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Friday, March 07, 2014

Movie Review: RoboCop (2014)

So.  They remade RoboCop (1987).  And while I've been looking forward to it for months, it wasn't until some of my friends said "it was surprisingly good" that I decided, "alright, I'll see it in theaters."  Unfortunately, my friends are liars (love you guys).

If you've seen the original RoboCop, then you already know the basic story.  The 2014 reboot, directed by Jose Padilha, alters the original concept as follows:  in 2028, OmniCorp, a high-tech military contractor, has teamed up with the military to combat crime and terrorism abroad, using robotic enforcers.  OmniCorp's CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), wants to bring this technology to the United States, but the public and Congress fear the absence of the human component.  In steps Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), an overzealous Detroit police officer who is seriously injured in an assassination attempt after discovering dirty cops within the DPD.  In order to sway public opinion, OmniCorp repairs Murphy's body to create RoboCop, a cyborg which will, we're told, end crime for good.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), the human component almost always gets in the way...

Honestly, that description is pretty crap.  Trying to explain what this movie is about without simply saying "a guy becomes a robot and fights crime; things don't go according to plan" reveals a lot of what's wrong with this film.  How do I describe the massive disappointment that is the remake of RoboCop?  I could say that this film is a testament to the fact that good things from the past are better off left alone.  We would have been better off receiving some kind of Final Director's Cut version of the 1987 classic.  The studios could have given us a cool box set with documentary material and a remastered film -- maybe they could have shoved an mp3 download for the soundtrack and a RoboCop figurine in there, too...or the box could have sung to us as if it were an advertisement for that spoof Robocop musical from Funny or Die.  Or maybe the box could have been a mini-RoboCop that actually walks to you when you call it.  All of these would have been better uses of the studio's money.

Alas, what we've been given here is little more than a sad, bloated, confused little "update" of a film.  Sure, the writers tried to add some more stuff about downloading data and memory overloads and other techno mumbo jumbo, but in the end, it's just a mess of a film that wishes it could capture the feeling of the original.

A mess.  That's what I'm calling it.  RoboCop is not unlike the first Hobbit film in that it tries to do so many different things at the same time, but without any clear tie between them all.  In the first half hour of the movie, we're presented with a satire of FOX News or Glenn Beck (seems like both), a commentary on the use of military drones and robots in the Middle East, questions about the use of said machines in the U.S., police corruption and rampant crime, a buddy-cop drama, the shock of prosthesis, what it means to be human, how memories are not easily controlled, human autonomy, and a whole bunch of other minor threads I won't talk about here.  There's so much going on in the beginning of this film that I'm left with a series of questions:  What exactly is this movie about?  Is it a commentary on drones?  Is it a commentary on the human condition through the use of cyborg tech?  Is it about the police?  Is it about corporate greed and the desperate push for technology?  Is it about human relationships?  WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS MOVIE ABOUT?

I ask these questions because I think it's obvious from the start that this film is about something.  It has a message or a point.  It wants us to follow that point to its logical conclusion and ask ourselves to consider the possibilities.  But the film asks so many fucking questions that I can't fathom how we are supposed to go from Point A to Point B to Point C without jumping from Question #2 to Question #13154.  The end of the film seems to suggest that question we should have been asking is the one about corporate greed and human autonomy, with a side of human relationships, but the beginning of the film and the middle are all over the place, jumping from a narrative about politics to one about technology to one about the police to one about family relationships to one about X and Z and Y and Q.  There's no narrative cohesion here.  RoboCop is a film that tries to do so much at once that it loses sight of what made the original so good:  it set up its major concerns right from the start and did its best to keep those in sight.  In the reboot, the main "issue" of the original (the idea of one's memories clouding one's programming) is saved until more than halfway through.  Sure, the original takes a while to get to that point too, but the reboot goes about it by showing us normal Murphy-as-RoboCop (combating all of his "I'm a robot" worries and family problems), reverting him to the RoboCop we remember from the original (the corporate greed is coming!), and then proceeding with the "but his memories will take over" bit.  It's a mistake of order -- too much back and forth.

If the structure of the narrative doesn't provide a sense of cohesion, then the tone of the film doesn't help either.  RoboCop cannot decide if it's a blistering satire or a serious thinking flick.  From the start, we're presented with Samuel L. Jackson's patently absurd Pat Novak, modeling himself, I assume, after FOX News and Glenn Beck.  Novak provides our introduction to OmniCorp's involvement with the military, but all of that is funneled through an insanely biased mockery of cable news.  Unlike in the original, which was itself a withdrawn satire, this reboot doesn't bother for a measured approach to future news.  It goes full Idiocracy (2006) in its absurdity.  This might not be a problem if the rest of the movie was likewise absurd, but the second we leave Novak behind for the proper narrative, it's quite clear that RoboCop is a serious movie.  It's about big ideas.  Big questions.  Serious questions.  It's not an absurdist microdrama, but an attempt at a critical commentary on real world issues.  To jump from Novak to this draws into stark contrast the tones each presents:  mockery and reality.  This disconnect infects the whole narrative, particularly when Novak returns, but also when characters mysteriously become someone else entirely for the sake of the narrative.  Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) easily sacrifices his ethics throughout the film to do things he claims he'd never do (he "corrects this" in the end, but the damage is already done; he's hardly sympathetic).  Sellars likewise becomes a bloodthirsty maniac in the end, even though this is completely unlike the calculated CEO we've come to know.  Why?  Because he's supposed to be Mr. Bad and RoboCop has to get him (there's a reason in the film, obviously, but that, too, seems uncharacteristic to me).  The film jumps back and forth between these mockeries (of itself or the news), such that it's impossible to get a handle on what kind of movie this wants to be:  an updated 80s action flick w/ a side of satire OR a serious flick about cyborgs and robots OR a flesh-rending satire of everything I've already described.

I could go on, but I think that's a good place to stop with the criticism for now.  There are some good things about the film.  For one, it's pretty.  A justifiable concern these days is whether filmmakers will rely too heavily on CG.  While the remake of RoboCop certainly uses more special effects than its predecessor, it at least does so sparingly in comparison to typical science fictional fare.  The update of RoboCop is far more realistic than the clunky blob from the original.  Here, RoboCop is sleek and almost beautiful in his complexity.  Padilha even gives us a gorgeous scene where Murphy's robotic parts are pulled away from what is left of his organic self, giving an almost horrific quality to the affair.  Second, the cast performs well within their assigned roles, though I would have preferred RoboCop to pay more attention to Kinnaman's personal conflicts with being a cyborg to give it more depth -- this would require restructuring the entire mess, though.  Oldman is likewise well-cast for the ethically-conflicted Dr. Dennett Norton.  Keaton and Abbie Cornish (playing Clara Murphy) also do well with their fairly small parts; Keaton is particularly believable as the amoral, pro-business Sellars, though I think his final turn to "bad guy" at the end is underdeveloped and too "easy."  Yes, Sellars is all about the money, but there's a sense here, as in the original film, that Sellars has at least some interest in the well being of the nation, just more so because it will benefit his company.  In this sense, he seems like an amalgamation of 1987 RoboCop's The Old Man (Dan O'Herlihy), Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), and Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer).

Unfortunately, none of these good elements can save the film from its greater flaws.  In the end, RoboCop (2014) is a bloated, confused, mishmashed action film trying to masquerade as something interesting.  If the writers had bothered focusing on two or three narrative threads, we might have ended up with a RoboCop for modern times, one which speaks to our present moment in a cogent manner.  Instead, we got pandering and cliche.  We would have been better off if the studios had left this one to the 80s...

Directing: 1.5/5
Cast: 3/5
Writing: 1/5
Visuals: 4/5
Adaptation: 1.5/5
Overall: 2.2/5 (44%)
Inflated Grade: D+ (for narrative disarray with some nice visuals and acting)
Value: $3.00 (based on $10.50 max)

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  1. Just wanted to chime in here with an observation: I've been arguing with numerous people lately about something I think is the crux of your complaint with Robocop 2014 - that a creative work that raises a question, but neither attempts to answer it nor explore it, is not the same as being intellectual, philosophic, or delivering commentary.

    So far I seem to be in a definite minority in believe this to be so. Most people seem to accept that a film or book or show that showcases an THING, a situation or a conundrum, is enough to grant it thought-provoking status. I think I recall that you are a fan of Inception but for me both the Matrix and Inception are prime examples of films that are extremely entertaining but they are not actually intellectual because they do not explore their own questions. They posit questions about identity and reality that have been posited before by original philosophers and intellectuals, but they do not explore these issues, or attempt to answer them in unique or personal ways, which are critical acts of any person who would be granted intellectual or philosopher status. Yet for some reason I've been told this is "over-intellectualizing what intellectual is" by trying to set the same bar for creative works.

    People, and honestly creators especially, seem to believe that simply showing something, simply putting it in there, is enough. That THAT is somehow commentary. But it isn't. And that is why you can get scene and scene of...thoughts, ideas, obvious "commentary"...without anything actually getting commented upon.

    1. I agree with your concept, but not with its application to The Matrix or Inception. With Robocop, it basically discards its big questions in the end to fulfill the narrative it probably should have held onto from the start (i.e., the one in the original). So you're right to suggest that it is a film that pretends to be intellectual, but basically fails because it never fulfills its initial promises.

      Matrix and Inception are different. They are not "high" intellectual in form, but they certainly are consistent in their pursuit of a set number of intellectual concerns. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

      I will agree that Inception is probably not commentary in a social sense (Matrix too). That would be reserved for something like Moon or District 9 or Elysium, which directly confront the questions they raise and make an argument. The questions Inception raises (or Matrix) are more general in form.