I have written reviews for almost a thousand movies. Whether I should be proud of that, or somewhat embarrassed is not entirely clear. I mention it to provide some context. Of that number of films, some of them were profoundly moving and some so awful they would make you doubt the existence of a kind and loving God. In all of them, however, this ranks as one of the more difficult reviews I’ve ever done. 1987’s Robocop is, with one caveat, a frickin’ masterpiece. If its remake was terrible, I could easily and joyfully mock it. If it was good, it would be a delight to ponder the differences and similarities. But 2014’s Robocop is…just…so…bleh. It is more than a mere cash grab, yet its creative vision would need a telescope just to read the top letter on an eye chart. It tries to follow its predecessor by saying something, though it never quite figures out what that is. It is made with the common technical brilliance of its era, and it is all for naught because it is cold and sterile and timid everywhere the original is sharp and mischievous and bold. Writing this is like being a food critic judging between a five course meal in a four star restaurant and a bowl of unsweetened oatmeal. Where does one even begin?
For those who haven’t seen 1987’s Robocop, stop reading right now. Get up from wherever you are and go to your phone, your computer, your smart TV or the nearest video store/kiosk and watch it. At the risk of overselling it, Robocop is one of the most well regarded motion pictures from one of the seminal eras of cinema. The 1980s produced some of the greatest action flicks every made and this one might be the smartest and most soulful of the bunch.
The time is an undetermined future where the formerly great city of Detroit has become a crime-ridden hellscape. I mean, even worse than it is today. The corporation, Omni Consumer Products has privatized the police force as it tries to prepare for the coming of Delta City, a spectacular pollis that will rise from the rubble of old Detroit. Before that can happen, OCP has to find a way to tamp down the Sharknado of murder, drugs and violence that threatens to kill the dream of Delta City, before it can be born. OCP executive, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) thinks he’s come up with a solution. He offers the ED-209, a giant, heavily armed and armored ostrich of a machine that Dick claims will patrol Detroit and bring order out of chaos. Dick is quickly and murderously proven wrong.
Seeing the older Dick fall into disfavor with The Old Man (Daniel O’Herlihy), the ambitious and young Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) interjects his own idea and gets the green light to try it. That results in Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) being transferred to the deadliest police precinct in all Detroit. It’s a place where cops die almost as fast as fruit flies, and Murphy is soon one of them, dispatched by the criminally mesmerizing Clarence J. Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang.
As an OCP employee, Murphy signed certain release forms that granted his employer the right to do with his corpse what it saw fit. What Bob Morton saw to do is resurrect Murphy as a cyborg crusader against crime. But Murphy’s humanity, no matter how buried under steel and circuitry, isn’t finished with Clarence Boddicker. And Dick Jones isn’t finished with the young upstart who interfered with his plans.
At the risk of repeating myself, Robocop is frickin’ great. It has dynamic action, great humor and some of the strongest satire you’ll ever see in a mainstream American movie. It starkly ridicules the go-go corporate capitalism and the cheesy, lowest-common-denominator culture of the 1980s. The soundtrack is great. The performances are superb. The plot has a crackling pace that hasn’t aged a day and there are moments when the storytelling is as fine as anything you’ll ever see. As Murphy dies, his life and death flash before his eyes, as the ER doctors labor over him, and the audience sees it all from Murphy’s point of view. That creative choice does more to make the viewer identify and empathize with Murphy than a thousand lines of dialog ever could.
Now, there is one plot twist that works so effectively as you’re watching that you won’t notice it doesn’t really make sense. You probably might not notice it the second or third time. It is an undeniable problem, though, and stands as a shining example that if you’re good enough (whether you’re a film or a professional athlete), you can get away with almost anything.
2014’s Robocop….yeesh. It’s not that this movie is stupid or crass or poorly made. Its story even wanders into the general vicinity of something vaguely resembling a point. It’s that the original is an energetic action/comedy/satire and this remake can only be described as a relentlessly dreary drama with a sprinkling of political overtones that takes forever to get anywhere, and glosses over all but one of the shallow moments that it rattles around on screen.
Also set in a future Detroit, except this one seems to have experienced a massive economic and social renaissance, Omnicorp is a company that supplies the battle robots used by the United States to bring “peace” and “freedom” to the rest of the world. The story opens in U.S. occupied Tehran with the machines scanning the identity of every man, woman and child on the street. A popular federal law prevents the use of such machines in America, and Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the head of Omnicorp, is desperate to get his products into that last untapped market. Sellars gets the idea of putting a man inside the machine to ease the worries of Joe and Jane Public about robots patrolling their neighborhoods, and when police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is nearly killed in a bombing ordered by gang boss, Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), the company wheedles Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish) into authorizing the procedure that turns her husband into something that would have made Victor Frankenstein blanch. And, although they need to repeatedly manipulate Murphy’s brain, and the remains of his body to get him to perform up to snuff, he does herald a change in public opinion that might lead to the repeal of the robot ban.
But, this Murphy also can’t resist solving his own near-murder and becomes too much of an irritant for his makers, leading to a final showdown that is about a thousand times more explosive than the original’s with about 1/1000th the wit or emotional power.
The screenwriters of 1987’s Robocop, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, make up two-thirds of the team responsible for this script and there are two things in the remake where some of that talent shows through. There is a scene where they remove the machinery from Murphy and he (and the audience) see that he’s nothing more than a head, neck, lungs and one hand. It’s a horrifying scene, and given the dour tone of the film overall, I wonder if there wasn’t at some point in the process the germ of an idea to go fully in that direction. I don’t know if redoing Robocop as some sort of Human Centipede-like body freak show would have worked, but at least I could have given them credit for having the stones to try it. This film never commits to being that daring in any direction and doesn’t have nearly the intellectual depth to sustain its cold, lifeless and confused attempt at a morality play.
The other bit is Samuel L. Jackson playing a TV news personality whose show pops up every so often to move the story along. It’s obviously a callback to the TV interludes of the original, which included news reports that proved to be hilariously prescient about the infotainment revolution in journalism. But while those contributed to the snarky environment of the original, Jackson’s pontificating loudmouth exists to hammer home one plot or theme point after another. It’s like the difference between Stephen Colbert and Bill O’Reily.
There is only one genuinely interesting thing about this remake. According to online reports, it cost about $100 million to make, and grossed around $58 million at the domestic box office. 1987’s Robocop was made, in inflation-adjusted numbers, for a mere $27 million dollars and took in over $112 million in ticket sales. That’s already a whopper of a difference, but when you consider that the original was never shown on more than about 1,600 screens and the remake debuted on over twice that many, the gap between success and failure here is bigger than the gap between Kim Kardashian and dignity.
And my computer didn’t try to auto correct the name Kim Kardashian. We live in a world where word processing programs recognize the name Kim Kardashian. That right there is more poignant than anything in 2014’s Robocop. But I digress…
The interesting thing is, that in 1987, Robocop was a fairly special effects-heavy flick that looked different than what people were used to seeing. It’s remake, 27 years later looks exactly like every other CGI-spawned dud that’s crawled out of Hollywood recently AND COST ABOUT FOUR TIMES MUCH TO MAKE. If the remake had only cost $27 million, it would have been a solid hit. What is the future for this kind of movie when it has to reach nine figures at the box office to break even?
If you’ve never seen the original Robocop, or Robocop II, or Robocop III, or The Six Million Dollar Man, or read the book Cyborg, or a Marvel comic featuring Deathlok, or experienced any of the other man-machine inspired entertainment of the last 40 or 50 years, I suppose there’s worse ways of spending your time than with this remake. You could strangle kittens, for example.
But, if you haven’t seen the original Robocop, weren’t you paying attention at the beginning? Don’t make me come over there and smack you. Go watch it!
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Starring Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, Paul McCrane and Joe P. Cox.
Written by Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner and Joshua Zetumer.
Directed by Jose Padilha.
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbie Cornish and MichaelK. Williams.