Few movies are burned into the collective mind of late 20 to early 30-somethings quite like RoboCop. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece is one of the quintessential actions films of the 80’s, famous for its great one-liners, memorable characters, smart satire, amazing visual effects and gratuitous over the top violence. The 2014 remake has really good visual effects. Realistically, it’s unfair to compare the new RoboCop to the old one. They’re wildly different movies. The problem is that even on its own merit, RoboCop is kind of a mess.
What RoboCop does well, it does really well. The effects are great. RoboCop looks cool, as do the ED-209s and Omnicorp’s humanoid robots. RoboCop’s HUD is very cool and there are some very cool tech concepts. From a narrative standpoint, the 2014 model takes a lot of time to focus on the man in the machine aspect of RoboCop. It takes a lot of time to explore that particular theme. It’s a valuable piece of the puzzle, one that might have even been overlooked in the previous series, but it definitely goes on too long, but we’ll get to that.
In RoboCop, most of the world is policed by Omnicorp’s drones. Omnicorp head Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) is lobbying Congress to repeal a bill keeping his robots off of American streets. The American people are reluctant to get behind robot police because. How can something that cannot feel be accountable for taking a life? It’s exactly the kind of over dramatic questioning we could expect from a real-life congressional hearing. Since he’s not the kind of man to just leave billions of dollars on the table (as if the rest of the world’s money and lucrative military contracts aren’t enough), Sellers reaches out to Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) for his expertise on cybernetic prosthetics. They’re going to put a man in the machine, thus solving the moral quandary of letting a robot kill people. Then Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) goes and gets himself blown up and his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) signs what one can only assume is a mountain of paperwork so that Omnicorp can save her husband and make him into the world’s first ever robotic-ohmygodcanwejustmoveonwithitalready.
If it sounds like a lot of setup, that’s because it absolutely is. And the movie isn’t done. After that tedious world building, there are easily 30 minutes devoted to testing and R&D in China after Muprhy wakes up in his legitimately awesome-looking robo bod. Norton and Murphy have a lot of screen time together and a lot of it is really tedious. There’s so much time spent on Murphy and his family that the movie has no time to develop its villains. Murphy is the heart of the story, but the main conflict is Murphy vs. the programming. That’s not exactly riveting. Sellers and Omnicorp become default bad guys in the last act because… Just because, really. Their only crime is shutting down a rogue weaponized cyborg. Sure, some guy blows Murphy up, but he’s in the movie so little, I can’t even remember his name (and can’t be bothered to look it up). This movie is sorely missing a Clarence Boddicker or a Dick Jones. Likewise, Muprhy’s partner Lewis has three scenes in the whole movie and makes no real impact in any of them. There are some good performances in the movie, but the actors can only do so much with what they’re given. Not even Gary Oldman can save this one.
There are a few decent action sequences, but one of them takes place in the dark. It’s a very weird choice setting a scene designed to make your hero look like a badass completely in the dark. We see the action via night vision and thermals. It’s very strange. They make an effort to capture some of the satire of the original thanks to Samuel L. Jackson’s angry screaming Fox News-esque pundit Pat Novak, but it’s a big misstep. The original RoboCop satirized 80’s culture by fixating on style, marketing and excess. A hostage negotiation included cruise control. In RoboCop 2014, the focus is more on the disappearing of civil liberties in the name of safety. One of those things is a source of wit and humor. The other will just bum you out because of how plausible it is. It’s not a stretch to think the US would be harassing locals in Tehran with robots right now if they could. That’s no fun.
That’s RoboCop’s biggest flaw; it’s no fun. In an effort to make an earnest story with a sympathetic lead, they just made a bummer of a movie. You don’t root for RoboCop as much as you just feel bad for him and how can you not? Half the movie is him moping around instead of shooting dudes through a cloud of cocaine dust. RoboCop isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t good, either. It wouldn’t be good even if we didn’t have the 1987 classic to compare it to. Comparing it to the original, it’s an absolute mess. No amount of homages to the classic can soften the blow of an underwhelming movie that’s more mopey sci-fi than action flick. Even walking in with no expectations, I give RoboCop 2.5 out of 5 fleshy hands. See it if you’re curious, but don’t expect a lot. Even then, you may come out disappointed.