RoboCop (2014) **½
My expectations for the new RoboCop weren’t just low— they were subterranean. So when I say that writer Joshua Zetumer and director Jose Padilha impressed me a bit with their take on the story, you have to keep in mind how absurdly easy it was to do that under the circumstances. Their RoboCop is in no way equal to Paul Verhoeven’s, not even at the level of mere spectacle. It has next to no interest in satire, no sense of humor worthy of the name, and a conspicuous allergy to the entire concept of social criticism. It leaves its villains underdeveloped and their agendas vague, as if for fear that to deal with either in greater depth would force its creators to take a moral or political position more sophisticated and potentially controversial than, “crime bad; human spirit good.” At bottom, it’s just a Big, Dumb Action Movie with an idea or two above its station in the fields of characterization and psychology. However, once you accept that this movie does not share any of the original RoboCop’s concerns, and evaluate it according to the standard of what it actually wants to be, then it begins to look halfway decent. Certainly it’s a huge improvement over RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3.
Unfortunately, Zetumer and Padilha begin by teasing us with a premise genuinely worthy of the original’s legacy. Right-wing television blowhard Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson, from Snakes on a Plane and Django Unchained) has a bug up his ass about military drones. Evidently the Fox News crowd has gotten over their Obama-era flirtation with anarchism, though, because Novak is stridently pro-drone, and critical of the American public’s continued opposition to the deployment of armed robots for domestic law enforcement and private security. Look at Iran, Novak says, where the years-long American occupation has cost not a single serviceman’s life thanks to Omnicorp’s EM- and ED-series fighting robots. If that company’s drone soldiers can do such sterling work in an actual war zone, then surely they could pacify the lawless slums back home just as effectively. But noooo… John Q. Pussywimp wants his law-enforcers to have feelings. He wants them to have empathy and a conscience and concern for the rights of the accused and all that other hippy crap. And what’s worse, John Q. Pussywimp votes, so politicians like Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Pulse’s Zach Grenier, who crossed paths with Jackson before in Shaft) put laws on the books forbidding the use of drones within the United States— hobbling the police, endangering the public, and preventing patriotic American entrepreneurs like Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, of Beetle Juice) from growing their businesses to full potential. Well, it makes Novak sick, you hear?
So far, so good, right? And the next scene is even more promising. While Novak rants, a camera crew from his show, “The Novak Element,” is embedded with an automated infantry platoon on patrol in Tehran, feeding live video back to the studio with the aim of demonstrating the safety and efficiency of the Omnicorp robots. Instead, they catch on video a suicide attack on the drone soldiers by fed-up Iranian civilians, including a pre-teen boy. Naturally both Novak and the Pentagon recognize at once that neither of their purposes will be served by allowing the “Novak Element” viewers to see a walking tank shooting a child to pieces on national TV, and the camera crew’s satellite link is swiftly cut off. This opening sequence represents exactly the kind of hard-hitting, discomfiting speaking of truth to complacency that would fully justify remaking RoboCop in 2014— but then that allergy to social criticism asserts itself. This business of American forces occupying Iran, terrorizing the populace with killer robots so impervious to attack that the opposition has been unable to make the invaders pay with even a single human life? The filmmakers never so much as mention it again, let alone try to sort through any of the implications.
Anyway, Sellars and his top minions, Liz Kline (Contagion’s Jennifer Ehle) and Tom Pope (Jay Baruchel, from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and This Is the End), are acutely conscious that they’ve got a public image problem. There are untold billions of dollars to be made in the domestic security and law enforcement markets, but federal law places those markets off limits, and will continue to do so as long as soldier drones are perceived to be nothing more than unthinking, remorseless killing machines. Then Sellars has a brainstorm. Omnicorp doesn’t just make killbots; the company is a leader in the field of medical robotics as well. In particular, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman, of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Fifth Element) is doing amazing work with prosthetic limbs, creating artificial arms and legs that respond to nervous impulses almost as sensitively as the real thing. The objection to robot cops is that they cannot be trusted to weigh safety and crime control against the proper respect for human life or civil rights, isn’t it? Well, what if Omnicorp put a man inside the machine? What if the firm offered not a robot cop, but a cyborg? So long as the brain controlling it were human, such a construct would legally be just a person with a very extensive set of prosthetic body parts, and therefore not covered under the Dreyfuss Act. And if that brain were augmented with microprocessors conferring a true robot’s superhuman precision and reaction time, plus a data link giving instant access to police records and a municipal security camera network, then the cyborg patrolman could act as a de facto goodwill ambassador for fully artificial intelligence, changing the citizenry’s mind about the machines that Sellars really wants to sell. All the company would need is a suitable subject— a police officer maimed in the line of duty, to whom the dehumanizing modifications could be spun as a second chance at a full and fulfilling life.
Enter Detective Lieutenant Alex J. Murphy of the Detroit Police Department (Joel Kinnaman, from The Invisible and The Darkest Hour). He and his partner, Sergeant Jack Lewis (The Road’s Michael K. Williams), have been occupied of late investigating possible ties between officers in their own precinct and gun-running crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garron, of Threshold), and they’re getting close enough that the crooked cops are starting to worry. Going against Vallon’s explicit orders (he’s too smart to want to court a cop-killing charge), they booby-trap Murphy’s car as it sits in his own driveway. The detective survives the resulting explosion, but just barely. Mid-21st-century medicine is immensely powerful, and the staff of the hospital that receives Murphy in the aftermath have little trouble keeping him alive once they have his condition stabilized. But after the doctors have amputated everything that needs to come off and extracted everything that needs to come out, it’s hard to dignify the future that Murphy faces with the term, “living.”
Obviously Murphy is just the man Sellars is looking for. While the detective is still on life support in the ICU, Omnicorp dispatches Dr. Norton and his assistant, Jae Kim (Aimee Garcia, from Dead Tone and Dragon Wars: D-War), to woo Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish, of Sucker Punch) with promises of a secret, experimental therapy that will let Alex be a fair approximation of his old self again. Clara, in such anguish that she’ll readily listen to anything that sounds the slightest bit like good news, signs the consent forms on Alex’s behalf, and when Murphy awakens in an Omnicorp lab complex somewhere in China, he can barely recognize himself. All that remains of his original body is his brain, his face, the minimum of skull structure necessary to support both, and enough of a cardio-pulmonary system to keep his three quarters of a head supplied with oxygenated blood, plus (nonsensically enough) his right hand. Everything else is armored prosthetics, clearly designed more with an eye toward revolutionizing urban pacification than with any notion of Murphy resuming his accustomed lifestyle. Understandably, Alex is shocked by this state of affairs, and the first thing he does upon getting a good look at himself is to beg Norton to let him die. Norton’s line of work has given him plenty of experience with that sort of despair, however, and he manages to talk Murphy into giving life as a cyborg a try.
The recovery therapy is a little odd, mind you. I mean, none of Norton’s other patients get run through combat simulations under the eye of retired special forces operative Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Harley, of Damnation Alley and A Nightmare on Elm Street). Those exercises are aimed at evaluating the new and improved Murphy’s performance against the standard EM-series battle drone, and the results are distinctly disappointing. It’s that independent judgement of Murphy’s that causes the problem. So long as he has to determine for himself how to handle every situation on an ad-hoc basis, a robot following an unvarying routine of stimulus-response will always get there faster and more predictably. So Sellars, the bastard, decides to cheat. He has Dr. Norton install a new processor in Murphy’s brain that takes over decision-making in a threat situation. Murphy will still think he’s in control of his actions, but in reality, the computer in his head will be doing it all. Thus begins a pattern whereby each new setback to Sellars’s dream of using Murphy to acclimate the public to robotic policing results in Norton receiving orders to disable more and more of the detective’s human mind.
There’s one glaringly obvious problem with that program, however. In this version of the story, Alex Murphy is was never legally dead, and his wife and son know what’s been done to him. So when Alex begins acting less and less like himself, Clara is inevitably going to notice, and any attempt by Sellars and his minions to keep the Murphys apart is going to accomplish little but to make her hopping mad. Since the whole point of the RoboCop project is to win over public opinion, it’ll be a real pain in Omnicorp’s collective ass if Clara takes her mounting grievances to the press. Still, Clara Murphy is little people, and Omnicorp knows how to handle little people. In the long run, the more serious threat to Sellars is Alex himself. The CEO’s current strategy for keeping Murphy tractable is to suppress his humanity with electronic add-ons, but it turns out that the human spirit is not so easy to tamp down as Sellars believes. Occasionally, that ungovernable willfulness works to the company’s advantage, as when Murphy solves his own virtual murder, and brings down Antoine Vallon and his mob. Not even the best-funded marketing department can buy optics like those! But some indication of how far Murphy is willing to pursue his one-cyborg war on crime emerges when he and Lewis follow the trail of evidence from Vallon not just into the Detroit Police Department, but all the way to Chief Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, from Secrets in the Walls and The Cell), their own ultimate boss. Forget for the moment how it looks to have Omnicorp’s new miracle of law-enforcement busting the chief of police. What Sellars should be worrying about is the further implications of Murphy’s willingness, even under what amounts to electronic mind control and sedation, to bite the hand that feeds him should it be exposed as corrupt or criminal. If Murphy ever figures out what Sellars has been doing to him, or learns what kind of hardball the Omnicorp lawyers are playing against his family, there’s going to be cybernetically enhanced hell to pay.
There’s an important but oft-ignored rule in pop-culture criticism: review the thing that actually exists, not the thing you wanted it to be instead. It’s very difficult to keep that commandment, though, when you’re reviewing something that continually teases you with what might have been, and when what might have been is so conspicuously better than what is. When I first heard that a RoboCop remake was in the works, I figured it was being developed within the context of the current vogue for huge-budget superhero movies, and from a business point of view, I’m still sure that’s more or less true. Jose Padilha frequently nudges RoboCop in that direction, too, but what Joshua Zetumer wrote was a legit science fiction story. That’s the upside. The downside is that the sci-fi story in question is a fairly trite celebration of humanity in triumph over computerized adversity that keeps dangling just out of our reach a satire of 21st-century American society every bit as biting as Paul Verhoeven’s hatchet-job on the 80’s. The argument over the proper scope of use for unmanned military hardware— both the remote-control variety currently in service and the artificially intelligent versions that will surely be developed sooner or later— is one that we very much need to be having, and it’s one that science fiction is uniquely well placed to facilitate by running high-profile thought experiments on some of the possible scenarios. RoboCop promises to weigh in on the subject with that brilliant, troubling scene in Iran, but then reneges in favor of yet another exploration of the boundaries of humanness. That too almost yields a film of disturbing relevance, because Murphy’s transformation comes about through an act of corporate malfeasance that exposes the corruptibility of institutions ranging from law enforcement to medicine to journalism. But Zetumer can’t seem to settle on a clear vision of just how corruptible those institutions are, and Padilha is ever ready to chuck everything overboard for the sake of another big-ass shootout.
Take a close look at Dr. Dennett Norton, and I think you’ll see what I mean about corruptibility. Norton is heavily invested in his image of himself as a healer, and he’s apparently been holding out for years against pressure from Sellars to put his skill at designing and constructing robot body parts at the disposal of Omnicorp’s military technology division. But then one day, Sellars comes to him offering unlimited funding and an unprecedented challenge, the kind for which scientists who surmount them win big, prestigious awards. Yes, it’s a paramilitary project, but it’s also a lifesaving project. That “also” is sufficient salve to Norton’s conscience, and compromise go the principles. It’s insidious, though. Once Norton has committed to “fixing” Murphy, it becomes very difficult to stand up for the scruples he has left, and Sellars is able to push him further and further beyond his professed moral limits. That’s good drama in and of itself, as is Norton’s subsequent side-switching redemption. The trouble is that Zetumer has by that point permitted Norton’s corruption to progress so far that the turn back into the light rings false. The doctor has no convincing reason for balking when he does, no impetus for a moment of clarity, no line he’s called upon to cross that he hasn’t crossed already. It’s especially frustrating because if Norton’s fall and rise were handled more coherently, he would serve as a much-needed corrective to RoboCop’s lazy overall tendency to seek refuge in the bad apple theory. But to write Norton coherently would require owning up to the fact that corruption has a momentum of its own, plenty strong enough to drag good people along in its wake. That in turn would require admitting that commerce, when treated as a good unto itself, invariably poisons everything it touches, which is a much bolder stance than anybody involved in this movie’s creation was evidently prepared to take.
Still, within the disappointing limits that RoboCop sets for itself, it’s a fairly decent film. Joel Kinnaman never has to portray the kind of utter and irrevocable loss of self that Peter Weller did, but he’s fully satisfactory as a man striving to avoid just that. Gary Oldman sells Dennett Norton well enough that the gaps in his character arc become really evident only in retrospect. The action sequences, for the most part, are just jittery enough to convey some sense of the chaos of battle without becoming impossible for the audience to follow. (On the other hand, demerits are due for Padilha thoroughly wasting the atmospheric possibilities of the clash between Murphy and Vallon’s mob, which he stages in a blacked-out industrial building, illuminated only by the muzzle flashes of a zillion firearms.) The Omnicorp drones, both the humanoid EMs and the tank-like EDs, are solid designs, bearing no influence from Michael Bay’s execrable Transformers— and although the RoboCop suit is simply awful, it’s redeemed somewhat by an amusing scene between Sellars and Tom Pope that all too believably explains how it got that way. In fact, I’d be not the least bit surprised if the scene in question turned out to be an un-doctored transcript of the production design meeting that set the new RoboCop’s final look. The Pat Novak segments are often hilarious, with Samuel L. Jackson rendering the pundit as a belligerently screwy hybrid of Bill O’Reilly and Herman Cain. But the best thing about RoboCop is the characterization of Raymond Sellars. Michael Keaton plays him essentially as the evil twin of Steve Jobs— affable, charismatic, perfectly sure of himself, and insufferably arrogant in a weird, soft-spoken way. Like virtually all real-world villains, Sellars is unshakably convinced that he’s making the world a better place, and the notion of second-guessing himself even for a moment never crosses his mind. His demeanor can make the unspeakable sound reasonable, so that it’s no trouble to accept him insinuating his projects past the ethical defenses of people like Norton. Here truly is a glimpse of the RoboCop remake that should have been.