In the early stages of José Padilha’s RoboCop reboot we are introduced to a man who has lost both of his arms. Gary Oldman’s Dr Dennett Norton has fashioned for him two robotic replacements, operated via impulses from the brain. The man formerly played Spanish guitar, presumably quite well, and is tentative about playing again, fearing his mechanical arms will disappoint him. In fact he plays quite beautifully. His wife is touched. So is he. And that’s when it all goes wrong. The arms betray him. Dr Norton explains that its because he got too emotional; the software/interface/whatever can’t handle it; it’s better to remain neutral. The man is left bemused. Art requires an emotional connection, otherwise what is it?
RoboCop circa 2014 doesn’t claim to be art. Just as well, really, because Padilha’s film suffers a similar paradox as the man above – it wants to be exciting, dangerous, provocative even… but it can’t risk losing control. The result is a humdrum pointless husk of a movie, the emotional core of which is as comatose and sterile as the linear motions of the wearily predictable screenplay, plot points connecting with the inevitability of a basic circuit. You only wish that it dared to break its simplistic programming and give you something to care about.
It’s ironic because when compared to Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original – a far from perfect yet nevertheless energised and prickly little slice of sci-fi in overdrive – this new RoboCop would appear the more emotionally engaging of the two. Far more time is given over here to establishing and developing how honest cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), struck down by a car bomb, is the victim of corporate maneuvering; and more specifically how his transformation into a law-enforcing cyborg tears at his family’s core. Even when he is transformed into the titular character, Kinnaman is allowed far more emotional range than Peter Weller was ever afforded…
And yet, no matter how bluntly the film hammers home his wife’s pain (Abbie Cornish, giving it her all for some reason), his son’s pain (permanently wide-eyed) or Murphy’s own personal dismay, the film remains inert, disengaged, hopelessly dull. Instead of resonating, these scenes underline the callousness of Padilha’s movie. RoboCop 2014 tells the story of a product created to mislead the general public, to imitate humanity and creativity when it ‘feels’ nothing of the sort. And similarly, the film imitates emotional resonance because, one senses, it’s creators have heard that you’re supposed to have that sort of thing in a movie, aren’t you?
Verhoeven didn’t care about hitting focus-grouped emotional notes in the least. But he inadvertently struck them more successfully than this shell does.
So you’re not gonna get all weepy. Whoever said that the audience for a film called RoboCop ever wanted to, right? In which case, let’s let the film fall back on what it’s selling; sci-fi action and cool-as-fuckedness. Again the film flounders. The action scenes here are presented mostly in headache-inducing shaky-cam, presumably deployed in an effort to disguise the lack of creativity in their set-up and execution. Or else they’re drowned out in poor lighting or vaguely-disorientating strobe effects. Walking out of this movie nobody will be discussing ‘set-pieces’; they won’t remember any (I’m not sure there were any…).
The cool factor is neutered by the strict adherence to PG-13 safety, placing this movie a million miles from the original. I’m not saying that Verhoeven’s ultra-violence is necessary – it’s very gratuity is more a signature than a prerequisite – but Padilha’s film is so obviously softened, so rigourously varnished as to remove the element of risk or danger from every single lifeless frame. Even the bad language here is bleeped.
It’s a shame because you can sense how self-aware this movie is. There are attempts to channel the same satirical vein that Verhoeven tapped; Samuel L Jackson’s TV personality is an impartial right-wing caricature, OmniCorp’s whole approach to the RoboCop project is a PR exercise first and any benefit to public safety comes a distant second… And yet these elements too feel watered down, included because you’re supposed to pay homage to the original. It’s part of the reboot rulebook. And everything here is straight out of the rulebook, even the fan-service.
You can sense the potential, what the makers were going for. Significant supporting players (the aforementioned Oldman and Jackson, the very-game Michael Keaton) suggest someone somewhere was hoping for a franchise like Nolan’s Batman series. They’re not going to get their wish because the creative department simply isn’t here, and without that there’s nothing save for unintentionally hilarious moments, and not even enough of those to make the ordeal more fun.
Beholden to the old and without enough good ideas to feel new (even the suit makes our ‘hero’ look like, at best, a pissed off courier), RoboCop 2014 stumbles into every pitfall conceivable. On its own terms, it’s simply forgettable. I had to look up one of the bad guys on imdb because I forgot his name, and I only watched this movie a few hours ago. The character’s called Antoine Vallon. So there ya go.
The final nail in the coffin comes when the film itself admits defeat and puts Murphy back in his old colours again, as if to say, “Yeah, you were right, we never should’ve messed with it.” If only someone had learned that lesson before shooting began.