Having considered many possible angles and discarded quite a few drafts, I have finally come to the conclusion that it would take me more than one article to vent my thoughts about José Padilha’s “Robocop”. Therefore, I decided to try to give the man a chance and for the time being pretend that Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop” never happened. I believe this would be the only way for me to stay relatively calm and collected throughout my review, as I can’t say – despite my best wishes – I didn’t enjoy this film at all. And because I don’t see myself addressing every little thing I disliked about it without rambling like an idiot, I’ll try to stay clear from referencing the original this film is supposedly based on and see how it fares as a modern action science-fiction movie on its own two feet.
Disregarding everything else, I think I could divide science-fiction into at least three main groups: the smart sci-fi that takes on interesting concepts and provides insightful commentary, the sci-fi that is not interested in doing so and simply indulges in the genre in a more or less creative way, and the type that does neither, but thinks it’s smarter than the average bear. And – you guessed correctly – José Padihla’s retelling of “Robocop” quite comfortably fits into the latter. Especially in light of the recent interview with the director I read over at Slashfilm, this particular film would be a cinematic equivalent of a college sophomore (any major) convinced of his own infallibility, who would then go on to profess nonsense in the most arrogant and annoying way possible.
“Robocop” takes place in near future (2028 if I’m not mistaken). Through elaborate and slightly tiresome exposition, we learn how robots are the future of military operations as replacements for human soldiers. Just about everywhere in the world, the American Army utilizes androids and drones to keep (air-quotes) peace and conduct military operations. Everywhere, except at home, where the congress is blocking the legislation that would allow the use of robots on American soil. Plus, the public opinion is split exactly in half on the matter, which doesn’t make it easier for OmniCorp – the major manufacturer of said drones and robots, led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) – to expand onto the fertile US market. In order to circumvent the anti-robot legislation, Sellars comes up with an idea of building a hybrid robot powered by a human brain, so he employs a cyber-prosthetics researcher Dr Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to make his dream come true. After a thorough search for suitable candidate, Norton and Sellars focus their sights on detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a critically injured police officer, for whom the participation in the project (or donation of the body) is his last hope for survival.
It doesn’t take an advanced degree to notice, how Padilha’s “Robocop” differs from the original, but (as I already said before) I’ll reserve my comments for later. So, even taking all my knowledge of the franchise out of the equation, this year’s new-and-improved “Robocop” is simply stupid… beyond all repairs. I really can swallow a lot of crap before I get upset. I can take clumsy visuals, I can look past shoddy acting, but for me – as it has always been – the story is king. Full-stop. And without resorting to foul language I can honestly say that “Robocop” lacks severely in that department.
It looks to me that nobody (neither the director nor the producers, or writers) was interested in fleshing out the main (titular, mind you) character of the film – the damn Robocop. Without copy-pasting the Verhoeven’s take, there is so much room for creativity when it comes to Murphy’s character; especially that his family is supposed to play a significant role in progressing his arc. Well, that’s a bit much, because for the most part Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish) and their kid (John Paul Ruttan) are just there, like glorified set props. Since the film establishes Robocop clearly as a human encased in a robotic body, I would expect the story to explore the tragedy that should be carried inherently: the inability of the family to come to terms with the Frankenstein-esque creation their loved one has become, but we get none of that.
And all that potential goes straight down the toilet here, as Murphy doesn’t really have any moral conflict within him – he just has a big prosthetic body and any man vs machine dilemma is addressed in “Robocop” only superficially, if at all. What a waste… And to top it all off, upon closer look you’ll realize that Robocop has no reason to exist in the first place, other than to be the poster boy for OmniCorp’s political stunt. OK, he solves a few crimes and exposes some dirty cops, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s just a budget version of Iron-Man without the wit. Think about it – even the suit design rings a bell and it smells like a cheap trick devised specifically to ride on the Marvel’s iconic character, but without committing to anything. As a result, “Robocop” feels very much like a superhero origin story, or rather a knock-off of one. He’s got a bike, cool weaponry, agility, vestigial character, and of course… kryptonite, yet he sports a gaping hole where his character is supposed to be.
I’ll be honest here: it is really difficult to enjoy this steaming pile of excrement… I mean – this movie, and with every running minute I grew more and more concerned that “Robocop” didn’t want me to like him at all. Between all the plot-holes and the borderline stupid character development, I was unable to find anything I could latch onto. Even the pseudo-intellectual commentary on society this film is desperately trying to become, I found tiresome in the end. I understand the need for the modern incarnation of “Robocop” to send a satirical message akin to the original, but relevant in our times, but José Padilha (and his cohorts) simply lacks the balls to make it seem convincing. To his credit, his intentions were good, but the heavy-handed execution just didn’t work for me. In some weird way, the Samuel L. Jackson’s character Pat Novak rang false to me all the time and what I thought was supposed to be a trigger for discussion, came across as heavy-handed, pretentious, shallow, and annoying.
Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t really see the point for this film to exist in its current form. The story is bad, the premise is bad, the characters are awful, and it’s all covered by a thick layer of the director’s self-importance. Sure, the special effects are well-done, but uninspired, which results in the entire film being a mushy PG-13 full-feature trailer with no heart or soul. Seeing how poorly this film has been doing in theaters, it only goes to show that some things are better left alone. And if you desperately need to remake a genre classic like Verhoeven’s “Robocop”, better get a visionary on board. It makes me wonder, how much better this film would have been, if Darren Aronofsky hadn’t gotten the boot. But it is always invariably easier to recruit a jobber onto the team, pay him less, and get him to dance to the studios bean-counting tune.
Who knew that a remake of an 80’s (and all-time) classic aimed at the widest possible demographic, sporting popular faces and some cool comic-book-esque visuals would bomb mercilessly at the box office? “Robocop” may be a machine, but it needs a soul to work properly.
As always, hindsight is 20-20.