Sunday, February 16, 2014

Movie Review: Robocop (2014)

Directed by José Padilha. 2014.

My honest review of the Robocop reboot should begin with a picture of me eating my hat, but a mea culpa will have to suffice. I'd never been more sure sitting down in a theater that garbage would follow than when I sat down to see the new Robocop. Of course it's a cynical cash-grab, right? The producers are cashing in with minimal effort on another well-known franchise.

Maybe, probably, but director José Padilha and the writers took the challenge as an opportunity sensibly to remake Paul Verhoven's gritty 1987 classic. The remake conundrum is ongoing: why remake a movie at all? Change too little and it's not worth the effort, but change too much and it's better to make a new movie from scratch. So what did they do, and is it worthwhile?

Well, they did what they ought to: they updated Robocop. It's not a better movie than the original, but it's more timely and precise. It's not satirical, but it still asks questions. Let's talk plot.

Foremost, Robocop 2014 retains the essence of the original's story of disabled police officer Alex Murphy getting transformed into a cybernetic cop whose mind is ultimately controlled by his computerized half. There are interesting layers to this process, though. First, is the process worth performing in the first place? Alex's wife thinks so, because she's trying to preserve her husband's life. At Omnicorp, the CEO wants Alex to survive to pioneer their program, Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) wants Alex to thrive because he wants a successful legacy. Finally, the people want a hero to believe in and who can clean up the city. Alex's own thinking evolves. At first sight of his body's feeble remains without his new mechanical frame, he asks to be shut off. Soon, though, he wants to bring his killers to justice and realizes he can't disappoint his wife and son by dying again.

Into this mix the writers work in a political and commercial intrigue more timely and clever than the trendy '80s paranoia about corporate expansion and privatization of government monopolies. On the commercial side we have Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton), the CEO of OmniCorp whose main goal is to sell his police robots. On the political side we have Senator Hubert Dreyfuss, whose namesake act and popularity have persuaded the public that a machine without the experience of human feeling can't be let loose on society. Another invigorating twist is the social dimension: Sellers hopes to use Officer Murphy, Robocop, as a rallying hero to drum up support for the company among the public. It's ultimately the public, with their crime and expectation of a painless solution, who creates Robocop.

Representing the pro-robot contingent of the public is TV host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who constantly whoops for any and all means of security. Jackson's Novak is a frank and funny caricature of Bill O' Reilly, from his histrionics to his cutting off guests. This cable news host and hype is a timely update of the 1987 version's cuts to nightly news broadcasts which set the original's chaotic tone. Novak's not the lone civic voice, though, and as in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, the public makes an unflattering appearance with its uncritical public hoorays for Robocop even as he acts on protocols they can't know the slightest about.

Speaking of those protocols, there's a hitch which complicates the whole mess further. Namely, Murphy's emotions make him less stable and efficient than the fully mechanical alternatives, so Dr. Norton is pressured by Sellars to dumb down Murphy's emotions to make Robocop compliant, furthering three interesting reactions.

First, we question Murphy's free will. On the one hand he appears to act with reason, on the other Dr. Norton informs is that the control is an illusion and that the computers decide everything for him. It's an epistemological box from which Murphy can't escape on his own.

Second, Murphy needs his emotions to do anything. In a surprisingly subtle scene early in the picture, Dr. Norton struggles with a rehabilitating officer trying to play guitar again. As the main begins to play for the first time since his injury, he and his wife begin to cry, inducing the doctor to request he not be so emotional that he throws off the test. The man responds that he can't play without them. Wisely the script leaves unspoken the fact that this fact, the need for emotion, is the same as Senator Dreyuss' argument that an officer needs emotions properly to judge. Instead, the director draws parallels to the contemporary issue of drone surveillance and bombing with scenes which bookend the film. The first of these, in which suicide bombers attack U.S. automated forces, is so well shot, and with one camera motion in particular, that it instantly told me I was in for a better movie than I thought.

Third, neither the emotions nor Murphy's will can be controlled. Murphy wants to be himself and obtain justice.

Amidst these perennial philosophical questions, corporatism-induced crises, news hype, the uninformed public, and scientific hubris, there's the simple crime drama which got Murphy mixed up with the criminals and hucksters in the first place. This plot is very light fare but just enough to support the rest of the movie: Murphy ruffled the feathers of a local crime kingpin buying heavy duty weapons from someone inside Murphy's department. When Murphy's first released as a free-willed Robocop he begins to solve the crime of his own death, a slick touch, but he's shut down before he can create mayhem by outing the corruption within the department. Now we see Murphy as the pawn of both OmniCorp and the politicians.

When he's freed from his programming strictures by a guilty-conscienced Dr. Norton, who is later pilloried by Novak for being a whistleblower, Murphy decides to clean house. Yet Sellars doesn't need Robocop or Murphy anymore. The Dreyfuss Act has been repealed because of Robocop's example, and OmniCorp is poised to make a fortune. With his company's success on the line, Sellars realizes that what's even more profitable than a hero is a martyr and plans to cash in on Robocop being killed in the line of duty.

The resolution is obvious enough, but this remake gets a lot else right besides the plot. The action is kept light and effective. The opening cop shoot out is filmed with some novel camera angles and its brevity doesn't give Robocop that generic shoot-em-up vibe. The finale's brief twin action scenes keep the visuals fresh too, the first by a switch to Robocop's infrared vision, blacking out the cliche but unavoidable sets of garages and warehouses, and the second by Robocop's novel use of his superior robotic foes as cover, vaulting from one to the other as they destroy one another trying to blast him.

Robocop is also neatly paced, rising briskly and clearly, moving from Murphy's regular cop life through his transformation into Robocop and then bouncing swiftly among Novak's news show, Sellars' boardroom maneuvering, and Murphy's development. Everyone gets a little breathing room, though. Murphy's wife is allowed scenes where she's briefed on the reconstructive plans for Alex after the attack and where she tries to reconnect with him after it's clear her husband has been programmed. It's not a world-class arc, but she doesn't drop out of the picture either. Dr. Norton is allowed to have a little arc of his own too, at first seeming well-intentioned and desirous of helping Murphy, then falling to vanity for his project and to intimidation from Sellars, and finally coming clean.

Director José Padilha even squeezes in just enough of Basil Poledouris' classic walloping score to hit the "now he's Robocop" beats, and even a reference to the infamous cult catch phrase from the original, "I'd buy that for a dollar!"

Even the acting I can't complain about. Michael Keaton's Sellars isn't as brutish and sadistic as Kurtwood Smith's odious Clarence J. Boddicker, but he's as merciless and manipulative, twisting everyone for his benefit to their detriment and even death. Gary Oldman brings the everyman persona from his turn as Gotham City's Jim Gordon, selling Dr. Norton's despairing fall from respected scientist to corporate stooge. Finally, Joel Kinnaman, heretofore unknown to me, pulls of Alex Murphy and Robocop, for much of the movie only with his face and voice. We see the frustration in his eyes and hear the hopelessness in his voice as he realizes the limbo he now inhabits between life and death, man and machine, freedom and servility.

This remake seems like one every fan of the original was waiting to hate, but they shouldn't. It's more sober and mature than the original, developing significant themes and arcs up to its conclusion, which leaves us wondering whether Murphy can ever be free as Robocop. The original has a lot to like, but so does its 2014 counterpart. A worthwhile remake.

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