Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

"Ditching the satirical elements for a more straightforward sci-fi 'issues' approach, Padhila goes for a more serious minded investigation of the man-machine control conundrum."

As this review is being written, a statue of Robocop is being completed following a Kickstarter campaign. Its creators plan to mount it in Detroit in honour of the titular character from director Paul Verhoeven's original 1987 sci-fi action thriller. It is a sign of how well Verhoeven's bloody Reagan era corporate satire is regarded that a figure that is in many ways a fictional corporate construct, built to brutally enforce the law in a decaying Detroit, is now regarded as some kind of blue collar hero. The creators of the original Robocop film saw this reaction even back then, during post production in test audiences, even audiences composed of police officers. Outwardly robotic he might have been, but Murphy/Robocop was seen as willing to take down the very men who both betrayed and created him, a Frankenstein's monster sticking it to the larger corporate monster that built him. He was violent, hulking, outwardly mechanical except for his lower face, but the essence of Murphy inside the shell made him an incorruptible silver knight in a country run by sharks in suits. Verhoeven fully intended any Jesus allegory, with Murphy's transformation into Robocop requiring he first suffer a horrific on screen death by a dozen shotgun shells.

Verhoeven's Robocop currently holds a near-90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so José Padilha (director of Elite Squad) was always going to face the waves of criticism which are par for the course during the build up to the release of any reboot or remake (in the case of this film, "reimagining" is probably more accurate). Cry the offended: Why remake a classic? Why fix what doesn't need fixing? One argument that cynics hurled that perhaps hit closer to home was that, with the US still reeling from the financial crash of 2007, outsourcing eating away at blue and white collar jobs, infrastructure decaying and the political system gridlocked, arguably Verhoeven's film was in no need of any update but was way ahead of its time. Certainly, Detroit is a bankrupt city as I write this review, and neoliberal capitalism still holds sway in the wider USA. At times it seems about the only thing Verhoeven did get wrong - so far - was predicting that a major US city would privatise its own police force. Nevertheless, Padilha seemed to have an interesting road map for his remake.

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The trailers for Padhila's reimagining made clear that this new Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), in contrast to the brainwashed drone in the Verhoeven version (who gradually rediscovered echoes of his former self) would begin his new cyborg life in full possession of his memories and personality. This would be a film that would play to contemporary concerns about drone warfare and the automation of security, the removal of human decisions from the battlefield. Hot button issues in today's media and politics indeed.This new film promised to bat about the question of who should be in control in the 21st century law enforcement environment. The man ...or the machine?

The setting in Robocop 2014 is still a near-future, though non-bankrupt and cleaner-looking Detroit (in the year 2028 to be precise). As revealed to us by the 'Novak Element' talk show host Pat Novak (Samuel L Jackson), in an opening sequence which is a clear nod to the Verhoeven version's tongue-in cheek mock-commercials and news clips, this is a dystopian USA where the giant Omnicorp Corporation's air and land drones police America's enemies and other nations. A news segment showing robotic and walker type ED-209 drones (another nod to the Verhoeven original) in action on Novak's show reveals that these conquered enemies include Iran, occupied by the USA presumably following some unmentioned war. A fanatical robo-advocate, Novak, addressing his audience, explains that the only thing holding back this technology from operation within America's borders and crushing crime and terrorism is public resistance and a Senate-backed bill banning drones from carrying out law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Alex Murphy, an honest cop in Detroit, is rebuilt as Robocop after being blown up in a car bomb planted by dirty cops in his precinct, an attack which leaves him badly burned, comatose and permanently paralysed. His wife Clara (Abbie Cornish), convinced by the outwardly warm but conflicted Omnicorp-funded cyberneticist Dr Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) that this is the only way to save Alex, signs his body over to the Omnicorp Robocop programme. Alex, waking up, still retains his memories and personality, and is understandably horrified to the point of desiring suicide when he learns that little of his body remains. The retention of his personality, memories, and (ostensibly) his free will, is the design of Omnicorp CEO Ray Sellars (Michael Keaton). Blocked by Senate restrictions on bringing automated law enforcement to the USA and reaping the rewards of an untapped market, Sellars sees a way to chip away at the restrictions and win the public over by putting a law enforcement machine on the streets with a human consciousness inside it.

But though Norton successfully persuades Alex to stay alive and use his new titanium body and computer augmented reflexes to find a new purpose (and rejoin his family), a more sinister agenda is at work. Under pressure from Sellars during trials to increase Alex's efficiency in combat and remove his natural human hesitation and questioning of the situation, Dennett grudgingly inserts subroutines and chemical processes into Alex's neural system. Alex has been promised he is in control, but in fact, when he fights, the suit and the software will take over. Sellars demands more and more of Alex's humanity be secretly repressed before he takes him public, altering the levels of the artificially administered chemicals and neurotransmitters that allow Alex to survive with most of his flesh and bone body gone. But when Alex is let out onto the streets, his memories and emotions begin to fight back, and he sets out to solve his own murder and win back control of his life.

Padhila gave himself plenty of intriguing directions to take this new Robocop. Ditching the satirical elements for a more straightforward sci-fi 'issues' approach, Padhila goes for a more serious minded investigation of the man-machine control conundrum. He also enjoys a larger budget and a CGI toolkit that Verhoeven could have only dreamed of, the 1987 Robocop being one of the last big pre-CGI action blockbusters. So why, despite all that, does Robocop 2014 still feel so frustratingly mediocre?

It is not that this is a film is held back by demand for a 12A rating - that never was a problem for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, for example. A more reasonable criticism seems to be that this film's script and plot pulls its punches and just drifts around even when things seems to be heading in the right direction. For example, we never get a real exploration of the impact of Murphy's transformation on his wife and family, despite this being one of the main differences between this new version and the 1987 film (in Verhoeven's film Murphy's family think he is dead and they are seen only in his hallucinations), with Murphy's family here seeming oddly accepting of the changes Alex has undergone. There is no real exploration of the notion that presumably Alex cannot ever fully reintegrate into his former life, the huge elephant in the room of how he and his wife are supposed to have sex is never addressed. Surely his child would be traumatised at the sight of his father in a metal suit. The story and script miss the chance too to explore the impact of Alex being signed up for this by his wife, with he himself having no say.

The film does not embrace the real moral bleakness of Verhoeven's film, blunting some of the edge. The Omnicorp corporation is still run by corrupt power hungry men in this new film, but they don't own the US Senate or the Detroit police force as they did in the original. Alex is not quite the mindless slave, but a man still legally alive. It makes the film seem timid, this is a world where the system (kind of) still works.

Whereas Verhoeven's film gave us a satisfying and engrossing emotional journey, as Murphy went from brainwashed tin man to reclaiming at least some of his essence, Padilha takes that option off the table, as Murphy knows who he is throughout. With the family impact angle insufficiently explored, all that is left to deliver the emotional punch is Murphy's fight against his programming, but this is never made to seem all that dramatic and the technological specifics of the control elements implanted into him are confusingly explained and adjusted throughout. Verhoeven had the sense to junk the technobabble and simply portray Robocop as a sort of amnesiac whose brain wipe was either not a total success or whose 'soul' was too powerful.

Crucially, the film also lacks the charismatic characters of the Verhoeven version. Verhoeven packed his film with memorable characters and heightened Eighties stereotypes, from coke snorting boardroom wannabe Bob Morton to the slimily savage Clarence Boddicker. Peter Weller in particular brought his own brand of intensity, otherness and striking degree of body movement to the main role. The 1987 script was funny and sharp. In 2014, everyone in the cast, from Joel Kinnerman to Gary Oldman (playing by far the most interesting character, though his morals seem to switch on and off abruptly), seems stuck in earnest mode, but little else. Too many good actors, like Michael K. Williams and Abbie Cornish, have far too little to do.

The film cripples the revenge/justice arc's force by splitting Murphy's focus - the cops that set him up are not really connected to Omnicorp in any way. Murphy's final showdown with Omnicorp's senior figures lacks real satisfaction and power as a result - especially seeing as everything they did to him was largely legal and approved by his own wife! It just all feels damp.

The tone is also off. Verhoeven's film when you describe it seems like it would make for a film that is all over the place, yet it managed to be funny, violent, horrifying, and genuinely moving all at the same time, and it moved like a lean tiger to boot. The Novak Element segments in Padilha's film seem to hark back to that blackly satirical tone, but feel out of sync with the earnestness of the rest of the picture. With Detroit 2028 lacking the real stench of decay of the 1987 film, it is hard to understand why there is a such a demand for Robocop on the streets at all. There is no rich sense of character in Padilha's vision of Detroit either, no air of corporate degradation and blue collar life struggling in its shadow, as there was in the earlier version.

Does Padilha land any punches at all? There are at least some intriguing ideas half-explored, and some memorable moments, particularly a scene where Alex asks to see what is truly left of his body. It is a nice connecting thread to the body horror elements of the Verhoeven film. The CGI is obviously superior to the visual FX of the 1987 original, though no CGI creation comes close to matching that film's richness of character and the action scenes suffer from a poorly executed Bourne Supremacy-esque rapid-cut approach. A muddled socio-political message does kind of get put across - maybe there is nothing wrong with robots in principle if they truly are tireless, incorruptible and accurate - but we risk ignoring the problem that robots by their very design cannot question the flaws of their corruptible creators. Robots do what they are told, but who is telling them who the bad guys are?

Padilha at least has tried something different, changing the design of the suit, reversing the character's conundrum, bringing other characters into the mix that the original sidelined. Remake directors risk the ire of the original's fans at their peril. But this film still treads a safe path, whereas Verhoeven's film was gleefully subversive ("fascism for liberals", he called it). Ultimately Robocop 2014, when read its rights and sent to court, will be judged as more frustrating than outright bad. That's a crime.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2014
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When a police officer is critically injured he is brought back to life as a cyborg and celebrated as the future of law enforcement.
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