Fashionable as it may be for me to eviscerate José Padilha’s movie as a wild divergence from the original, while somehow being utterly mundane in its unwillingness to divert from the parent film’s narrative structure, I’m not going to go there in this review. From where I sit, the key to remaking Robocop – unnecessary as the venture may be – is for the story to be subversive. Reaganomics may be a thing of the past, but there’s no shortage of contemporary ideology for RoboCop to skewer.
On that note, the first few minutes of RoboCop gave me reason to hope. The pre-credit reel opens on an army of ED-209s and Omnicorp (The child company of OCP) branded Cylons patrolling the streets of Terhan. Samuel L. Jackson, acting as a future Bill O’Reilly, poses a question to the audience: “If we can have autonomous drones in our wars abroad, why not do so at home?” Who needs Media Break when a warmongering yellow journalist, operating his show from inside The Minority Report, can press his finger against the pulse of drone warfare? “This might not suck,” I thought to myself.
Queue the near-dubstep EDM remix of Basil Poledouris’ Robocop theme, and hear the sound of my falling expectations. No good comes from dub step.
My mistake, and simultaneously the movie’s greatest sin, was hoping RoboCop might have something interesting to say about drone warfare. Said dialogue, however, is summarized as, be afraid of drones, full stop. In this vein, the Robocop project isn’t a corporate knife fight between powerful executives; it’s a scam perpetrated against the government’s drone prohibition, which is never really explored beyond being convenient to the plot. Alex Murphy is little more than part of a comprehensive PR campaign whose goal is to make drones and robots seem more human, thus dismantling public fear of domestic police robots…somehow. Pay no attention to the fact that a cyborg is not the same thing as a robot. Nevermind how the ED-209s and Cylons appear to work quite well. So what if a OCylon shot a kid holding a knife? The kid charged onto the scene of a foiled suicide bombing, intent to misbehave. Prove to me a human soldier wouldn’t have made the same call. I’m afraid simple technophobia doesn’t get the job done in this case.
The moral arguments against the use of drones in RoboCop are nothing new, either. I’ve seen richer discussions on “who is pulling the trigger” in an episode of Castle. At its best, all RoboCop can muster is some unoriginal discussion on human agency versus “the system.” In a world where The Matrix wasn’t a thing, it might pass for original. As it stands, meh.
This leads me to ask, does anything else really matter when the movie’s central conceit is so weakly developed that it can’t hold water against a network television detective comedy? Who cares about arguments over RoboCop as a PG-13 affair versus the original movie’s hard R-rating? Why bother getting bent out of shape over Lewis’ transformation into a bit part wasted on Michael K. Williams? Omar’s coming, indeed. These things, up to and including Detroit looking like a great place to live, are little more than ephemera which might otherwise be forgiven if RoboCop’s screenplay hadn’t decided to forget that the most important part of a story about man’s relationship with technology is telling said story.
RoboCop’s failure as a remake has less to do with the original movie and more to do with its inability to find either a spine or a voice. Jose Padilha teases us with the potential for a critical look into militarized robots. Instead, we get a C- story of police corruption and some nattering about systems of control befitting a first-year philosophy student. Were this movie not operating above the safety net of the Robocop franchise, I can’t imagine it getting greenlit on balance of its screenplay or acting. Who knew Joel Kinnaman could make Peter Weller seem animated? Let us not condemn RoboCop as a bad remake, so much as a poorly written affair, utterly incapable of doing anything other than shouting, “ROBOTS” while doing jazz hands.
Director: José Padilha
Writers: Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, and Michael Miner
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Keaton