Friday, February 14, 2014

1980s Remake Weekend Begins With Robocop!

The Good: Good use of cast, Entertaining, Moments of character
The Bad: Slow build-up, Erratic
The Basics: The remake of Robocop clumsily balances business interests, the story of a deeply traumatized character, a political minefield, and a police conspiracy story.

When it comes to genre movie franchises, there are very few that I am not open to at least exploring. In the case of the Robocop franchise, I was too young when it was originally released to see it in theaters. Given that the press at the time was focused on how the movie was originally given an X rating (they still had X back then!) for violence, there was no way my parents would let me see it. Somehow, in the intervening years, I never picked up Robocop and watched it. In fact, I prejudged the franchise as subsequent sequels diluted the concept and intensity of the original and earned a PG-13 rating. I felt it was likely that the Robocop franchise was a sell-out franchise and I just never bought into trying it. Now, however, Robocop has been remade, much like Total Recall (reviewed here!) was a year and a half ago.

Robocop benefits from the success of Iron Man (reviewed here!), but it is hard to believe it will launch a franchise anywhere near as successful. While Robocop does not rely upon its special effects to sell itself, the film’s premise bears a strong resemblance to Iron Man, though the protagonist in this remake lacks the charisma to make the viewer care about his struggle as much. Given that I have not yet seen the original Robocop, I can offer no comparative analysis between the remake and the original. That said, given how the special effects are cutting edge in this film, it is hard not to imagine the premise is better executed in visual terms in this rendition of Robocop. While some of the effects are just showboating, the actual design of the protagonist is pretty cool and the digital robots fit into the real environment seamlessly.

Opening on a segment from The Novak Element wherein the Department Of Defense reveals it is using robot soldiers in conjunction with minimal human support. The broadcast is cut short when Iranian suicide bombers in Tehran bomb the robots working the peacekeeping mission there. In Detroit, the police department has a gunrunning bust go horribly wrong. While trying to get to the big fish gangster, Alex Murphy’s partner is shot and he becomes obsessed with getting to the people who wounded him. OmniCorp, the makers of the robot soldiers, is based in Detroit and when Senator Dreyfuss effectively blocks the use of robot soldiers in the United States, the CEO of OmniCorp gets the idea to create a new type of robotic soldier that keeps the human brain intact. When Alex Murphy is the victim of a car bombing at his home, he becomes the perfect test subject for OmniCorp. Murphy’s wife Clara reluctantly turns Alex over to Doctor Norton, who makes Alex into a cyborg.

When Alex regains consciousness, he is justifiably freaked out. After Norton shows Alex just how little of his organic body remains within the suit, Alex slowly adapts to his life as a cyborg. Despite the OmniCorps’ black ops weaponer’s objections, Sellars has Norton develop and refine the robotic armor in which Alex is encased. While Alex wants to see Vallon – the gangster who shot his partner and who likely planted the car bomb – brought to justice, returning to his life and the police force takes a lot of adjustment. After defeating Mattox in a test scenario, Alex is allowed to visit his wife and son. As Alex is trotted out as the ultimate crime fighting machine, he adapts to life on the streets and works to find his humanity while bringing Vallon and his network down.

In addition to a surprisingly long build-up to an actual plot (the first half of Robocop truly is the establishment of the cyborg. The concept of the film is simple enough, but what separates it from the usual action-drama is the philosophical element presented throughout it. When the human component of the suit becomes overwhelmed at the data involved in scanning a crowd, Norton cuts Alex’s influence. How much control the company has over Alex becomes a serious issue as the lone robotic cop on Detroit’s streets takes matters into his own hands. The rights of Alex are subject to some debate as Clara takes issue with how OmniCorp uses Alex and how he acts in front of their son. Sellars sees Alex as property, Pat Novak champions the project, but Senator Dreyfus and Norton have their doubts.

What is unfortunately lacking from the political subplot of Robocop is a sense of real astuteness for Constitutional law. The creation of robotic soldiers to patrol within the United States would be a violation of posse comitatus, which is not addressed in Robocop. Moreover, the level of surveillance necessary to make the cyborg practical and functional is a huge violation of civil liberties. Senator Dreyfuss is treated more like a punchline and a buffoon because he never effectively counters the notion that United States citizens do not want to live in an occupied, authoritarian-driven society like Tehran is characterized as in the opening sequence. Moreover, the lack of understanding for how the Robocop would violate Separation Of Powers (he becomes judge, jury, and executioner over the course of the film) and that undermines the moments of sophistication the film possesses.

The emotional conflict of Alex Murphy as a cyborg is generally well-presented. While OmniCorp monitors Alex, they witness him leaving his mission to try to bring comfort to his son. Traumatized by reliving the accident that created him, Alex begins to act erratically and that gives Robocop a greater sense of realism on the character front.

The plot of Robocop is split between a moody, philosophical, character piece and an unfortunately typical and obvious action-adventure conspiracy story. While the media thread is carried throughout the film well, Pat Novak is almost a parody of the character and the influence such news media people possess.

What Jose Padilha deserves a lot of credit for is the way he uses the cast in Robocop. Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton spend most of Robocop unrecognizable (as the actors who play them) in the roles of Norton and Sellars, respectively. Oldman, Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson (Pat Novak) and Jackie Earle Haley (Mattox) brilliantly embody supporting characters that flesh out the world of Robocop,a Detroit where a robotic cop could be a reality.

Robocop’s cast is led by Joel Kinnaman, who plays Alex. Kinnaman deals with the action sequences just fine, but he lacks the on-screen charisma to make the viewer care at all about Alex Murphy. His performance is utterly unmemorable and given how well the (usually) recognizable cast members perform wonderfully, it accents his listless portrayal of the human character (especially) before his transformation.

Ultimately, Robocop has its moments, but it is surprisingly uncertain of what kind of movie it wants to be and opts for a level of complication most comparable to reality. While that usually is admirable, in the case of Robocop, it makes an action movie tedious and a philosophical character study into a ridiculous puff piece.

For other remake and reboot films, please check out my reviews of:
Friday The Thirteenth
Star Trek
Les Miserables


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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