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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: RoboCop

The RoboCop remake is just as needless and pointless as you thought it would be

Remember how great 1980's genre films were?
Movies like The Thing, Die Hard, The Fly, Back to the Future?

You know what made them so enjoyable? Well, great scripts, for one. Pretty convincing performances, too. But mainly it was due to the vision of some very creative and innovative directors. They knew how to sell the iconic moments that were taking place on screen. To this day we still talk about "Brundlefly" and Kurt Russell burning his way through that shape-changing antarctic monster. Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film RoboCop was another wonderful piece of subversive entertainment that worked on multiple levels: the kiddies got a new hero to root for (even if they couldn't actually see the movie), and the adults got to witness one of the great satires of the decade. I don't know what happened to these types of films since. Perhaps they've become too corporate; too concerned about the brand and less about the art of actual film making. Or perhaps the studios actually think this is what audiences want. Either way, this remake of RoboCop is emblematic of the kind of big budget, made-by-committee actioner that we've been forced to endure ever since. It's sleek, full of angst, and lacks really any point, at least any coherent one. In other words, its as empty as the suit Alex Murphy wears. It's exactly the kind of film detractors accused Man of Steel of being.

It's not that Director Jose Padilha doesn't try - the man certainly has the chops to pull off a pretty memorable piece of popcorn fare. It's that he's forced to direct a few different films at once, and that bizarre tonal disconnect in the script completely overwhelms anything he might be striving for behind the camera. The biggest obstacle in his path? The central protagonist has been completely stripped of his "balls". Rather than Peter Weller's robotic version of the character, we have the fairly flimsy, emotional essaying of Joel Kinnaman. 

Did you ever wonder what RoboCop's home life was like? How his wife and child dealt with having RoboCop as the father figure in their household? Well, good news for you. You'll get scenes that deal with that; way more than you could ever need or want. Because how many RoboCop family home life scenes we need is: 0. We need exactly 0 of those. 

There's a choice there that could still be effective in the right hands, but Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish (as Clara Murphy) just can't make the material work to their advantage, giving stiff performances that are tough to root for. You'll see RoboCop cry! You'll see RoboCop anguish over his accident! And then - and you won't see this coming - you'll see him anguish over it again! It's as if the writers (and the studio) wanted to make a brooding Dark Knight style hero, but with the emotional depth of a toilet. They even make him all black, because well...of course.

The misfires don't end there, though. In addition to character development problems, RoboCop also struggles with what kind of story it really wants to tell. It opens with a good deal of strum and drang related to drones and occupational warfare. We don't get a chance to actually absorb much of the impact of the questions the film asks at this point, as the overseas carnage caused by OmniCorps drones is undercut by the PG-13 rating. So when the film attempts to display a message of the need of human conscience in the matters of our military actions, the point really doesn't land.

This doesn't stop the filmmakers from desperately trying to make you believe in their thesis, though. It's all underlined by some select interstitial scenes of Samuel L. Jackson playing a sort of Bill O'Reilly analogue, with a news program that preaches how OmniCorps' efforts are the actions of "True Americans". These small bits on their own are probably the only time the movie comes to life, as Jackson has a way of grabbing hold of the viewer's attention. On the other hand, these "feel like they were added after the fact" scenes, try to hit you over the head with what this part of the movie is trying to say. It's all tell rather than show, and that's the one of the worst sins in screenwriting.

You'd be forgiven if you forgot that RoboCop was actually supposed to be about robotic police action based on the title. Its seems like the filmmakers almost did as well, and when they attempt to shoehorn in a plot about corruption in the Detroit Police Force, it completely goes down with a whimper, like someone turning off Alex Murphy's off-switch, which literally happens in the midst of one of these supposed dramatic reveals. It's unfortunate then, that the majority of the action spectacle in RoboCop has its roots in this portion of the script, and they're utterly boring.

After awhile it becomes clear Padilha has little interest in making this part of the movie and would rather focus on the former two sections, but he's handcuffed to the title concept, so we get terrible "Call of Duty style" infrared warehouse shoot-ups and dull CGI-thing-on-CGI-thing battles. These asides derail some of the more thoughtful material related to defense contracting and overseas bloodshed, which could have made for a much more interesting and personal movie if it had been given room to breathe. This is also when the remake attempts to play homage to the original film, but without any of the delicious villainy of Kurtwood Smith or Ronny Cox that made RoboCop the kind of hero that's worth rooting for. It's all just a cluttered mess with villains whose names I can't even remember.

Most pressingly (and this may constitute a bit of a spoiler, be forewarned) when the third act rolls around, RoboCop invests its energy into the drama of a Senate Vote repeal, but then realizing that this is no way to end a film of this kind, they literally pump the brakes and detour down the path of turning the OmniCorp executives into the main bad guys. This is done in a way that is completely inexplicable; there's nothing displayed by the story beforehand that actually justifies why OmniCorp is suddenly on the run. It's clear the scriptwriters hastily added this conclusion because its something that happened in the original film, and whatever was used to explain why Michael Keaton and Jennifer Ehle's characters are suddenly trying to attempt to criminal cover-up was probably left on the cutting room floor. Though, it's also likely that it was just never written, as everything that came before is so poorly thought through, it would just be par for the course.

If RoboCop had been allowed to to investigate one or maybe two of its ideas in a fully fleshed out manner, it might have succeeded as a refreshing remake of a project that many were dubious of in the first place. Instead its too shackled to the past, but not loyal enough to it at the same time to please those looking for more of what they came to love about the property in the first place. At least Gary Oldman is very good, but when is he not? This soulless, junky version of RoboCop just reminds me of how special movies like The Avengers and Skyfall actually are in comparison.

Frankly, for the best possible corollary experience to what the original RoboCop represented, just pull out 2012's Dredd. A far more worthwhile and fun experience.

I give this a D+

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