Some films become properties as if against their own will. Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop was a sizable hit in 1987, despite the much-discussed ultraviolence that nearly got it slapped with an X rating and the satirical edge that competed with its irresistible pulpy hook, a hero who was half man, half machine, and all cop.
That movie stands alone, nasty and concise. And so, naturally, it was followed over a number of years by two sequels, several different TV series, and a line of toys aimed at children — a marketing process directly opposed to the film’s own critique of such marketing.
Now, with the release of a Robocop remake, the franchising continues, with frequent repetitions and occasional changes. Jose Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer’s Robocop still features Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is again left for dead by a crime boss, though this time by generic car bomb rather than the gruesome mutilation enacted by cartoonish villains in Verhoeven’s version. And he’s again resurrected as part of a program run by the sinister company OmniCorp, then put back on the streets as a flagship law-enforcement “product”.
The new movie does offer some differences, primarily emerging from its interesting ideas about Murphy’s transition into Robocop. This time, the process involves some tinkering with his humanity and more abandoning of his physical form. Here the grotesque image of Murphy’s near-disembodied head, preserved with robotics, perched above his encased lungs, approaches Verhoeven’s perversity, with a body-horror twist.
When he first realizes his condition, Murphy looks like a weeping head on a stick. The movie also visualizes his isolation with a brief scene set inside his dreaming brain, showing his friends and family gathered around him, then fading away as he wakes into a real-life nightmare. With these scenes, the movie briefly hums with disturbing sci-fi possibilities.
More differences are focused through the 2014 version’s treatment of Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan). Where Verhoeven’s movie only showed them as Murphy’s fleeting memories. But the new family subplot makes little sense. OmniCorp knows that Clara knows what’s happened to her husband, so when the company adjusts his brain to follow robot-like programs and ignore his human connections, their failure to account for Clara is all but designed to backfire, a stupid plot device. As such, Clara’s inclusion feels like a half-measure, for both the characters (as she remains on the periphery even when Murphy starts to rediscover his “humanity”) and the movie itself, because poor Cornish has to play more of an emotion — constant worry — than a person.
While Clara frets, Murphy’s own gradual rediscovery of his original self turns into something like an investigation, specifically, his effort to solve his own murder and combat possible corruption in the police department, which is to say, standard cop-movie stuff with minimal ties to evil OmniCorp CEO Raymond Kellers. In playing Kellers, Michael Keaton labors alongside several other good actors attempting to make the material even a little more interesting. Gary Oldman plays a sort of Dr. Frankenstein with a more complicated conscience, Jackie Earle Haley plays a skeptical robot trainer, and Samuel L. Jackson has a couple of scenes as cable news host Pat Novak, trying to honor the earlier movie’s legacy of social satire.
Jackson’s scenes are especially strange. Novak is modeled on hectoring talking heads like Bill O’Reilly, advocating for pet issues (in this case, the use of OmniCorp’s drones on American streets). But the movie’s futuristic vision of his program — sterile, high-tech, oddly dry — doesn’t much resemble the fiery, manipulative real thing, sapping any sting or menace from the satire. These scenes evoke real-life issues like the TSA’s full-body scans, America’s drone warfare, and NSA privacy breaches, but its references are only that, references, sans underlying arguments.
Tellingly, Novak is barely integrated into the film, which is more obviously invested in straight-up action scenes, Robocop on his Batman-like motorcycle or engaging in rote robot-versus-robot battles. In between these scenes and Novak’s “satire,” the film features characters mouthing clichés like “This was the mother of all bad ideas!” or “Time is the one thing you don’t have!” Sadly, those early traces of an unnerving sci-fi film fade, as Robocop sets up non-cathartic final fights among stock characters — a superhero, a crime boss, and a bad corporation.
Like the 2012 remake of Total Recall, this Robocop is neither incompetently made nor a slavish copy of the original. But this makes its failure to justify itself even more frustrating. Verhoeven’s movie pushed its violent imagery and tales of corporate conspiracies to a gleeful and also self-reflective edge. The new Robocop goes for short cuts instead: it blasts the Clash over its credits sequence, as if referring to punk rock makes it punk rock.