I feel like a sucker. I liked the Robocop remake. I make it a point not to read reviews of movies I’m reviewing, because I have this lingering hope that maybe there’s something incorruptible and true and creative and my own, right down at the core of me. So I haven’t read any reviews. But even someone as moderately internet-saturated as myself (my fingers taking me on incessant, nearly unconscious trips to a pop-culture review littered Twitter feed) couldn’t help but discover that the Robocop remake was boring, or slow, or something. I’m probably an idiot (I said it so you don’t have to), but I liked it.
Understand, I didn’t love it. But I was engaged and interested to see how they were going to twist the semi-fixed points of the original into something that works in our MODERN ERA. We live in a post-Radiolab, post-Malcolm Gladwell, post-Jonah Lehrer world, and the spirit of pseudo-neuroscience finds a roost in the movie. But it works pretty well.
Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Pat Novak, is a pro-OmniCorp newscaster, and tips the movie into a weird social satire. Think Howard Beale (Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell guy” in Network) with his feet under him, towing the line for an arms manufacturer parent company, selling a safer America.
The movie makes no pretense about being a fabulist criticism of US drone policy. (Get it? Because drones are robots? And it’s all in a pretty gray area ethically?) It’s not a particularly consistent or nuanced fable, the moralizing happens exclusively in the bookends. I guess if you aren’t horrified by what we do with drones, it’ll probably sound wide-eyed and wacky. If you wear your horror at drone strikes with pride and are a college freshman, then you might adopt this movie as a sort of totem and be really into talking about the hard-hitting criticisms in the “2014 reboot of RoboCop” which would be embarrassing. It would suck to wear that albatross around your neck, even for the cause of social justice, so tread carefully.
But that’s not really what makes the movie good. It’s pretty formulaic, but it manages to stick to formula, and still update the basic idea behind the original. If you haven’t seen the original RoboCop recently, you really should. It’s a great movie. I feel no irony when I say that. It’s way better than the update, but that doesn’t mean the update isn’t decent. Or at least isn’t a complete waste of your time.
Both movies offer a take on American economics. The 2014 movie has the “advantage” of having seen more of America’s progress down our military-industrial path. In the 1987 movie the suits are an older generation, one that we’ve been taught for years and years only cared about the almighty dollar and conformity and hiding their dark secrets behind white-picket fences. But 2014 takes on OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), who’s playing a new trope; the Auteur Industrialist. He’s Steve Jobs. And the movie’s not very impressed with him. They’re looking for a way to humanize their policing machines. They’re all intelligent, advanced, lethal, war machines. They control rebellions with incredible efficiency and minimal loss of human life. The machines have done well overseas, as the US has brought them there and basically enforced their use. But at home, on American soil, we haven’t been willing to eat our own dogfood; and this is hurting OmniCorp sales. Putting a human in the robot suit is a marketing tool. By giving the robot the appearance of humanity, perhaps OmniCorp can gain a foothold in the stateside defense market. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a cop pursuing an organized crime boss and corrupt police officers, becomes the victim of a car bomb; the perfect candidate.
This differs drastically from the 1987 setup. In the original, a young upstart executive capitalizes on a horrible accident to push through his own version of a policing robot—one which uses a human mind to make certain moral choices. The trouble comes when Robocop’s programming and his humanity are set against each other. But Alex Murphy, the cop trapped inside the machine, and his humanity are utter captives of the robot. He speaks in the stilted cadence of a robot. He has faint glimmering remembrances of his wife and son, but they only enter the story as memories.
In the 2014 version, Alex Murphy’s wife and son remain in the story. I’m not inclined to say that this makes the movie better, for reasons I’ll get into later, but it does allow for a completely different emotional path. Alex Murphy actually maintains a decent portion of his humanity, as well as his human connections. This presents problems for OmniCorp, since allowing Alex control of his decisions means that he’s a less effective warrior. He can’t move as quickly as his fully artificial counterparts. Not to mention the fact that Alex’s human mind keeps subverting the system. Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), against his better judgment, ends up flattening Alex’s humanity with sedatives and neurosurgery.
This is the common link between the movies. Both concern themselves with humanity suppressed by a system, by technology. 2014 does this with greater sophistication. 1987 ham-hands it more. But 1987 has a lot more fun. The 1987 version realizes that it has an awesome ROBOT-COP. A “RoboCop”, if you will. It’s a simpler movie, but also a much more effective one. It’s gorier and weirder and funnier. One of the strangest aspects of the older movie is that, in the final showdown, one of the gang members who killed Alex Murphy in the first act ends up submerged in toxic waste. Toxic waste contained in a huge silo helpfully labeled “Toxic Waste.” This unfortunate guy ends up mutating into a monstrous creature until he’s put out of his misery (completely exploded by his own compatriot’s car). Maybe this moment exists for a reason. But maybe not. Maybe it’s just cool to have a guy turn into a crazy mutant and explode. It is, by the way.
I’m not arguing for tons of random stuff thrown into a movie because it’s cool. But the 1987 movie is focused on its core, and organizes action, character, and theme around that core, and still has some fun with their treatment. This attitude isn’t absent in the 2014 version, but our more recent RoboCop does have a lot more going on thematically: it has Alex’s relationship with his family more present, it has the Radio-Lab-ing of brain-plasticity, etc. And that gets in the way of feeling the core of the movie as deeply.
But the 2014 movie still works pretty well. It’s a movie about a robot cop. It has Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton. It wants humans to be more human, and throw off the shackles of technology. It’s fun.