“Make him more tactical. Let’s go with black.”
—Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).
Somebody once said that director Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film RoboCop was the best comic book movie not based on a comic book ever made. Maybe it was, and is, but it was also a violent and wicked satire which, given the current issues of drone warfare abroad and the militarization of domestic law enforcement, seems almost uncannily prophetic. While we’re still decades away from being able to interface a human being with a cybernetic body, we’re much closer to aerial drones with at least limited capacity to make their own decisions, which means the question is already here: Do we grant machines the right to kill humans?
As in the 1987 original, the global conglomerate OmniCorp has what it believes is the answer to being able to deploy mechanized police officers on American streets: Fuse an actual human being with an indestructible robot body to at least give the appearance that a human being is still in charge of mortal judgment. And, as in 1987, OmniCorp chooses Detroit police officer Alex Murphy, with Joel Kinnaman (TV’s The Killing) replacing Peter Weller in the role of the ill-fated Murphy. Months after his “death,” Murphy awakens in a lethally powerful cyborg body, but can his innate humanity survive and override OmniCorp’s dispassionate programming which controls him?
There the similarities between the versions end. Obviously, the updated effects are going to be smoother, especially in the animation of RoboCop’s immediate predecessor, the entirely robotic ED-209. Just as obviously, advances in construction and materials are going to render the RoboCop suit itself lighter and more streamlined, although I suspect it’s computer-augmented in a couple of scenes, and certainly is entirely in action scenes where Robo is running or jumping.
Gone are the touches that rendered Verhoeven’s and Weller’s version so human. Kinnaman isn’t given the opportunity to humanize Murphy the way Weller was, and, although we meet Murphy’s wife and son before his demise and resurrection, scenes featuring them have nowhere near the emotional impact of Verhoeven’s scene in which Murphy finally remembers his human life while exploring his now empty former home as memories come flooding back. Corporate baddies Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle, and Jay Baruchel are bland and boring compared to the gleeful villainy of Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, and Miguel Ferrer. Among the cast, only Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises) and Jackie Earle Haley (Dark Shadows) are able to bring any interest to their characters as, respectively, the Frankensteinian scientist who creates RoboCop, and OmniCorp’s military advisor, disdainful of the whole “RoboCop” initiative.
This RoboCop is actually a much more serious film, but that renders it a less enjoyable movie. Absent is the perverse satire. I remember the original scene where bureaucratic minions are jumping around screaming at Robo that he isn’t allowed to access city computer records. He offers them his fist, from which extends his mechanical probe, in perfect imitation of flipping them off. There is nothing similar, no sense of humor at all, in the remake, which suffers disastrously from being rated PG-13 instead of R. Note to Hollywood: Sequels, prequels, remakes, or reboots of franchises like RoboCop, Alien, or Predator MUST be R-rated. Otherwise, they will fail to satisfy either established fans of the franchises or prospective new ones. There is, however, one image—that of what is truly left, physically, of Murphy as he is mated to his robotic prosthesis—which is as horrific as anything I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s the only scene that elicits ANY kind of emotion.
The final thing that relegates this remake to mediocrity is the absence of Nancy Allen’s character, Murphy’s partner, Officer Lewis. Oh, there is a Lewis, whom we see in a couple of scenes, but it’s lip service only. There’s no relationship there, unlike the chemistry between Weller and Allen, with Lewis on a guilt trip because she survived and Murphy didn’t, or her possibility of redemption when she realizes Murphy’s soul is still inside the armor. There’s no ultimate surge of triumph, as when Weller’s Robo, asked his name, finally affirms, “Murphy,” as his individuality completely reasserts itself over his programming.
The remake almost completely misses the point, and neither cursory use of Basil Poledouris’s original musical score nor bookends with Samuel L. Jackson as a fascist TV commentator can help. Almost eerily fulfilling its own prophecy, this RoboCop is passionless, with no soul inside the armor. Take your money and your two hours and watch instead Verhoeven’s 1987 original, which now looks even more like a classic.