The original RoboCop had an interesting mix of satirical social commentary, snarky jabs at the bigger-is-better consumerism of its era, brutal violence, and comically bad '80s haircuts. It was great when it came out and it's still great today. The 2014 remake of the same name features political commentary, media-spin bashing, and an existential dilemma that would feel more at home on the Lifetime Network than SpikeTV.
The flick opens with Samuel L. Jackson barking at the screen as Pat Novak, political-pundit extraordinaire, hosting a show that wouldn't be a millimeter out of place on Fox News. Novak boasts about the greatness of America, its military, and its imperialist tendencies, while decrying the fact that every other industrialized nation uses fully mechanized law enforcement except his home turf. Sound a little like the bickering over universal health care? Pat dares to ask "Why is America so Robo-phobic?" I'll let you parse that one yourself. Militarily occupying a foreign city with machines literally called "drones" is billed by Novak as "promoting peace and freedom abroad." As if the similarities to modern pundits sensationalizing today's headlines weren't heavy-handed enough, his show is called The Novak Element. I'm sure any similarities to the tone or name of The O'Reilly Factor are purely coincidental.
This leads into a news team on the ground in Tehran as machines walk the streets searching for militants, insurgents, and terrorists (I don't even know anymore if those are three different things or just synonyms). Of course, some trouble arises and the robots respond, quelling the uprising in pure PG-13 fashion. I already miss Verhoeven's violent touch.
Over the course of the first hour, you'll see the iconic Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) get taken out by a mob boss/arms dealer who doesn't want to be investigated any further. This whole sequence was incredibly "meh" compared to the random bust gone horribly awry in the original movie. This new take on the story also completely foregoes the build-up leading to the first glimpse of rebuilt Murphy as the titular character, instead showing him head to toe in his new body as soon as possible. Gone are the first-person cut-betweens of footage Murphy recorded during his assembly, the big smooch he received on New Year's Eve, or the first steps he took out of the lab and into the Detroit police precinct for target practice and acclimation. Now he's just there, and we're treated to 45 minutes of "How to Build a Product" that involves some ethical questions that are simply answered and not really explored (what differentiates a human being from a product, what rights does a man have to his own thoughts and memories and emotions, or his own family for that matter). The answer to all of these questions is apparently "None." Murphy gradually becomes less and less human through mechanical manipulation of his gray matter, to the point where he is literally the unfeeling product we saw at his unveiling in the 1987 film.
The goal here wasn't to make an exciting and bloody action movie like they did nearly 30 years ago. Instead, it was to explore how a man becoming 95 percent machine affects the lives and emotions of those around him. In the original, Murphy's wife and son exist only as scarce memories. In 2014, they are the focus of the story, and this is where things bog down a bit. His wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) spends most of the movie either crying or yelling at someone, and seldom does or says anything remarkable. His son is just there to look hesitant, evidently. He doesn't say much, and approaches his remade dad with maximum trepidation, no matter how many times they see each other. I feel like these topics were worth exploring, but not in a RoboCop movie. Make another movie that doesn't have to please an action-seeking crowd with baked-in expectations you're going to have no chance of living up to.
I learned from the 30-ish minute behind-the-scenes featurette on the disc that director José Padilha is a trained physicist, and questioned the scientific viability of every aspect of production, from the new Robo suit to the weaponry to the wholly interconnected city grid of CCTV, data networks, GPS, and criminal records. He wanted it to feel authentic. The thing is, the suit doesn't really push any boundaries over the original (except maybe that it's not science fiction anymore), and in a world where movies like Eagle Eye and I, Robot, and games like Watch_Dogs exist, I don't think anyone would think anything on display here is a stretch, nor would they hang you out to dry for trying something a little more cutting edge. Yay for authenticity I guess, but in a movie about a cyborg police officer, if you're sniping unrealistic elements, you're kind of missing the point and must be really fun at parties. Elsewhere in the featurette, Michael Keaton (who plays OCP product specialist Raymond Sellars) amusingly debates whether the new Robo suit is harder to wear than the suit he wore for 1989's Batman.
One point of contention was that they kept Murphy's right hand intact. There was a scene in the original where they contemplate keeping one of his viable arms, but the project director very clearly stated, "Lose the arm." Why the hand was maintained in this go-around is not explained or even hinted at and just raises questions among fans of the original. With the arrival of the movie on Blu-ray, you can finally see the answer, buried in one of a few deleted scenes. It at least explains it, even if the reason is a little corny.
The showdown between RoboCop and the gang that killed him in the original was a monumental climax for action movies. This time around, perhaps to maintain the PG-13 rating, there's a shootout in a pitch-black warehouse, with only muzzle flashes giving you occasional glimpse of the action. The criminal slime -- a character who has led a completely uninteresting life in the movie up to that point, paling in comparison to how wonderfully sleazy Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) was three decades back -- goes out with a whimper, barely slowing Robo down in his tracks.
Also missing are the Prime Directives that governed RoboCop's behavior in the original. Now he has no specific programming. He's just a robot with a lot of instantly accessible data and a human brain riding shotgun. However, secret Directive 4 is still in effect, but driven by "Red Asset" bracelets that people wear, making him incapable of harming them. Of course, in a pinch he manages to overcome his programming with whatever humanity he has left.
I can appreciate what the team set out to do, but this remake doesn't really deliver even on its own goals. Too much is told and not shown, there's not enough imagination or wit in the writing, the characters are forgettable, and the climaxes are weak. Fans of the original will find it even more lacking -- it'd be like remaking another Verhoeven '80s classic Total Recall without Mars, smooshing two characters into one, and making the resistance movement a throwaway plot device that amounts to nothing. Oh, wait. The Blu-ray specs (1080p picture, DTS-HD audio) make everything look and sound nice, but behind all that window dressing is a half-baked story that you'll have forgotten by the time you eject the disc.