AT THE MOVIES: No Soul in This Machine

In this Era of Remakes, it is rare to find a film whose subject matter actually deserves to be re-examined. Most of the time, movie studios simply take a popular property, cast a couple of young stars in it, and update a few of the details.

movie
Published February 23, 2014 5:00 AM
4 min read

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movieIn this Era of Remakes, it is rare to find a film whose subject matter actually deserves to be re-examined. Most of the time, movie studios simply take a popular property, cast a couple of young stars in it, and update a few of the details.

 

By Noah Gittell

 

movieIn this Era of Remakes, it is rare to find a film whose subject matter actually deserves to be re-examined. Most of the time, movie studios simply take a popular property, cast a couple of young stars in it, and update a few of the details. “Robocop” could have been the exception to the rule. The 1987 film was a slyly subversive piece of pop art that criticized corporate culture and predicted the emergence of drones as a law enforcement tool; and fans of the original were appropriately excited to see what Brazilian director Jose Padilha could bring to what should have been a very relevant story.

 

But times have changed. In the Reagan years, these were subversive ideas, but they have become so mainstream that they can be found in many Hollywood films: “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel” reflected our newfound reliance on drones, while everything from “The Lone Ranger” to “White House Down” placed greedy capitalists as its villains. But Padilha seems content to raise these subjects, instead of using the film’s terrific central metaphor to explore them. And since its ideas are no longer subversive, “Robocop” is the rare political film that has nothing political to say.

 

The plot is the same as last time around. Joel Kinnaman takes over the role of Detective Alex Murphy, a Detroit police officer who digs too deep into the corrupt relationship between the police and the criminal underworld and nearly gets killed for his troubles. After being blown up in an attempted assassination, the adventurous OmniCorp, led by its corrupt founder (Michael Keaton) and morally ambivalent head scientist (Gary Oldman), turn the half-dead cop into the film’s titular law enforcement machine.

 

There are the ingredients there for a truly provocative film. The opening scenes, in particular, are captivating; Samuel L. Jackson addresses the camera as a Bill O’Reilly-type political commentator supporting the use of police drones in the U.S. by showing how effective they have been overseas. We see them policing the streets of Tehran (the movie never explains what sort of geopolitical event allowed for this, but I digress) and a short, efficient action sequence in which four Iranian men blow themselves up on camera in protest.

 

Back at home, the evil geniuses at OmniCorp see in Murphy’s accident an opportunity to put a human face on their drones. The sequences in which Murphy learns to accept and eventually embrace his new form are probably the best in the film, ably directed by Padilha and well acted by old pros like Keaton and Oldman. But problems persist: Kinnaman never creates much of a character as Murphy, and the political subtext never arrives at anything resembling a point. A film like this needs to connect either to the audience’s brain or its heart, but “Robocop” tries to do both and ends up with neither.

 

Its politics are woefully underutilized; the original film was set in a dystopian Detroit, and the city was always a large part of the film’s character. Just how large? The actual city is unveiling a life-size statue of Robocop later this year. The setting of the film certainly lends itself to comment on the 2008 economic collapse, but the city barely plays a role in the film, and it looks like it was shot in Los Angeles.

 

Meanwhile, despite the regular appearances of a grieving wife (Abbie Cornish) and a sad son (John Paul Ruttan), the emotional through lines get short shrift and never make much of an impression. Kinnaman does his best to elicit emotion, but the movie — perhaps inevitably — loses its soul when he becomes a machine. It is hard to care about a robot, and Michael Keaton never makes his corporate villain really evil enough to root against.

 

It is all adds up to a significant missed opportunity. The original “Robocop” was a critical and commercial smash because it effortlessly blended satire and solid Hollywood entertainment, but the remake barely skims the surface of either.

 

My Rating: Skip it Altogether

 

 

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