboot or remake of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, which is still brutally relevant 27 years on. Could anyone find a good reason to update this flick when the original still has the power to shock us today? And then this new RoboCop opens in “sunny Tehran,” where “random patrols” by ED-209s, unmanned walking tactical tanks, and EM-208s, android soldiers, keep the peace as part of the U.S.’s “Operation Freedom Tehran,” which makes the good people of the city feel safe and secure, we’re informed by a blowhard conservative TV host gleefully sharing this “success story” with the American people. Except we can see, during the chipper American news broadcast live from the scene, that the good people of Tehran feel nothing of the kind: there is fear in their eyes; they are literally terrorized.
I’m still astonished at what happens next: a few of the good people of Tehran take action to demonstrate just how unhappy they are with giant scary heavily armed robots walking their streets. Stunned, I thought this: Did this movie just make Iranian suicide bombers look sympathetic? Even more stunned, I went on to think this: Wait, did somebody find a reason to update RoboCop for today, as a commentary on America’s current drone warfare?
Except… no. I now wonder whether there was any intent at satire or sympathy at all in that opening gambit. Maybe it was just a reason to get some way-cool ED-209s into the action. Because the story here is about how evil corporation OmniCorp — which makes the military robots — plans to circumvent a U.S. law against using robot law enforcement on U.S. soil by putting a man, or at least what’s left of a man, into one of their EM-208s. So there wasn’t really gonna be much of an opportunity otherwise to see some geek-favorite robots play here.
But here’s the other thing: OmniCorp may be evil, but it hardly feels satirical today. Drone warfare is happening, for real right now, in the Middle East and north Africa, so Operation Freedom Tehran is barely an extrapolation the way that “We’re predicting the end of crime in Old Detroit within 40 days” was in the original film. Privatizing a public service like the police in a major American city was scary speculation in 1987; today privatization of lots of services is a done deal, and no one seems to have any issue with it here. The obnoxious right-wing TV host here — Pat Novak, played by a mostly wasted Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained, Marvel’s The Avengers) — is Rush Limbaugh in a better suit; there’s nothing in the least bit satirical about him as he bloviates at his audience and sings the praises of OmniCorp.
Where is the black humor any decent reboot of RoboCop should have? Where is the satire? What is the point of it? This is like a movie from within the dystopian world of 1987’s RoboCop, in which there’s no question that turning men into machines for the supposed greater good is the right thing to do — there’s just the press release to be sent and the commercial to be shot.
Unless newbie screenwriter Joshua Zetumer and director José Padilha are trying to say that America is now truly beyond satire, I see no reason for this movie to exist.
Ah, but Padilha — who, in his native Brazil, made the pointless, unoriginal, yet enthusiastically violent Elite Squad — doesn’t seem to care much about anything except staging some frenetic action scenes. The violence of the 1987 film was part of its satire, and was so graphic that it prompted questions as to whether its R rating was too lenient. Here, the violence is tedious, bloodless in all senses of the word, and PG-13-“safe” — some of it we get to see through RoboCop’s heads-up visual display, so it really is like watching a videogame. Hooray? And so the plot seems unnecessarily convoluted for more reasons than one: those who just want to watch a videogame won’t care, and those who are looking for some sharp drama will be enraged. After what’s left of Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman: Lola Versus, Safe House) is shoved into the robot body by OmniCorp R&D scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman: The Dark Knight Rises, Lawless) — his wife volunteers him after he receives such terrible (yet PG-13) injuries that he will not otherwise live — one of the dumbest forced plot points I’ve ever seen is required to get the supposedly interesting debate going about how much of a man OmniCorp actually wants in its new toy. This involves Norton and OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton:The Other Guys, Post Grad) yelling at each other for a while. (More missing satire: Padilha doesn’t seem to realize that both men are quite insane. Except insanity is the new normal.) Later, the frantic finale is driven by a piece of evidence that Murphy supposedly unearths about the crime that caused his injuries, but we’re never told what that evidence is or why it leads him where it does. While everyone is racing around onscreen, it was all I could do to not yell out, “But why?!”
Poor Abbie Cornish (Seven Psychopaths, Sucker Punch) as Murphy’s wife, Clara. She doesn’t have much to do but stand around looking weepy, and also to resolutely ignore the fact that her once tall handsome fleshly husband is now nothing more than a head in a jar. There’s a bit of body horror here — when we see what’s left of Murphy under the titanium casing — but no pathos about it. And yet there’s clearly meant to be, because Padilha makes a big deal out of how Alex and Clara are interrupted as they’re starting to make love by the thing that leaves him near death. She copes with her new reality — and her husband’s — in a preposterously saintly and noble way.
And have we really regressed so far that the notion of a tough female cop is no longer plausible? Nancy Allen’s Office Anne Lewis — the 1987 Murphy’s former partner — has here been replaced by Michael K. Williams’ (The Road, Miracle at St. Anna) Jack Lewis… and poor him: he’s barely a character at all.
One might, blissfully, be able to forget that this has any connection whatsoever to one of the greatest science fiction films ever made… until Zetumer tosses in, with no appreciation for sense or context, snatches of dialogue from the original film. When Murphy says to a bad guy at the end of the film, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” it means nothing: he hasn’t said it before, and it has no significance like it did for the other Alex Murphy. When another character mentions that he “wouldn’t buy that for a dollar,” it references absolutely nothing here. All it makes us think, unfortunately, is, Oh, yeah, that other RoboCop movie is awesome.