Confession time, folks. I've never seen the original ROBOCOP. I was seven when it first came out, making me way too young to see it in theaters and as I got older, it was never something I felt compelled to seek out. Now, to hear fans of the original speak about it lately, you'd think this was akin to never seeing Citizen Kane or Psycho, but the truth is that among my circles, ROBOCOP was just another 80s sci-fi action movie.
However, it's clear that if you want to stir up an audience of a film, all you have to do is threaten to remake it. The mere threat of such a desecration tends to provoke an uprising that would have you thinking there was a mission to put arms on the Venus de Milo. Over the past year I've heard more about the original ROBOCOP in fanboy circles than I had in the 25 years that preceded it. As it became clear that the pending ROBOCOP remake was trying to take a different path than the original, I decided to do something that I wish I'd had the chance to do on Total Recall - I was going to go in totally fresh. I wanted to see if this movie could stand up without any affection or nostalgia for the original getting in the way.
The verdict? It definitely stands on its own. There's really no point where I was lost and had a feeling, "I bet this all makes a lot more sense of you've seen the original." If there are jokey, inside references to the original, they're integrated well enough that I didn't feel them sticking out like sore thumbs. (This is more of a sequel thing than a remake, but a good example of this might be something like the extended "zip it/sush" callbacks in the final Austin Powers.)
It's an unspecified point in the near future and OMNICorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is faced with a problem. His military drones have proven to be effective peacekeeping forces abroad, but thus far, Congress has passed legislation banning their usage on American soil. It seems most Americans are squeamish about the idea that a drone decides independently if a target is a threat and warrants the use of deadly force. (Which, to be fair, is a pretty a solid point.)
Enter Detective Alex Murphy, who's all but killed in an explosion arranged by a drug lord. With two limbs blown off and most of his body covered in fourth-degree burns. Sellars sees an opportunity here. In order to get the congressional act against his drones overturned, he needs to sway public opinion. What better way than to find a paralyzed law enforcement officer, restore him with the cybernetic limbs that OMNICorp research has developed and turn him into a drone, essentially putting a man inside of a machine. If he can use drones on American soil, Sellars' company stands to make billions.
This leads into what is probably the most effective part of the movie, where the reconstituted Murphy discovers he's little more than a head, heart & lungs and one organic forearm held together with robotic parts. Even his brain has cybernetic impants, which among other things, allows him quickly assess targets as threats or neutral, and accomplish things like calculating his escape from a building and over a high wall.
Gary Oldman features in these scenes as a scientist named Norton, who's working out the kinks of Murphy's new state and it's interesting how his character arc slightly parallels Murphy's. When we first meet Murphy, he's working with amputees, helping them achieve normal lives with their new robotic limbs. Initially, he rebuffs Sellars' efforts to exploit his work with a military application, but the promise of additional funds has probably won over many a scientist, and Norton is no exception.
Murphy is pitted against a drone in a side-by-side simulation and while Murphy performs well, compared to the drone's efficiency, he's a failure. The drone dispassionately neutralizes targets while Murphy's concern for simulated hostages makes him hesitate and act less decisively. Basically, the moral contemplation that the American public wants is a liability to Sellars' drones' effectiveness. The man in the machine might be an asset in terms of PR, but it's a detriment to performance in the field.
Ordered to find a way to fix this problem, Norton rewires Murphy's brain so that when he goes into "Combat Mode," the drone program takes over entirely. Murphy thinks he's still in the driver's seat, but that control is an illusion. It's a little chilling to realize this "fix" has taken away a piece of not just Murphy's soul, but Norton's as well.
Throughout the film, we don't chart just Murphy's path to becoming less human, we see Norton is on a parallel track. Norton is faced with a problem that his professional ethics get in the way of, so he discards them and merely follows his objects. This is precisely the same "problem" that Murphy's ethics cause until he is made to merely follow orders.
But the most disturbing moment of the film comes later. Just before he is to be introduced at a ceremony with the Mayor, Murphy undergoes a procedure that will upload the entire Detroit police database into his brain. This includes the Closed Circuit TV footage from the cameras in seemingly every corner of the city. Oddly no one involved anticipates that it might agitate their cybernetic patient when he processes the footage of the bombing that nearly killed him. Murphy has a total freakout and it comes at the worst time. Norton needs to make him ready to step on stage with the mayor in mere minutes, so he orders his team to drop Murphy's dopamine levels to below 5%.
The effect of reducing that particular neurotransmitter basically turns Murphy into a zombie that follows his programming without question. Norton has almost literally robbed the man of his soul, which is an incredibly disturbing thing to see coming from the guy who appeared to be our moral center when the film began. Norton does what he has to do in that moment, and the moral implications of his actions are probably more unsettling to the audience than they are to him at that point.
ROBOCOP is largely a story about two men losing their souls to technology in different ways. The man vs. machine element of the script is generally the meatiest stuff and the storyline that carries the most weight. The drone aspect adds some interesting elements to the plot as well, and between the two, there are enough moments that leave a viewer thinking this is a movie that could have been really, really good.
And then there's stuff that the film just leaves on the table. It's utterly baffling to me that the script is so blase' about the massive invasion of privacy that the CCTV cameras seem to represent. Once he surrenders to his programming, Murphy is able to access seemingly every CCTV camera at will and there seems to be no corner of the city he can't instantly watch. Later it's even demonstrated that he's capable of retrieving audio from those cameras and even enhancing reflections on shiny surfaces to he can see things not directly in the camera's line of sight.
It's Big Brother taken to an extreme. I suppose it's possible that in the future, the CCTV cameras have been so pervasive that no one gives them a second thought. There's also probably the fact that until RoboCop, there hasn't existed a method to collate and compile all that data quickly. Murphy is able to instantly process data and find connections that would seem to justify a warrant and also give him the means to find people and place them under arrest. That's both as impressive and as scary as it sounds.
If artificial intelligence is supposed to have advanced to this degree, I can't help but wonder why computers were never deployed in this manner. If Murphy can solve crimes so quickly just by matching archive footage with other evidence, you'd think that the police would have attempted some application of this tech before Murphy's rebirth. It also occurred to me to wonder how this process would affect the act of getting a warrant. Most of the time we see Murphy acting on previously issued warrants, but certainly when he goes in to arrest two crooked cops, he's acting on his own authority and probably hasn't gotten a warrant via what we know as the proper channels.
(I realize it's a minor point that can easily be hand-waved by "It's the future, the law is different." Still, when most of your audience probably knows the basics of the law just from decades of cop procedural, it probably wouldn't hurt to give them a little more to go on in terms of how the legal system works. I'm not saying I wanted to see Law & Order: Special Robo Unit, but a little more texture to the world would have done wonders here.)
Another weak point in the film is its tendency to stop dead for on-the-nose exposition. The Samuel L. Jackson character (who's clearly playing a riff on the Bill O'Reilly/Keith Olbermann sort of cable pundit who trades on outrage and fear) shows up several times in the film in scenes where he directly addresses the audience. He's a stand-in for just about any other method of dramatizing the pro-drone perspective. His first appearance isn't bad at setting the stage and taking shots at the propaganda of cable news.
The device gets diminishing returns when it becomes clear that he's an easy tool for the screenwriters to get information out to the audience without dramatizing it. There are also probably a few too many scenes of OMNICorp characters sitting around a table spelling out the logic that gets us from Point A to Point B.
Just a little more depth to the characters would have mitigated this somehow. As good as it is to see Michael Keaton, his Sellars character is underwritten. Keaton gives the guy enough humanity initially that he doesn't seem like a two-dimension evil corporate badguy motivated only by greed, but the script fails to add any shadings to his character throughout. I like that his motivation to put a man into the machine isn't that he thinks it will improve the performance in any way. It's a pragmatic PR act and him taking advantage of a loophole to get what he wants. If he thought a human brain was really the key to making a better drone, then I'd have issues with his motivations.
The problem is that by the third act, Keaton has little to work with except going through the motions of the CEO who needs to dispose of a PR problem. I'll grant that Keaton plays him with just enough weight that he comes across as a driven guy who's making the most efficient decisions he can. The problem is that he's still stuck being the bad guy in a script where the whole point is to see the "man" triumph over the "machine's" programming.
This necessitates a climax where Murphy will have to overcome his drone directives. There's an basic, easy way to do that - put his family in danger. Even more obviously, the most cathartic solution there is to have the man who tried to exploit him be the one they need saving from. Thus, Murphy faces off against the man directly responsible for taking away the little that was left of his humanity.
But that means that Sellars would have to create a situation where he is a direct danger to Murphy's family, smug in the knowledge that Murphy can't take action against him. And honestly, Sellars hasn't been written as a guy that hands-on or recklessly stupid up to this point. That's why it feels so false when (SPOILER) he points a gun at Murphy's family while gloating that he could shoot them both and there's nothing Murphy could do about it.
Keaton doesn't really sell the moment, though you can feel him trying. The problem is that this climax plays like a first-draft scene that isn't being true to the characters. It's servicing the needs of plot and story constraints, but I don't believe that Sellars would take the action that provokes just enough will in Murphy to allow him to strike. (And at this point, Sellars knows that Murphy has grown beyond his programming when he's found an emotional touchstone, so why in God's name would he tempt that by threatening his family when Murphy is all but subdued already?)
There's some good stuff here. I wouldn't say that ROBOCOP is a movie that deserves to be totally dismissed out of hand. But I'm not blind to its flaws and I feel like what ended up being shot was a draft or two away from being a strong film.
I plan on following this up with a review of the original ROBOCOP, but it's a "very long wait" on Netflix at the moment, so that review might be a while in coming.