Directed by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, 1987’s RoboCop is a sci-fi satire that explores themes of greed, privatization, capitalism, dystopia, and identity. The film spawned two theatrical sequels, two animated series, and two live-action television series – not to mention comic books, video games, toys, and theme park rides.
Because the RoboCop franchise was popular and profitable in the ’80s, it was only a matter of time until Hollywood resurrected it. For an industry that rides a fine line between creativity and commerce, movie studios see remakes as a way to mitigate financial risk. Why take a chance on new ideas and original scripts when they can dust off a recognizable brand and put a “new spin” on it, appealing to the audience’s collective nostalgia for said brand? For studios, remakes operate on the simple principle that, even if it sucks, it will still make money.
Written by newcomer Joshua Zetumer, Padilha’s RoboCop takes place in 2028, with multinational conglomerate OmniCorp at the center of robotic technology. Overseas, their drones have been used by the military for years – adding billions to OmniCorp’s bottom line. Now OmniCorp wants to replace civilian law enforcement with their products, but the United States government has passed an act outlawing the use of military robots on American soil.
OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) asks his marketing team, along with with scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), to create a new law enforcement product that can be “sold” to the American public by making a machine with a human conscience: RoboCop.
When Detroit Police Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is critically injured in the line of duty, he becomes a prime candidate for the RoboCop program. After getting consent from Murphy’s wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), OmniCorp outfits what remains of Murphy with state-of-the-art technology that gives him enhanced strength and agility and turns his brain into a criminal database.
So far, the basic elements of Verhoeven’s film are intact. You’ve got a corrupt mega-corporation that deals in military weaponry, a good cop killed in the line of duty, and there’s even a hint of political commentary and satire with Samuel L. Jackson‘s character, Pat Novak, host of The Novak Element. The Novak Element is this remake’s version of the original film’s Media Break segments, substituting Casey Wong and Jess Perkins for a Bill O’Reilly-esque political pundit — think Roger Allam as Lewis Prothero in V For Vendetta.
The first 10 minutes of Padilha’s film are promising – dare I say intriguing – but the story falls apart almost immediately. For one thing, Alex Murphy isn’t killed but rather injured by a car bomb planted by some crooked cops under the payroll of crime boss Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). When you think of the original film, you think of its three amazing villains: Miguel Ferrer’s Bob Morton, Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker, and Ronny Cox as Dick Jones. The villains in this remake are practically nonexistent. Keaton is a serviceable scoundrel, but pales in comparison to OCP’s Morton and Jones. Vallon is such a dull, generic, and completely nonthreatening bad guy that he feels like a villain from A Good Day to Die Hard or [insert late ’90s Dolph Lundgren movie].
The other big difference here is that Alex Murphy isn’t pronounced dead – he doesn’t actually die. Murphy survives the car bomb but is badly injured – an amputee covered in 4th degree burns who will be stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In the original film, RoboCop doesn’t know who he is. He experiences residual memories from Murphy’s life and eventually returns to his former home, only to discover his wife and son have long since moved away, believing him to be dead.
In this film, Murphy awakens with all of his memories and emotions intact – he is fully aware of who he is. Gone is the haunted, tormented Murphy – the man who lost his sense of identity and everything that made him human. RoboCop is actually too emotional in this film, which is where Oldman’s Dr. Norton comes in. OmniCorp is unhappy with RoboCop because he hesitates – he still thinks and acts like a human. In order to make him perform better, Norton tampers with Murphy’s brain, making him believe that his tactical decisions are his own when OmniCorp is actually in control.
As Norton explains to Sellars, “It’s the illusion of free will!” Thanks for spelling that one out for us, Commissioner Gordon. Norton also discovers that he can make Alex more efficient (more machine-like) by decreasing his dopamine levels. Basically, in this re-imagining, RoboCop needs anti-depressants to perform properly. Yes, you read that right, a cyborg police officer needs to pop a Xanax because he’s “too emotional.”
So, if RoboCop doesn’t lose his memories or his emotions, or his family – who stick around for some really awkward, unintentionally funny moments – then what part of his humanity does Murphy actually lose? Well, basically just his physical body. Under the armor, Murphy is nothing more than a brain, a face, a hand, and a gross collection of vital organs in a see-through plexiglass torso.
How more wrong-minded could you be in approaching a RoboCop remake? It isn’t the body that makes us human, but the soul! Our memories and emotions make us what we are, and to rob Alex Murphy of those things and turn him into a machine — into a product — is what made the original film so powerful.
It’s impossible to list all of the ways the RoboCop remake goes out of its way to insult fans of the original film. In addition to the complete mishandling of the character of Alex Murphy, the makers of the film decided to take Nancy Allen’s Anne Lewis character and transform her into a generic male partner (who offers absolutely nothing to the narrative). There’s the terrible dialogue – the throwaway “I’d buy that for a dollar!” line – and the awful music, including the blasphemous act of remixing Basil Poledouris’s classic score with dubstep.
This RoboCop is all of the hardware with none of the heart. It’s silly and shameful and ill-conceived from top to bottom, squandering a solid cast on a script that doesn’t understand the character of Alex Murphy or what makes the original RoboCop a classic.
Don’t see this movie. If you really want to know what RoboCop is all about, buy this beautifully remastered Blu-ray of Verhoeven’s original 1987 film for $7.99 and enjoy the only RoboCop film that will stand the test of time.