RoboCop (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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RoboCop (2014)

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Alex Murphy is an officer with the Detroit Police Department who is trying to ferret the corruption off the streets and out of his unit.  When he gets too close to exposing the truth, a local crime boss detonates a bomb that leaves Murphy as less than half the man he was.  OmniCorp, a cybernetics business, uses Murphy's condition to create the first part-human, part-robot instrument of justice.  RoboCop is director José Padilha's first primary English language production.

What's a human anywayRoboCop was released in February during those long winter months when the award-season contenders have long staked their claim and new releases piddle down to the least confident studio films.  These are the months where the cinemas flood with low-grade horror films and boilerplate romances.  We're fed comfort food via entertainment to power through the last bit of snow into the new year.

So it's a bit odd that RoboCop, a property which has only grown in critical and cultural stature since its 1987 release, went out from the studio and into the wild.  Distribution companies Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia, must have thought that if they had a good picture on their hands it would have hit the lowest barrier to overcome the bland fare typically seen in the month reserved for cold and love.  Now that I've seen José Padilha's remake, I have to wonder how it actually would have fared months earlier when Spike Jonze's Her was gaining its critical steam.

Padilha's RoboCop is just as thoughtful as that experimental romantic-comedy, which makes it a monstrous anomaly among action films.  Paul Verhoven's original turned out to be a harbinger of film to come as technology has allowed filmmakers to up the ante both in the visualizing destructive potential of their stories and making product placement more insidious.  But this RoboCop, with his family and potential for international marketing, comes at a time when rugged American individuality no longer means slick chrome steel and a commanding voice.  Now, as drone warfare and aggressive corporate strategies require a more deft touch, RoboCop can be understated, a bit messy, and surprisingly affecting.

The importance of media in shaping public and private policy is still present in greatly entertaining and creative scenes featuring Samuel L. Jackson.

The importance of media in shaping public and private policy is still present in greatly entertaining and creative scenes featuring Samuel L. Jackson.

While direct comparisons between the Verhoven's original and the reboot are unavoidable, the core that gave the 1987 film its timeless edge is still present in the remake.  Both films understand the intersection between escalating military conflicts, increased privatization of the technology that advances warfare, and the necessity of protecting and evolving those with the power and money to contribute to both - typically eccentric white males.  A few of the key evolutions in this 2014 version are that the blue collar worker has been shoved aside, the racism that was more pronounced is now hidden in plain sight, and corporations the face of public discourse more openly.

This makes the introduction of RoboCop more of a threat than in the original.  Rather than a blunt instrument in an increasingly violent world, RoboCop is a weapon that can just as easily root out the obvious criminals as it can the systemic corruption that caused it to be built.  In one of the brisk action sequences that Padilha films in stunning artificial black and white, with just a hint of a red visor, we watch RoboCop move with precision throughout a local gangs crew and as he kills his opposition he finds the evidence he needs to arrest his immediate superior for corruption in one seamless transition from action to drama.  The unspoken conclusion echoes other science-fiction stories about the ability of our weapons to turn against us with enough information, but here told with a swift twist of investigative possibilities.

It's a stunning sequence, one that RoboCop could have used more of.  Padilha's action scenes are all crisp, much like the streamlined weapon at the center, but lack thematic resonance.  The bitter tone of the original still rings out in parts of the remake, especially when a sadistic weapons expert taunts Murphy's remaining human side by playing "If I Only Had A Brain" during a training sequence.  Economics still plays a key role as well, with people willing to expend money on a sure market expansion, but not on a human/machine hybrid because of its ability to feel.  This makes repurposed lines like, "I wouldn't buy that for a dollar," ring not awkwardly, but with an important change in meaning as this RoboCop is still a bitter reminder of the hold capitalism has on American society.  Crass consumption and gluttony is frowned on, micro-targeted advertisements and emotional propaganda is in.

RoboCop delves into body horror just enough to get caught up in Murphy's nightmare.

RoboCop delves into body horror just enough to get caught up in Murphy's nightmare.

Propaganda comes in two flavors in RoboCop.  The first, and deliriously effective, comes from Samuel L. Jackson as a host of a talk show where Jackson's commanding presence, superb set design, and fun dialogue from Joshua Zetumer's script create the first right-wing show I might willingly watch if it existed in our world.  The second involves Murphy's family before he is rebuilt as RoboCop, and is a reminder of how making something "relatable" does not make it affecting.  Murphy's wife, no matter how hard Abbie Cornish tries, is little more than a crying prop to put in harm's way and give Murphy a bit of back-story before he goes in the suit.  The recent Guardians of the Galaxy mucked with its main character in a similar fashion by using cancer instead.  In both films, the "relatable" elements do nothing but drag on the core strengths of the story, and their inclusion bloats the films unnecessarily.

In RoboCop's case this detracts from the biggest strengths of the film - its philosophical musing about what it is to be human in the face of increased mechanized aids, and Joel Kinnaman's stellar performance as Murphy.  I love how quietly RoboCop questions whether referring to Murphy as man or machine loses its distinction when there is technology able to give him a new body and reprogram his mind.  This question roots itself physically in the best scene of the movie as Murphy's wish to know what became of his body is answered in a grueling matter-of-fact reveal as his mechanical shell is disassembled to reveal what little bit of him remains.  Kinnaman tools his performance around Murphy's control of his RoboCop body, becoming a chilling void of emotion when it seems the artificial dampening of Murphy's mind will win over the little resistance he can put up.

RoboCop's only sin is trying too much.  But what remains hits the mark brilliantly and enters into a site of unusual bedfellows.  As our media becomes more concerned with the distinction between what is human, our art has followed suit.  Her is concerned with the mental and emotional reality of a blurred human and artificial intelligences.  The Congress speaks to what we might call our spirit, the motivational essence that makes you unique, and if that can really be replicated through technology.  RoboCop is the heart, bravely answering that good people will exist, no matter what physical form they take.

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Tail - RoboCopRoboCop (2014)

Directed by José Padilha.
Screenplay written by Joshua Zetumer.
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Michael Keaton, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Good review Andrew. It’s a better remake than I expected it to be. Which is sort of faint praise, but sort of not. It’s just something of a fact.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. Considering the original acquires more cultural clout as the years go on even surpassing basic expectations was a hurdle here. I’m happy Padilha and co. cleared the bar smoothly instead of going over on their tippy toes.

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