In an age where no film is safe from being resold to fans as a lackluster remake, you’d think that a certain apathy would have set in by now. But few films have gotten the internet’s knickers in a bigger twist than the announced reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s ’80s classic RoboCop.
Attempts by producing studios Columbia and MGM to assuage fans’ fears with advance photos and trailers only added fuel to that fire. Why was RoboCop’s suit black? What was with his one dainty human hand? And why did he keep taking his damn mask off all the time? The more people learned about the movie, the more they braced for the worst. And now that the remake is finally being rolled off the assembly line, it’s time to find out if those fears were justified.
The good news is that most of the worst elements of the 2014 RoboCop were already seen in the trailers. The bad news is that so were most of the good parts.
The remake preserves the basic premise of the original: in a near-future Detroit, hero cop Alex Murphy (a forgettable Joel Kinnaman) is nearly killed and subsequently turned into a cyborg by a malevolent corporation. Perhaps for the best, the 2014 film is unconcerned with aping the plot of its predecessor beyond that initial setup. And while some lip service is paid to the satirical edge of the original — largely via Samuel L. Jackson’s shouty, Fox News-inspired pundit — this isn’t a film with a lot on its mind. Screenwriter Joshua Zetumer and director José Padilha toss in some references to suicide bombers to make everything seem nice and topical, but it’s really the movie that wants to blow stuff up.
And blow stuff up it does. If there’s one thing RoboCop doesn’t skimp on, it’s the action. There are some moments, such as Murphy taking on a warehouse full of criminals or during a heart-pounding battle between him and numerous ED-209 units, when the remake makes a decent case for its own existence.
Unfortunately, there are just as many action scenes that outstay their welcome. A fight test between Murphy and dozens of CGI cyborgs goes on way longer than it should, and a pitch-black raid of a criminal headquarters feels phoned in when it should be fraught with tension. A movie about a cyborg cop battling baddies yields endless possibilities for exciting set pieces, but RoboCop eventually devolves into a tired procedural as Murphy tries to solve his own boring murder.
And that’s the most damning thing about the new RoboCop — it lacks the personality and manic fun that made the original such a standout. (The usually funny Jay Baruchel is wasted here, but Jackie Earle Haley’s antagonistic gun nut does get some laughs.) Much like last year’s Man of Steel, this film seems to think that if it makes its hero grim and dour enough, people will find it interesting. But even with all the excessive gore, depraved humor, and quotable dialog in the ’80s version, Verhoeven still found time to give his protagonist an actual character arc. Murphy’s journey from man to machine to machine rediscovering its humanity is only passingly touched upon here, mostly in the form of white-coated scientists shouting out his rising dopamine levels. There’s no truly dramatic conclusion to Murphy’s story — the movie just ends once RoboCop runs out of people to shoot.
While the 2014 RoboCop certainly won’t go down in history as a classic, it also won’t go down as the disaster that many were expecting. The cast is mostly good (especially Gary Oldman as Murphy’s conflicted doctor), the production value is high, and the violence, though bloodless, is competently staged. But like so many recent reboots, remakes, and reimaginings, RoboCop seems content merely to exist and turn a profit — it’s more McNugget than artistic endeavor. A similar fate befell the remake of Verhoeven’s Total Recall, and his wonderful Starship Troopers is next on the chopping block. As for the new RoboCop, it’s a lot like its protagonist: coldly efficient, programmed not to think too much, and technically alive, but without a detectable pulse.
RoboCop opens in San Diego on February 12.