I never really saw the original Robocop, actually. The most I ever caught of it was the last third or so at a mate's house during university, complete with effusive praise from the aforementioned mate for the clever in-film commercials (which, to be fair, were very clever). That, and having a Robocop action figure when I was a kid. I submerged it in water and it died. That's not a metaphor for this film.
Robocop (2014), a reboot of the beloved 1987 film of the same name, follows Detective Alex Murphy, a slightly rough-around-the-edges Detroit cop who gets blown up by a car bomb and is reconstructed by Gary Oldman into a robotic super-cop in a private company's bid to raise public support for replacing all law enforcement with robots. The original was praised for combining science fiction action with interesting political and social satire, and is a fairly iconic entry in film history, so how does this reboot stand up?
That … really depends a lot on what metric you're judging it by, and what metric you're judging it by really depends on what part of the film you're at.
The first twenty minutes of the film is some brilliant political satire, feature Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, a Fox News style news pundit with a particular eagerness to see law enforcement robots on the streets. Actually, every time Samuel L. Jackson is on screen is pure satirical gold. He opens and closes the film, and appears intermittently in short news sections that serve, in essence, as this reboot's version of the aforementioned commercial breaks.
|Lookit those teeth.|
The rest of it is fun, but very standard, action fare. None of it is bad – actually, the film had me hooked, with a decent amount of sci-fi action while still focusing predominantly on what I thought was more interesting, the human element of Alex and his doctor, Norton (played by Gary Oldman) struggling with their conflicting priorities: Alex divided between his family and his robotic protocol to enforce the law, while Norton is torn between corporate influences and his own better nature. The conflict is painted in very broad strokes, and there's not a gigantic amount of subtlety involved in it, but it's still very compelling to watch, especially with Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman both putting in excellent performances.
(There's also some very striking moments in that regard, such as when Alex's suit is stripped away, revealing him – for the first time for both him and the audience – to just be lungs, a spine, a brain and a face.)
The action, when it happens – which was too infrequently for some critics but just enough for me – is very well-choreographed and appealing to watch, too, which is always a plus.
|Riderman? Is that you?|
Where the film really starts to falter is with its plotting. It has an odd Krull problem of feeling like a much shorter film than it actually is, just because there's a lot of plot trying to be crammed into its two hour run length. The film is trying to balance both the Omnicorp trying to sway the public plotline and the Alex solving his own (attempted) murder plotline, and the result is that the latter, which should have really been in the foreground, is brushed over and out of the way in almost no time. From Alex starting to investigate his murder to killing the culprit it can't be more than twenty minutes, wedged rather haphazardly into the second half of the film.
The most jarring thing, though, is that there's never much overlap between action and satire – and the few times there is, it feels very weak, and often revolves around the old idea of 'har har, corporations are evil' – which is certainly true, but is also touted in films and television so often that it's rapidly turning into cliché.
Which is a shame, because when the satire is on the ball, it's really on the ball, and is often quite thought-provoking. When the villain posits that robotic police officers would not experience prejudice, wouldn't act irrationally, and wouldn't be corrupt – more than a few current events did come to mind where that would have been undeniably a good thing. In contrast, when the film showed a mech half the size of a house gunning down a child for holding a knife that posed no viable threat to it whatsoever – well, definitely a fair share of current events came to mind there, as well.
There is a very keen awareness of the references – either specific or general – that the satire is meant to be making, and a clear sense of where it's grounded. This isn't satire that could be set anywhere. It's satire that's embedded in America's culture of police brutality, war crimes and the frantic excusing thereof, from the opening scene where Samuel L. Jackson plays off frightened Iranian citizens being treated like criminals as them 'being happy to feel safe and secure', to the final scene where he screams at the audience about how America is the greatest country on Earth, and will be forever. There's shades of Brecht there, but really no more than shades, because while Brecht operated firmly in the realm of surreal political fantasy, Robocop's satire is often only distinguishable from real life by the addition of holograms and robots.
Which is depressing.
|Dramatic table leaning!|
But that kind of political satire is brief and infrequent, which is really a crying shame. For all the mixed reviews this film got, it is a good film, just a bit confused as to what it wants to be. It's also a bit of a shame that they didn't get the opportunity to include the 'Alex gets gunned down by his own colleagues' scene, which is often cited as a very effective scene from the original – but it wouldn't have fit into the plot, and wouldn't have been as effective in this version (where his injuries are caused by a car bomb, not a prolonged shooting).
They did include the 'dead or alive, you're coming with me' line, though. Neat.