The Fresh Perspective: Robocop (2014)

Life is full of uncertainties, but if there’s one thing I’ve always had faith in, it’s that the prefix “robo” can make anything cooler. Guitars are pretty rad, but a robo-guitar?  Ten times cooler. After all, who wouldn’t want a guitar that can perform complex mathematical functions while you play an explosive solo?

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I love the original Robocop. After dying in the line of duty, Officer Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller) finds new life as Robocop, the ultimate law enforcement machine. He looked and sounded like an ordinary cop crossed with a vending machine, but that didn’t stop him from taking down criminals and yelling out his catchphrase: “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!”

DO NOT DELETE OR  PURGE FROM MERLIN ROBOCOP, Peter Weller, 1987, (c) Orion/courtesy Everett Collection

But what really made Robocop special was how smart it was. On the surface, it doesn’t sound like a very profound movie: a dead officer gets turned into a crime-fighting machine by a company called Omnicorp and goes off to make the streets of Detroit safer.  But Robocop used this simple setup as the foundation for a tale about a man’s psyche fighting to eclipse the machine that he’s become. Throughout the film, Robocop shows signs of humanity bleeding through the programming. Early on in Robocop, there’s a scene where Officer Murphy shows his partner, Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) how he learned to twirl his gun on his finger like his son’s favorite television hero, T. J. Lazer. Later on, Robocop is shooting targets in the firing range, he twirls his gun before putting it away, despite not being programmed to do so.

So that’s the original Robocop: an action film with a surprising amount of braininess.  If you dig sci-fi movies like Starship Troopers, The Running Man, and Total Recall, the original Robocop is a tree up which you should be barking. But every rose has its thorns, and while the sequels to Robocop weren’t too great, it has one thorn that’s far more painful. I’m talking about Robocop from 2014, directed by José Padilha, which tried to reinvent the law-enforcement machine for a modern audience.

ROBOCOP - 2014 FILM STILL - (L-R): Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman - Photo Credit: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures and MGM Pictures.

To its credit, the newer Robocop isn’t merely an adaptation of the plot from the original.  It sets itself apart from the older movies with a story that feels more in-line with modern society. The year is 2028, Omnicorp has been building military drones for use overseas, and they want to use their warzone technology for law enforcement on American soil. Unfortunately, there are laws against unleashing unmanned drones on the home front, but Omnicorp discovers a new option when Officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is grievously wounded by a car bomb. With the aid of Dr. Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman), Officer Murphy awakens in a metal chassis as Robocop, Omnicorp’s attempt to exploit a legal loophole and put one of their machines into law enforcement.

Alongside the new story, Padhila’s Robocop boasted some truly impressive effects.  Unsurprisingly, this movie features plenty of robots, all of which are meticulously detailed with tons of moving parts, and the chaotic cornucopia of explosions in this film would even satisfy Michael Bay.

But sadly, that’s almost all that the newer Robocop really has going for it. It tries to be both a smart movie and a dumb action flick, and winds up falling apart on both fronts.

In the original Robocop, there was a ton of focus on Officer Murphy’s struggle to influence his new, computer-y body. It was all reasonably subtle at first, with tiny facets of Murphy’s personality showing through Robocop’s programmed behavior. On the other hand in the new Robocop, Murphy is in near-total control of his robot body the instant he wakes up. Later on, scientists surgically alter Murphy’s brain to put the computer in control, and Dr. Norton tells his associate, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), “…the human element will always be present! Fear, instinct, bias, compassion, they will always interfere with the system!” Here’s no sophistication or subtlety in having a character yell about Murphy’s struggle to overpower the machine, and they don’t much address this concept later on, and never with the skill exhibited in the original Robocop.

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On top of that, Robocop’s design in the newer movie fails to capture everything that made the old Robocop so rad. The older Robocop walked slowly, with tons of mechanical whirring and clanking, but few things could slow him down. He was as slow as a robotic iceberg with a zeal for law enforcement. But the new Robocop?  He runs like an Olympic athlete. He’s not an unstoppable tank, he’s a robotic ninja.  It makes him less interesting, and turns him into, essentially, a regular cop with tons of armor. Along with his heightened agility, there’s far more emphasis put on making Robocop look cool. He’s sleek and shiny, and thanks to Raymond Sellars, painted black to up his appeal.  All of this cheapens Robocop’s character, as there’s little about him that makes him truly robotic or inhuman, which also leads to the newer Robocop’s attempts at profundity seeming shallow and inelegant.

The new Robocop is an example of a film that looks to revive a past movie, but doesn’t grasp what made the original so good. It tries to be both a big-budget action film and a thought-provoking film, but sadly, Robocop fails on both fronts. There’s some impressive special effects on display, and it could be a good watch for anyone who wants to chew up a couple of hours, but if you want to see the superior film, watch the original Robocop. The old one is smart yet campy, with clever writing and interesting philosophical concepts folded into the story of a man trying to assert himself over a machine. The new one is simply a generic action movie, and if you want to see something good, new Robocop is a movie to avoid.

Score: 3/10

*Images from nypost.com, businessinsider.com, and robocop.com  Video from MOVIES coming soon

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