Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Alternate Title:  Roboscript

One sentence synopsis:    A police officer critically injured in a car bombing is rebuilt by a corporation into a law enforcement cyborg.

Things Havoc liked:  Paul Verhoeven and I have a tempestuous relationship, but there's no denying the genius of several of his films. 1987's RoboCop, starring Classics Professor Peter Weller (I never tire of that bit of trivia) is unquestionably among them, a gritty, satirical take on 80s capitalism and American culture in the late stages of the Cold War, crossed with a bloody, emotional film that just happened to star a cyborg. As one of the best films of the eighties, it was probably inevitable that someone would decide to remake it, but given the abject catastrophe that was last year's Total Recall (also a Verhoeven film I adore), this was a film I was more dreading than looking forward to.

So let's get this over with right off the bat. Robocop, the 2014 remake of Verhoeven's classic, is not a travesty. It is not a cinematic crime, one which will taint the legacy of its predecessor. In a word, it does not suck. And the reason it does not suck is because unlike Total Recall, Robocop was plainly made by people who had at least watched the previous film, and perhaps even tried to understand it.

It's 2028, and remarkable advancements in robotics and cybernetics have allowed us to build humanoid drones of perfect accuracy, capable of a variety of military and law enforcement duties, as well as replace people's severed limbs with mechanized ones capable of the most delicate operations. Leaders in this field are Omnicorp, headed by Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), ably assisted by his chief scientist James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Keaton and Oldman are, unsurprisingly, the very best things in the film. Joking aside, I haven't seen Michael Keaton since his role in 1997's Jackie Brown, but the man is and always was an excellent, understated actor, and instead of playing a typical goatee-stroking slimeball CEO, plays this one instead like someone one could actually see in office. He wears turtleneck shirts, talks in high level sales pitches, and makes decisions for his company that make actual sense using the logic of market research and focus grouping, all while knowing when to discard a terrible idea as being far too risky for his company's image. Oldman meanwhile has little to work with playing the standard ethically-challenged scientist, but as he's one of the finest actors in the world today, manages to render the part interesting even so. His confrontations with Keaton over ethical or performance-related issues to his design sound not like the standard hapless scientist oppressed by money, and more like the typical confrontations that arise in any technology-related business.

Nor are Keaton and Oldman the only draws. Robocop's partner, Lewis, is here played by Michael K. Williams, better known as The Wire's Omar. I adore Williams in all ways, and while he doesn't have a lot to do here, he manages to bring his usual veneer of cool badassery to every scene he's in. Jackey Earl Haley meanwhile, of Rorschach fame, plays the main military director for Omnicorp. Haley's character is, of all things, a robotic supremacist, who has no use for the insertion of human factors into the drones he creates, and cares little who knows about it. Given Haley's infinite capacity to play seedy, smoldering characters, he makes a somewhat compelling foil for Robocop, particularly early in the film, as he is attempting to figure out how to properly operate his own body. But best of the supporting cast is, of course, Samuel L. Jackson, who here plays a 24 news/entertainment 'personality' in the vein of Sean Hannity, who lectures from some Fox News-style pulpit on the virtues of robots and drones, and castigates the "robophobia" of the American public.

The original Robocop was only half an action film, the other half being Verhoeven's merciless pillorying of American culture at the time, something he would go on to do more and more of to less and less effect. This film, well aware of this inheritance, retains the satirical bite but modernizes the target. Corporate greed and amorality, still as much an issue today as it was thirty years ago, comes up for another shellacking this time, but rather than recite the same cliches as you'll find in half the movies of the last ten years, this one tries to project a strange, Apple-meets-EA vibe to Omnicorp, burying it in marketing lingo and focus group results, ably assisted by Jay Baruchel, as a slimy marketing "guru" spouting terrible ideas in the name of "appealing to specific demographics". An early sequence wherein the CEO suggests that Robocop's look should be made more "tactical" strikes quite close to home. More serious is the concept of drone warfare, ably dealt with in an early sequence set in Tehran, apparently under US occupation, where we watch a cadre of suicide bombers attack a company of robotic soldiers. The robots do nothing 'wrong' per se (at least nothing a human soldier wouldn't do), and the terrorists are quite plainly terrorists ("Our goal is to die on television") says one. Yet effortlessly, the film plays with the uncanny valley such that we instantly identify with Al Qaeda against the robots. Throughout the film, the movie does its best to bring up questions of surveillance, drone use in law enforcement, and the line between military and police...

Things Havoc disliked:  ... badly.

Robocop is a film that has good ideas, and no real clue as to how to develop them properly. The question of drone use in law enforcement is raised at the beginning of the film, and then pushed to the back burner for the duration of it. Plenty of arguments occur over the use of drones on the streets, but we see nothing of the actual substance of it. The drones we see, after all, are not really scary once you get over the uncanny valley. They are efficient, accurate, never make mistakes (one early incident is the fault of ROE, not programming), and are generally relegated to the background of a movie with way too many "issues" on its plate.

The original Robocop was effectively a machine who had to, over the course of the film, re-learn how to be a man again. This film eschews that concept, making him a man with cybernetic parts first and foremost, and that's fine. We are, after all, more accustomed to the idea of a man with mechanical parts now than we were back then. The issue is that it never finds a primary character dilemma to replace the subject with, instead simply focusing on the mechanical process of getting Robocop fit to fight, and then seeing him go out and do so. Again, there is nothing wrong with this idea in theory, as I would not have minded a film about a Robocop who is really just another cop with special capabilities, trying to find a way to fit into modern law enforcement. But the film doesn't do that either, pulling a midway switch by artificially changing him into more of a robot, and then back again, and then not, several times, until all thematic structure is lost, and characters are acting in ways that have not been established or earned, simply because we're running out of time and we need a climax.

Speaking of characters, you might have noticed that I didn't mention the actor (Joel Kinnaman) who actually plays Robocop. There's a good reason for that, and that reason is that he's awful. His character, such as it is, is so understated and monotone that he actually seems more alive with the robotic parts than he did beforehand. I can usually tell if the problem is bad writing or a bad actor, but in this case the question is so muddled that I suspect it might be both. Lacking any chemistry with his co-stars, Kinnaman's job is not made any easier by the fact that his wife and son, characters who had very little facetime in the original movie, are also flatly terrible. Suckerpunch's Abbie Cornish is simply given nothing to do beyond react woodenly to bad dialogue from her husband or from the Omnicorp suits that have transformed him into Robocop, and his son is played by one of the least convincing child actors I've seen since Timothy Green. In a movie that discards much of the plot of the old film in favor of more of a focus on Robocop's character and that of his family, this is a terrible problem.

It's not the only one. The villain, played to such amazing effect in the original by Kurtwood Smith, is here a completely ignored cypher, forgotten about for half of the movie only to reappear when the film decides it needs an action piece. Indeed, the pacing is all over the place in this film, which devotes nearly half the runtime to what amounts to back-story, while compressing the actual plot into what feels like the last 40 minutes. It's perhaps not surprising, as a result, that the plot is full of holes, clearly the product of a rushed or stitched together development cycle. Why, for instance, would scientists about to release a revolutionary new robotic cyborg to his first-ever press conference, decide that five minutes before showtime was a good time to upload the entire contents of the police database directly into his brain, a process both untested and highly dangerous? And speaking of press conferences, let me pose another question. If the robotic policeman that a megacorporation had just unveiled were to, in the middle of a massive crowd of people, jump off the podium and randomly discharge his firearm into a member of the crowd, would your reaction be cheers, or panic?

Final thoughts:   I said at the beginning that Robocop is not a terrible movie, not a betrayal of the source material, and I stand by that, but mere failure to destroy a franchise is not the sole requirement for success. The truth is that Robocop, despite a number of excellent actors and several legitimately good ideas, is something of a mess, a film bedeviled by bad pacing, a lackluster plot, poor choice of focus, and a main character not up to the task of playing a character who is both a robot and not a robot. The film clearly tries to pay proper homage to its predecessor, with callback lines from the first film, and even stingers from the classic Basil Poledouris theme. But even on the level of basic design (Detroit in this film looks like a paradise, clean and crime free, to the point where we wonder where the demand for Robocop is coming from), this film doesn't know what it wants to do, and winds up, as a result, doing a great many things badly, none of which have all that much to do with one another.

I came into this film with no expectations of quality, but in many ways, this result is the harder one to bear. A film that had no chance of being good is simply that, but one that had aspirations of greatness and failed speaks to all sorts of missed opportunities that one can sense, peering from within the tangled plot and compressed pacing. At the same time however, Robocop at least attempts to properly placate those of us with fond memories of the original. It may fail at doing so, but the thought, ultimately does count for something.

And hell, at least it's better than Robocop 3.

Final Score:  5/10

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