- RoboCop (movie 2014) review: José Padilha’s remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 thriller features interesting ideas that are only superficially developed and curious characters whose humanity is mostly sidestepped.
Robocop (movie 2014) review: José Padilha’s reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 thriller features interesting but weakly developed ideas and characters
You’ll have to excuse older moviegoers if they feel an almost weekly tinge of nostalgia with the latest announcement that their favorite film from the 1980s is being treated to a big-money remake. And yet, while you’d think 40-somethings would be thrilled that anyone in the film industry cares if they buy a movie ticket, any news of a Reagan era remake is usually met with harrumphs of disapproval from Gen Xers who hold these films so close to their hearts that a reboot is dismissed as downright sacrilegious.
No one should deny or minimize a person’s formative movie house memories, but there’s really no argument to be made that, say, Footloose – a respectable, creative achievement from 1984 – is such a flawless gem that it cannot be successfully revamped and even improved. The fact that it was remade in 2011 as a shiny slab of disposable product does not confirm the inadaptability of the original for today’s audiences. It only proves that much of what made Footloose resonate with audiences no longer fits into whatever spreadsheet determines which, if any, emotional and thematic strings the new version will pull. The same can be said for Fame, The Thing, Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian, Total Recall, Clash of the Titans, and, most tragically, Arthur, a remake so awful that its very existence makes the Oscar-winning original less funny.
The problem is not that beloved childhood films are untouchable. The problem is that they’re being touched by the wrong people. Many children whose love of film was activated by the watershed sci-fi summer of 1982 have grown up to become development executives and screenwriters so scared for their jobs and chewed up by the system that by the time they’re powerful enough to remake their most cherished childhood movie, they have neither the courage nor the interest in making a film worthy of the original’s memory.
And if any movie in the Hollywood remake machine was least likely to survive today’s development meat grinder, it would be Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop from 1987. Revered in circles for its mix of gleefully brutal violence (it originally received an X rating) and frisky, occasionally silly, social satire, RoboCop cloaked its subversion in an imaginative story about rampant corporatism and urban decay.
Today, brutal violence, social satire, and subversion are non-starters in the industry’s four-quadrant environment. Nonetheless, here comes the new, streamlined PG-13 RoboCop, a film whose chief flaw is that it contains more interesting ideas than it can properly address – a sin that’s easy to forgive considering how vapid and mercenary today’s crop of remakes usually turns out.
Uneasy creative détente
Of course, “not bad” isn’t the same as “good.” Still, to grieve for what director José Padilha (Elite Squad) failed to port over from Verhoeven’s version is unfair to the remake, which has a right, if not a responsibility, to be different than the original.
Much like George Romero and the thematic malleability he has brought to his Night of the Living Dead series, Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have charged themselves with updating RoboCop with contemporary political and satirical targets. They’ve also attempted to tweak the story of cop-turned-robot Alex Murphy to emphasize his human half and better utilize his wife and son. (The original paid lip service to Murphy’s family, giving the brunt of the humanizing responsibility to Nancy Allen’s Officer Lewis.)
Whether the filmmakers achieved all those nervy, lofty goals is another, more complicated matter that sees them declaring an uneasy détente between their conventional and unconventional instincts. But even in the meager doses administered here, RoboCop proves itself politically sharper than any studio reboot, remake, or sequel in recent memory.
A corporate dream comes true
It is 2028 and society has become so advanced that an African American hosts a right-wing news program.
“Novak Element” host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) appears occasionally to sum up the prevailing political winds, beginning with a diatribe aimed at liberals on Capitol Hill who won’t authorize the domestic use of robot police officers, even though mechanized peacekeepers have proven effective in the Middle East.
Robotics manufacturer Omnicorp stands to make billions in the homeland security market if CEO Raymond Sellers (an oily Michael Keaton) can sell the government and the American people on the idea of a non-human police force.
The answer to his problem presents itself when Detroit police detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is severely injured in a car bombing while investigating one of those disposable “local crime lord” cases that would barely pass muster in a straight-to-video cop drama.
All but dead, Murphy is placed in the care of Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) who takes what’s left of the fallen officer and outfits him with a noggin full of circuitry and a sleek metal suit. Now Sellers has a mechanical cop with a recognizable human side – a product that Americans, along with those pesky anti-corporate liberals, should get behind.
In a promising diversion from the Paul Verhoeven original, Murphy remembers everything about his life before becoming RoboCop.
That allows him to interact with his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish, failing to breathe life into a thin character), who becomes increasingly suspicious of what Omnicorp is doing to her husband.
That also allows for the movie’s most unsettling scene, as an indignant Murphy, unaware of everything Dr. Norton has done to him, demands that his armor be removed.
Dr. Norton reluctantly obliges, showing Murphy all that’s left of his body, mostly his head, chest and one hand. The rest is synthetic. Murphy responds with a single tear, which, upon reflection, might be all that Joel Kinnaman can offer as a performer.
Neglected human side
The tall, bony, sharp-angled star of AMC’s cult drama The Killing, Joel Kinnaman looks great in his Robosuit but makes for a cold Alex Murphy. The scenes where Murphy tries to reconnect with Clara and their son (John Paul Ruttan) suffer for want of Kinnaman’s ability to convey sufficient vulnerability and sorrow. Nor can he earn our sympathy, as Dr. Norton constantly – if not cruelly – adjusts Murphy’s brain circuitry and dopamine levels so Sellers can find the most marketable combination of tireless cybercop and soulful human being.
Oddly enough, that makes the increasingly conflicted Dr. Norton, torn between doing right by Murphy and satisfying the demands of Sellers, the only character we have any feelings about. Indeed, RoboCop 2014 would have benefited from a more convincing exploration of its human side; a pity, considering Padilha had previously directed the emotionally devastating documentary Bus 174.
The reboot would also have been better served by thoroughly exploring one or two contemporary hot-button issues instead of lightly touching on a dozen. And yet, here’s a studio sci-fi remake that manages some decent shots at ultranationalism, cable news windbaggery, U.S. militarism, and the human toll extracted when political and corporate interests intersect.
When was the last time such a film made you consider anything other than whether you remembered to validate your parking before entering the theater?
RoboCop (movie 2014) cast & crew
Direction: José Padilha.
Screenplay: Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, and Michael Miner.
From Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner’s screenplay for the 1987 RoboCop.
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Kenneth Williams (as Michael K. Williams), Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samuel L. Jackson, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan.
Cinematography: Lula Carvalho.
Film Editing: Peter McNulty & Daniel Rezende.
Music: Pedro Bromfman.
Production Design: Martin Whist.
Producers: Marc Abraham & Eric Newman.
Production Companies: Spyglass Entertainment Group | Strike Entertainment.
Distributors: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Releasing.
Running Time: 117 min.
Country: United States.
“RoboCop (Movie 2014)” notes
Arthur’s Oscar wins
RoboCop 2014 box office information via boxofficemojo.com.
RoboCop 2014 movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Abbie Cornish and Joel Kinnaman RoboCop 2014 movie images: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Columbia Pictures.
“RoboCop (Movie 2014): Padilha Remake Lacks Human Side” last updated in April 2023.