So I had an idea. Sometimes, in an attempt to keep my reviews between 1000 and 1500 words I tend to skim over a few aspects of a film. Sometimes I’ll even just not go into a certain aspect if I feel other aspects of praise or failure adequately convey the film’s overall quality. The recent remake of RoboCop is one such film that presented me with so much to discuss, both positive and negative, that fitting it all into one review would have been troublesome. So I thought to myself, why don’t I try something new? What I’m going to attempt to do in this post is dissect the various aspects of the film that I feel deserve to be talked about. How they effect the film’s story. How they elevate it. How they drag it down. Basically, my attempt at a little bit of a film studies style dissertation on production, story and the art of film. If this works I may start doing these for various other films. I always find it more interesting to do dissections of this nature with the more flawed films out there. You can learn a lot about what to do in cinema from Taxi Driver, but do you learn much of what not to do? So, click the link below to be whisked away to a very, very spoiler heavy dissection of RoboCop 2014.
Now this is likely to skip back and forth between elements of thematics, story & aesthetics, so don’t be surprised if I skip from discussing the appearance of the suit to the relevance of emotion to a cyborg. As mentioned there will be a hell of a lot of spoilers, so, if you haven’t seen the film you may want to save reading this until later. Unless, of course, you don’t care about spoilers. In which case, carry on.
Lets start with what was seen, prior to release, as being a sure sign of the remakes inevitable failure. Well, other than it being a remake. A lot of people were ready to write off the film right away because of the entirely black suit. People instantly made comparisons of its appearance to the Batsuit from Batman Begins and the armour designs of the Mass Effect games. Both are valid comparisons. They are valid because the fragmented armour design, as used on the new RoboCop is very much a modern technique that has been used often over the last few years in many mediums. It is merely a sign of the times within which we live.
Now some would take that as a chance to bash the new RoboCop for dating itself so easily. But to do that would ignore that the RoboCop of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film was also very much of the time. That RoboCop was based around the appearance of (then) modern sports cars, all aerodynamic and curved. A metallic sheen given to emphasise the robotic nature of the character with only the lower jaw on display to inform the viewer of how little physical humanity is left within Murphy himself. It also reflected the leaning towards the bulkier heroes of the 80s. These days the hero characters in action films are leaner. They’re more agile and usually reliant on quick wits and physical speed to be better than their antagonist. Modern heroes are also near infallible in their actions.
The modern RoboCop suit is design in a way that is far more form fitting, built to emphasise agility and natural movement. Joel Kinnamen’s movements are a lot less restricted by the suit than Paul Weller’s. The original intention for RoboCop’s movement in the 1987 film was to be more snake like and fluid, but upon wearing the suit for the first time it became apparent this wasn’t to be possible. As a result Weller and his movement coach Moni Yakim devised slower, but more precise, machine like, motions which resulted and informed the entire performance Weller gives on the original film. This modern suit does nothing to effect how Kinnaman performs. As such he is free to move as he would if he were not in a robotic suit and the selling of the reality of his situation is lessened.
When in combat the new RoboCop moves with a precise fluidity that can occasionally look like a sped up version of Weller’s RoboCop. In these moments Kinnaman’s RoboCop feels more like a man in a machine, but outside of these scenes that is not the case. I’ll get more into the performance of Kinnaman as Murphy/RoboCop later as this difference in his movement really does have another effect on the film as a whole. What matters is that the new suit is designed to minimise the effect of a man being in a machine. He even spends the majority of the film with his face fully exposed. For the first 20 minutes or so of RoboCop being in the film the suit is presented in similar shades of grey and blue to the original suit. If ever there was evidence needed for how much a colour choice can effect the impact of a costume the moment the suit is turned black is the moment we see that without the grey metal the entire impression the suit gives us is changed. The metallic appearance gave RoboCop a definite man in a machine vibe. He is still sleeker in these scenes but the grey makes all the difference, especially the visor part which, when down, looks even less featureless than the original suit. When the suit is black and his visor moves into position he looks like he’s wearing some sort of sunglasses/cycle helmet fashion statement. The film ends with a scene where RoboCop is back in his grey suit, which feels a lot like a hastily added extra scene to appease the fans. One aspect of the suit is not “corrected” though. That being…
THE HUMAN HAND
Oh man, that human hand RoboCop now has. I had hoped there would be a reason to it existing. I mused in an earlier piece that maybe it would be used to represent the Right Hand of God. A moment I realised even then was likely expecting a little too much from this film. In a preview video I had seen they described the hand as being there because the government in the film’s universe require a human to be pulling the trigger, the hand being the indicator of humanity apparently. It was also mentioned as being a human hand to shake as a PR move by Omnicorp. None of this is mentioned in the film. Not once is the human hand so much as acknowledged. There’s a few moments where something good could have been done with it, but they never come to pass.
In one scene Gary Oldman’s Doctor Dennett shows Murphy what is left of his body inside the suit. In a fairly effective scene we see all the sections of his armour being removed until only his head (with an exposed brain), his windpipe and lungs and his hand are left. His hand is just kind of floating there in mid air. I honestly kept looking at it in this scene to see if there was anything attached to it holding it in place. The fingers are resting on a vertical pad so unless becoming RoboCop involved being bitten by a radioactive spider I couldn’t figure how it was floating there. It’s very weird.
At the film’s climax there is a scene where Murphy, all hell bent on arresting Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellars for being suddenly cartoon evil, is forced to shoot off his own arm in order to rescue his wife and child. His arm is trapped under a fallen ED-209 you see, because this RoboCop is just clumsy like that. The arm he shoots off is not the arm with the human hand. I mused in the same previous post mentioned earlier that I thought he would lose his hand by the end of the film. The loss of the hand would represent one of the last remaining pieces of his humanity being taken away. Why did this not happen in the film? Did their order of RoboCop gloves come only with left hand ones? There could have been a moment where his arm is trapped, he knows he’ll need to remove his arm in order to keep fighting but he’s staring at his human hand realising that if he removes this he’s down to a face and lungs. He’ll never be able to touch his wife or child with his human hand. Could have been a somewhat tense and powerful moment there. Instead he realises he’s trapped and just guns his robo arm to pieces and carries on. I suppose it did stop him being able to grab his little electric bullet firing gun for the rest of the evening. So, a missed opportunity from a wasted and quite pointless aesthetic choice.
VILLAINY OR LACK THEREOF
Remember the villains from the original RoboCop? Of course you bloody do. Clarence Boddicker and Dick Jones were an evil double whammy. One representing the grimy underbelly of a Detroit gone down the toilet whilst the other representing the ruthless and morally dubious business practices of the 1980s. Both still have a place in the world today. We have groups of irrationally motivated knife gangs in London, hell bent on harming others and laughing about it, as Clarence did. We have massive corporations taking our information and using it as a way of gaining extra currency. Hell, Google, not content with filming every street on the planet and exploiting your privacy for that lucrative data mining business model, recently purchased a company that make robotic flying drones. The relevance of the topic approached in the original RoboCop film are still important issues today and the film’s scarily accurate depiction of the future only serves to remind us that we’ve allowed that sort of corruption to continue despite being warned.
In the remake there is a drug lord is responsible for Murphy’s injuries, yes injuries, not death, that lead him to being turned into RoboCop. I cannot remember the name of this villain. I think it was Antoine Vallon, based on the imdb page for the film. Can’t be sure because he’s like 16 names down the credits. He is listed lower than the mayor of Detroit who is in about 2 scenes. Vallon (I’m committing to that name) has got some members of the police working for him, a case Murphy had taken it upon himself to investigate prior to being passively blown up by a car bomb. There’s about 5 months between him blowing up Murphy and him being killed by RoboCop in a scene that just kinda comes about before the start of the third act. In these 5 months it appears that Vallon does bugger and all about becoming a bigger crime lord. The next time we see him he’s just purchased some military weapons and then he’s dead. He is entirely forgettable. And I don’t just mean after the film has finished. When you get to the point where Murphy is investigating his own attempted murder you will likely have forgotten what Vallon looked like.
When it comes to Raymond Sellars, well he’s just morally dubious for the majority of the film. He is depicted as a modern business CEO in the style Steve Jobs. All ambition, visions of the future and an abundance of sweaters. His vision is entirely motivated by the fact that he can’t sell his military robots to US police forces meaning potentially huge market is beyond his reach. The creation of RoboCop, in the cybernetic form he is, is entirely controlled by the need for a human to be in control, as dictated by congress. This brings around an issue. The film now requires a bunch of scenes discussing the progress of Sellars political campaign to get a bill repealed. This is boring, as evidenced by similar nonsense in the Star Wars Prequels.
Another issue with Sellars is that he has nothing to do with the crime in the city, which I do not recall even being mentioned as a problem. There are corrupt cops but that goes with the territory these days. You can’t have any tale of police without at least one being on the take. As a tangential strand between Omnicorp and the drug lord Vallon the latter has acquired military weapons near the end which would have belonged to OCP, Omnicorp’s parent company. But Sellars hasn’t provided them with the weapons directly. He isn’t responsible for the corrupt cops, the crime on the streets and so is just a corrupt businessman. The reason RoboCop goes after Sellars at the film’s climax is because he orders RoboCop to be shut down for going about investigating his attempted murder. Sellars is worried that the military guns on the street will lead RoboCop to Omnicorp. So instead he attempts to murder Murphy… yeah. All this could have been avoided if he had some sort of prime objectives hard coded into RoboCop to prevent him from arresting someone in his position. Instead he just has…
In the film’s opening sequence, a fairly effective look at Omnicorp’s military robots being used in the Middle East through the eyes of a bias news team, we are introduced to a device which marks the news team as “red assets”. What this means is that, as far as the robots are concerned, they are the most valuable people in the area and must be protected at all costs. The robots cannot allow any harm to come to anyone wearing the small device attached to their wrists. This is never mentioned again for the following 2 hours until, at the very climax of the film, Sellars has one on and, as such, is preventing RoboCop from shooting him to death and such.
The problem with the red asset plot device is that, for one, we haven’t heard a single mention of it for two hours so it’s likely forgotten by many viewers by the end. Secondly, it isn’t a representation of any sort of corruption or evil on the part of Sellars or the world in which the film inhabits. He is using it as a survival tactic. This isn’t like Directive 4 from the original film, which was a product of paranoid bosses not wanting their own product turning against them. The fact that RoboCop is such an effective crime fighter would surely have made Sellars want some sort of fail safe in place to ensure he can’t be on the receiving end of Murphy’s cold hard justice. He has a tangential link to crime, not a direct one, but enough of one to bring him down. The reliance on a device made to keep people safe does show an element of him corrupting good will for his own needs, a cowardly act indeed, but it isn’t indicative of the world we are presented with, which in itself is a problem.
THE WORLD OF FUTURE DETROIT
The future of the RoboCop remake is actually one of those rare examples of a future that’s genuinely not too far removed from our own. For once Hollywood didn’t go crazy with their futuristic ideas. The robotics of the world are first introduced as robotic drones and ED-209’s in the Middle-East. This is something that, allowing for a few advances in technology, isn’t really that far away from now. You only have to look at some of the videos on Youtube of the sort of robotic creations being created now to see that, really, there’s not a massive amount of steps needed for us to get to the point where they could be fully automated and used in combat. The first time we see the cybernetic technology of the film’s world is when we first meet Dr Dennett as he’s helping a man that lost his arms play a guitar with his new cybernetic appendages. There’s a few examples of early versions of this sort of technology around now. So, the future of the remake is quite a nicely pitched one. Nothing looks too far ahead of any other tech. This was also true of the original RoboCop film with it’s predictions of disc based media formats and GPS enabled devices. So, yeah, I like the depiction of the future.
So what about the future version of Detroit? Pretty frigging poorly thought out to be honest. Firstly what company would establish it’s cybernetic headquarters in Detroit? When the original film was made Detroit was on a downturn. The crime addled and broken future was realising fears people likely had at the time. Now, Detroit is pretty much in a ruined state. Industry has died there and it’s could be considered to be in a worse state than even the original RoboCop depicted it. The Detroit of the remake seems like a pretty nice place. The only street crime we encounter is a few drug dealers that are “totally stoned”. The crime lord himself… who’s name I’ve forgotten again…Antoine Vallon, that’s it, pretty much seems to keep himself to himself. He only actually does anything criminal at the provocation of the police. It’s Murphy and Lewis that try to uncover the corrupt cops causing Vallon to react violently. Later he’s purchased some guns, to help defend himself against RoboCop, and he only uses them after RoboCop walks into his hideout and attacks.
What I’m saying here is that the majority of the depictions of crime seen in the film are reactionary to the presence of the police and RoboCop. No-one is getting mugged. No-one is getting murdered. We aren’t introduced to Vallon as he’s in the middle of a getaway, as we were with Boddicker. We don’t learn what sort of character he is beyond “criminal” through his actions. Compare that to Boddicker who, when we first see him, throws a member of his crew out the back of his truck just to distract the police. Vallon isn’t tied strongly into the final scenes. His lack of impact and character means his fate is largely unimportant.
All this means that we don’t really get what is wrong with Detroit and the crime rates of the future that would justify the creation of RoboCop. Boddicker was an extension of the criminality of the future. Vallon is just a generic criminal guy. The two corrupt cops are more interesting villains, and whilst they get theirs, there is at least 2 more people above them. We never get the feeling that Detroit is a mess. You never get the feeling that anyone’s life is any worse off than your own so the stakes are lessened, the requirement for RoboCop is lessened and the shits you give are lessened.
This RoboCop takes an interesting approach to the original films story by effectively being the inverse for the first hour. In the original Murphy had lost his identity and humanity when he was turned into a product of OCP. Here, Murphy is aware from the beginning of what he has been turned into and has to learn to accept what he is. Gradually, in an effort to make RoboCop as effective as the robots being used overseas, his humanity and control are gradually stripped away. This creates two problems. Firstly, the film then becomes about Murphy ending up in the same place he was at the start emotionally. The final scene even shows his family being allowed to visit him again, indicating that he has regained them too. What has been lost and gained here? He lost body parts and gained super powerful body parts. As a character he is in the same place.
Secondly, we spend so long watching his humanity gradually get stripped away that when he comes to regaining it and regaining control of his body through sheer will power it happens so quickly that it almost seems like it wasn’t that much of a big deal for him. Couple this with there being no discernible difference in his abilities after he’s turned near fully robotic, where he’s at his effective peak, and his abilities at the film’s climax and, again, you’re left wondering what he lost in the process of regaining his humanity. Remember that we have been told that he isn’t as effective when his human side is in control. This made no difference to him when he took out Vallon’s gang in pitch black darkness and when he out manoeuvred a pair of ED-209’s and the police sent to take him down. He even completes his goal minus an arm and still kicks all kinds of arse.
Because RoboCop is on some sort of victorious auto-pilot and because, during the sequences of the film where the story is attempting to be it’s most emotional, we’re never really given a chance to see much of a performance from Joel Kinnaman. During his introduction we get some sequences of Murphy being determined and going outside the rules to try to find the corrupt cops. He plays this so straight and bereft of personality that little impact can be made. Is a cop that willingly breaks the rules to expose internal corruption the best candidate to be the ultimate cop? From the perspective of a corporation looking for the perfect candidate I mean. The only other hint of personality is when he heads home to his family. In this scene everything is so wooden that it almost feels like his interactions with his wife and child are a scripted event he lives through day after day, the exact same way. There’s no chemistry. Only the most basic of familial bonding. It’s all very rigid and robotic.
This becomes Kinnaman’s problem. Given so little to work with in these scenes, as they aren’t particularly interesting scenes on their own, he has little to build on. When Murphy first sees himself as RoboCop and the scenes following he does a fine job of depicting anger and sadness at his situation but that all passes in no time and before we know it he’s joking about shooting Mattox at the end of a drill. We have a few scenes of character and personality before it’s stripped away. Normally this is effective. You show how much of a sympathetic or likeable character he is, then begin stripping that away so we root for its return. The trouble is that there is so little effective character work before he becomes RoboCop that we’ve likely already written him off as being a bit of a dull character anyway.
In the original film Murphy was on transfer to Detroit. We saw him reacting to the crime around him as he hadn’t witnessed it before. We saw him bonding with Lewis instantly. We see him note the weight of the situation he is in when a fellow cop’s name is removed from a locker. We see him practising a trick with his gun intended to impress his child (Who we don’t see until 40+ minutes into the film) and because he gets a kick from it. We see him risk his life because he knows there isn’t any back up available due to how thinly spread the police are. His bravery costs him his life. This is all before he becomes RoboCop. When his humanity is stripped away the groundwork has been done and we want to see him return. That was managed in 25 minutes. In the remake, 25 minutes in, we’re watching Abbie Cornish cry for the second time (of many) and the only personality trait we have from Murphy is “likes fighting crime” and “has kid and wife, may like kid and wife, can’t be sure, could be an act”.
VIOLENCE, THE LACK THEREOF & ITS IMPACT
Let me start by saying that I in no way think a film has to be violent to be good. The violence in the original RoboCop is legendary. It sold the world. It allowed juxtaposition between two violent scenes early on, showing how violence can be used in differing ways. It gave the film an edge. You felt the necessity of a violent weapon against crime such as RoboCop as he was born from the violence of Detroit. Murphy’s death was so graphic that you wanted to see him enact the same levels of violence on his killers.
The RoboCop remake does a fine job of trying to be as violent as it can in the PG-13 certificate but this is not enough. RoboCop’s main gun is a glorified taser. Murphy doesn’t actually die, he’s merely injured to a state where he may die but wouldn’t have the highest quality of life if he did survive. The car bomb that injures him to this state is quick and there’s no depicted pain, other that Abbie Cornish getting the first of many crying scenes out the way. As the world isn’t depicted as violent RoboCop’s existence seems like a bit of an extreme. A commentary could be made that this equals the dynamic of technology used by OmniCorp overseas in countries that can’t compete with the robotic troops. The idea that this sort of law enforcement is going too far. That would be fair, except RoboCop stuns and arrests almost all of the time. If he was meant to be a commentary on the use of technology by the military overseas as being an extreme, RoboCop by comparison isn’t extreme enough.
This leads me to what is…
THE ESSENTIAL PROBLEM WITH THIS REMAKE
The problem with the RoboCop remake is this; nothing is depicted or conveyed to its fullest degree. Everything is muted. Everything is bland. Every punch is pulled. Every moment of satire lacking teeth. The film has all the building blocks of being a decent reinterpretation of the original material but its lack of willingness to push any element of its construction to its fullest potential leads to a film that is, quite possibly, one of the most painfully average blockbuster style films in recent years. If the satire had been sharper. If the violence had been stronger. If the character arcs were better defined by performance and stronger writing. If there was a consistent tone. If anything had stood out, this could have been above average.
Usually even the most basic of films will have something memorable or some element that gives it an edge. G.I Joe Retaliation had its Saturday morning cartoon feel and occasional unique action scenes. Many of the Marvel superhero films are simplistic but they have character personality and fun humour. They also have the building of a real film universe. Even Ultra-fucking-violet had weird effects and a kinda cool fight sequence at the end to prop up the utter bullshite that was the rest of the film. RoboCop has nothing that stands out. Everything is average.
A film being average at everything can often be worse than being bad at everything. There’s a reason the phrase “so average it’s good” doesn’t exist. A good-bad film at least tends to have something memorably bad about it. That’s part of why we enjoy some traditionally bad films. Although the argument of what makes certain bad films good is a topic for another day. RoboCop 2014 is just a film of unremarkable qualities. It is the Arthur Dent of the film world. I’m sure some people will enjoy the film, but I doubt many will say it’s their favourite. As I said in my review, at least this RoboCop remake is trying to be a quality production. They have given enough shits to not completely balls up any one aspect. They just didn’t seem to do enough to make any one aspect stand out.
For every moment that approaches quality, such as the pitch black gunfight or the moral predicament of Dr Dennett, those same scenes are undermined by equally poor choices. The pitch black gun fight keeps switching to other different styles of shooting creating a scene with no clear voice. Dr Dennett is a sympathetic character but the story isn’t his. This means when we empathise with him we’re then dragged away to watch this boring ass robot cop do his boring ass things. A story about a visionary doctor asked to break his moral code to increasing degrees to remain funded is an interesting one. His story has emotion and allows the audience to ask themselves what they would do in the same situation. RoboCop’s story is told with so little gusto or awareness of it’s nature that it deflates the drama going on elsewhere in the film.
So, in closing, RoboCop is so bland a film that even Samuel L Jackson being crazy, Gary Oldman being Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton showing moments of crazy cannot save it. I had read that director Jose Padilha had clashed with the film’s producers and the studio regarding what this film would be. I feel like this is one of those situations where, at some point, there may have been a RoboCop story that had some energy and style to it but gradually it had been toned down to be as inoffensive and cookie cutter as possible. This is an example of a film existing purely because the name is a product as far as the studio is concerned and they need to keep it relevant. It is more important that they have the name making them some money somehow than it is that the film provides any sort of entertainment. I have to laugh a little because I’m pretty convinced that MGM and Columbia figured that releasing the film head to head with some dumb little movie about Lego brick would have been an easy win. How wrong they were. The people went for quality entertainment instead. The Lego bricks have more personality than this bland product of consumerism.