Modern-day morality tale or action flick? RoboCop’s remake can’t decide

Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop has endured for nearly 27 years because it was more than just an action flick. Yes, it was the story of a man melded into a machine, but its subversive satire and deep moral themes tapped into primal fears of the time. Director Jose Padilha’s remake does almost the opposite. It too raises big questions that haunt us, but those themes are merely a veneer for a Hollywood action movie about a man coming into his own and battling to reassert his individuality. 

Again and again, this remake hints at something grander, deeper, and smarter, but ultimately it abandons any meaningful goals. Ethically intriguing characters fall into good-guy bad-guy patterns by the end, and any question of morality is settled down the barrel of a gun. The remake manages to stand on its own as a well-paced action flick, but there are missed opportunities everywhere.

Like the original, Verhoeven’s RoboCop focuses on a Detroit police detective who is badly injured in an attack meant to kill him. To score a PG-13 rating, the details of his near-demise have changed to skirt the ultra-violence that defined the original. Rather than repeating the bloody and gruesome mutilation seen in the 1987 version, Padilha shows Detective Alex Murphy (played by The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman) get severely injured in a car bombing and wake up to find that he has become an experiment in law keeping. 

By the third act, all hints of a deeper movie have been abandoned.

The near-future setting is framed by a raging debate in America over the use of robotic automatons as peacekeepers. On one side, voices like OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and agenda-driven TV pundit Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) assert that robotic soldiers in the battlefield save American lives. On the other side, politicians like Senator Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier) argue that a robot can’t distinguish between right and wrong. Murphy – or what’s left of him – becomes an unwitting pawn in this debate, and a bridge between the two.

Utilizing the best technology, Detective Murphy is rebuilt as RoboCop under the watchful eye of Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). Following his re-introduction to the world, he tries to reconnect with his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and their son, while also trying to solve his own attempted murder. 

Is it moral to use robots in war? Can we trust a machine to make a judgment call? Both are good questions that plague us today as the use of drone strikes edges further into our collective moral fiber. But after the film raises the questions, it fails to give us any answers.

Like the original, RoboCop questions unchecked capitalism and corporate greed defining public policies, but this is also forgotten once the shooting starts. Rather than forcing the audience to weigh the arguments, heroes and villains are defined solely through their attempts to save a life or end one. Any nuance is blasted to tatters in the ensuing firefights, and the bigger ideals the movie hints at disappear with it. The question of free will crops up in heavy handed ways as well, but this too becomes more of a plot point than an actual theme.

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While the film’s philosophical questions end up shelved, Alex’s attempts to reconnect with his family continue, unfortunately. To her credit, Cornish manages to take a one-dimensional wife and breathe some life into her, despite a script that never bothers to really develop her. Without any emotional weight to them, both Alex’s wife and son become little more than plot devices.

The film only really works when it embraces what RoboCop is meant to be: a high-tech member of law enforcement. But even this angle is underdeveloped, and the film shows only a few glimpses of this before returning to its main narrative. For an action movie, there is a surprising lack of action. 

By the third act, all hints of a deeper movie have been abandoned. Bland villains mute any emotional payoffs from Alex’s quest for justice. And the finale works for a Hollywood movie, but would be incredibly messy and complicated in real life. 

RoboCop saves itself with strong performances, which are almost without exception excellent. Kinnaman is especially noteworthy as the emotion-challenged Murphy. The visual effects are also frighteningly plausible – not just the giant ED-209 battle robots, but also smaller details found in the film’s holographic computers and bionic arms. It’s a few years off, but the film does a good job of remaining grounded in reality, constantly teasing new technology that may not be available yet, but could hit the streets in our lifetimes. 

Conclusion

RoboCop is well shot and visually attractive, the cast all turn in good performances, and the pacing keeps things moving at a nice clip. But it could have been so much more. It becomes a predictable story, and loses the edge it starts out with. For a film that ultimately is about the nature of life, RoboCop is sadly devoid of any real spark. 

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