For the last twenty-seven years, Paul Verhoeven’s original version of RoboCop has kept both audiences and critics in a hypnotic stupor, the common belief being that it actually has pointed, intelligent things to say about corporate greed, media influence, and human nature. It is, as I see it, a badly acted, awkwardly cast, poorly written, excessively violent exercise in fanboy pandering, combining the worst elements of pseudo-science fiction with lots of gunfire and hamfisted bouts of swearing. Fortunately, it found its way into the hands of director Jose Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer, and they have transformed it into a remake that’s not only terrific entertainment but also tells a story in which a heart and, to a slightly lesser but still noticeable extent, a brain are at work.
Fans of the 1987 film will immediately notice the disparity between its R rating and this new film’s rating of PG-13. The evident reduction in over-the-top violence will undoubtedly be viewed as a watering down of the story, perhaps even of the entertainment value. Violence can indeed be entertaining, as films inspired by comic books have repeatedly demonstrated. Problems arise, however, when it breaches contextual boundaries and devolves into a sadistic bloodbath. There was no narrative reason for the original RoboCop to be so visually brutal; so far as I could tell, Verhoeven was merely being sensationalistic in an effort to make audiences laugh. But there’s nothing inherently funny about being riddled with bullets. The fact that some people find that kind of thing amusing doesn’t hint at good things about the content of their character.
In my experience, reformulating a violent escapist fantasy into something less violent typically allows more compelling aspects like plotting, character development, and theme to rise to the surface. Such is the case with this year’s version of RoboCop; without the fog of excessive violence, the characters are at last convincing, the plot is at last engaging, and the concepts are at last there to be scrutinized and debated. I’m not looking to be pacified by blood and bullets, but rather to be told an honest-to-goodness story. Admittedly, it does lose some of its footing in the final act, which, like in the original film, is essentially the point when it becomes a high-tech revenge fantasy. But at least we’re made to care about what led up to the final act, so we still have something to talk about after it’s over.
The plot is surprisingly effective in the way it both satirizes and accurately reflects politics – or, to be more precise, political rhetoric and the ways in which the media can work with or against it. This is most amusingly personified in the character of Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), the host of a cable news-network program; he’s indisputably partisan, especially when cornered, although it’s open for debate which side of the political spectrum he falls on. He’s always the first to make heated, opinionated commentaries on the robot soldier technology successfully used by the U.S. military overseas, and yet is politically opposed as a viable alternative to civilian law enforcement in crime-ridden American cities. “Why are we so robo-phobic?” Novak passionately laments on his show.
Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the unscrupulous CEO of the company that manufactures the robot technology, determines that, in order to make his products marketable, machine must somehow be combined with man. Here enters two pivotal characters. One is Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a scientist specializing in bionic limbs for wounded patients. The other is Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who survived a car explosion by the skin of his teeth. In fact, the only parts of his body that remained intact were his head, his heart, and his lungs; under Norton’s medical supervision, the rest of his body was replaced by sleek metal parts. This serves Sellars’ needs just fine, but for Murphy, it becomes an internal struggle, his enhanced abilities as a police officer at odds with the shame he feels over his appearance and his fear of rejection by his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan).
Unlike the 1987 film, in which Peter Weller was directed to speak in a comically mechanical voice, the 2014 film allows Kinnaman to retain authentic vocal inflections. Only when his character’s emotions begin to interfere with his ability to protect and serve does Dr. Norton have to tinker with his brain, and even then, it’s only at the insistence of Sellars and his skeptical right-hand man, military robot expert Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley). So where does the man end and the machine begin? Can one override the other? I believe this new version of RoboCop begs these questions far more compellingly than the original did. I know very few audiences are likely to agree, although I can’t pretend to understand why this is. It stands to reason that real storytelling would be preferable to depictions of senseless violence.
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