Oct 14, 2020
RoboCop (2014): Half-man, half-machine, zero satire
Remakes are generally despised these days, even though they’re far from a new phenomenon. But more importantly, in a world of overblown YA trilogies and comic book barrel-scraping, remakes aren’t really that offensive a way to rekindle a classic of a bygone era. Or at least make a vague attempt to, which is more in keeping with what I’ll be discussing today. Enter 2014’s RoboCop.
A resurrection of the brutal 1987 original directed by Paul Verhoeven, which was so well-received that it spawned an entire franchise of games, TV shows, and two more movies, the 2014 version also follows Detroit cop Alex Murphy (here played by Joel Kinnaman) on his journey from man to machine.
The thing people remember most about the original RoboCop is its darkly comedic tone. The film was a hilariously violent satire of consumer culture, mass media, unchecked capitalism, and action movies themselves. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the new version is rather unwavering in its sincerity. Instead of playing up the absurdity of corporations taking over law enforcement—all the more relevant in these days of privately-run correctional facilities—the new RoboCop is a starkly dramatic tale of a man-machine hybrid struggling to retain his humanity. This is actually a pretty interesting concept for a movie. But it doesn’t feel much like RoboCop.
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The remake begins by giving us its own take on the future of law enforcement, adding international flavor as we get a live report from Tehran, which is apparently U.S.-occupied in the year 2028. The report is being broadcast on “The Novak Element”, the futuristic version of almost any Fox News show you can think of, hosted by a frenzied Samuel L. Jackson (is there any other kind?).
Novak’s biased, blowhard propaganda informs us that the U.S. military now uses robots to maintain order abroad, so why shouldn’t law enforcement at home be permitted to do the same thing? And the “military robots enforce martial law in Iran” scenario is actually much more realistic than the “African-American hosts a major conservative talk show” scenario but, hey, that’s the world we live in, folks.
But there’s an inconvenient little thing called the Dreyfus Act, a piece of legislation preventing companies like OmniCorp, the foremost name in robotic death-dealing, from benevolently protecting the helpless poor with giant mechanized killing machines. Or police officers, as Novak calls them. Or simply “sir”, as you’d be wise to call them if they ever pulled you over on the side of the road.
The CEO of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) wants the Dreyfus Act to be repealed for two reasons: 1) to bring efficient justice to America without the loss of police lives, and 2) to make his bank balance dwarf those of most third-world nations. Guess which one of those is the real motivating factor here? And that’s about as deep as this movie is willing to go in exploring the “big evil corporations are big and evil” concept, so don’t go thinking too hard about it.
Aiding Sellars, cautiously at first, but eventually without much ethical compunction, is Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), OmniCorp’s Chief Science Guy tasked with overseeing Sellars’ brand new plan to overcome public opposition to soulless machines patrolling the streets: he wants to pop a human brain, face, and whatever other bits are left over into a robot suit, in the hopes that they’ll be able to insist their robot cops are not really robots at all, and thus circumvent the law.
Norton eventually finds the perfect candidate for cyborgification: Alex Murphy, a sensitive young Detroit detective (and family man… this will become important) recently blown up real good by a car bomb planted by a crime boss. And as Murphy has now been reduced to a couple of lungs, a hand, and some portion of his head, he’s in no position to complain about his resurrection as a half-man, half-robot.
Thus begins a hackneyed yet entertaining struggle between man and machine.
In the corner of humanity, we have the previously discussed Dr. Norton. Firmly in the machine corner is Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), OmniCorp’s resident military expert and borderline psycho. But I have to qualify that, because his character is jarringly underwhelming, springing from nowhere as some kind of sub-bad guy, but rarely coming off as much of a threat. In any case, he stands as a counterpoint to the good doctor, advocating that the human element only weakens the flawlessness of the law enforcement automatons he so adores (a little too much, now that I think about it… now that would have been an intriguing character development).
The back-and-forth between Norton and Mattox, driven by pressure from Sellars to bring the “product” to market, pushes the doctor to chip away at Murphy’s emotional remnants and ramp up the cold, calculating machine element that now forms much of his personality. At first, Murphy is intent on returning to some semblance of family life with his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan). But by the time he’s presented to the public (in his new, focus group-approved black suit), he completely ignores them, preferring instead to apprehend a criminal in the gathered crowd, using his built-in facial recognition capabilities to pick him out of hundreds of assembled onlookers. Machine: 1, Man: 0.
Murphy is established as the perfect hybrid, and the PR cycle kicks into overdrive in a bid to repeal the Dreyfus Act and clear the way for OmniCorp’s creations to take over the streets. In suspiciously perfect harmony, the Novak Element trumpets this new “RoboCop” as “the future of American justice!” The parallels to big corporations and the media working together to manipulate lawmakers for their own ends are obvious, yet still relevant, and one of the few echoes of the original film.
The final nail in the law’s coffin comes when Murphy pursues his own murderers, tracing the culprits all the way through a criminal gang and back to his own corrupt colleagues in the Detroit PD, nearly killing the chief of police before he’s shut down. “Men and women can be bought. Machines are corruption-free,” is Novak’s final marketing push on the eve of the Dreyfus Act being repealed.
From here, the movie moves rapidly to its fairly obvious conclusion, with Sellars attempting to suppress an increasingly conflicted Murphy and Dr. Norton before either can go public about OmniCorp’s cynical manipulation of the system. When it becomes obvious that he won’t be able to silence RoboCop, Sellars tasks Mattox with his murder, while simultaneously lying to Clara that her husband has passed away despite the company’s best attempts to repair him. Naturally, Dr. Norton gets to Murphy before any of this can happen and appeals to his emotional attachment to his wife and child, which of course overcomes the previously unbreakable stranglehold of Norton’s own programming.
The climax is disappointingly predictable, and not even that action-packed, given the potential for robot-on-robot special effects. Sure, the initial entry to the OmniCorp building pits RoboCop against those familiar giant ED-209 mechs, but he quickly dispatches them before moving on to Mattox.
Alas, Mattox proves to be a poor choice of adversary, offering little threat or barrier to ultimate boss Sellars, who also fails to put up much of a fight before Murphy eventually takes him down. Predictably, Sellars’ threats against Murphy’s family are what finally pushes RoboCop’s human side to triumph.
Though the climax is underwhelming, RoboCop (2014) as a whole holds enough entertainment value to keep you engaged. There are some pithy lines and revivals of favorite moments from the original—“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”, and the much-loved “I (wouldn’t) buy that for a dollar!” both make appearances—but overall, it’s never quite clear why this reboot exists in the first place. Except for dollar signs in the studio’s eyes, of course, which is the singular motivation for most modern resurrections of cult classics. Silly me for hoping there was a genuine desire to build on the foundation of the original and do something interesting with it.
Anyone unfamiliar with the original, or even those like me who previously had little memory of it, will have no problem enjoying RoboCop (2014) on its own merits. However, if all this reanimation of ‘80s movie corpses is driving you insane, you’d be well-advised not to buy this one for a dollar (or ten).