Review: RoboCop

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RoboCop | José Padilha | February 12th, 2014

Man or Machine? In what seems to be an endless stream of remakes, an iconic figure in film and pop culture has reemerged, reclaiming his gun and badge. RoboCop, a reboot of the 1987 film of the same name, takes a more contemporary aim at crime, accounting for the very real changes in our own society. The original’s entertaining, over-the-top action and violence effortlessly masked it’s underlying commentary about American culture, but does it’s brand new model tip the scales too far?

In it’s own right, I thought RoboCop stood well by itself as an action film. While the current custom is to make every franchise “edgy”, it didn’t take it far enough to tick me off. Obviously the B-movie charm of the old has been washed away, considering the budget of $130 million is five times more than that of the original. The visual effects are very well done, and I noticed a lot of practical effects that seem to get lost to CGI in most big-budget movies today. Some of the overlays were a bit unneeded, I would have appreciated it more if the representation of RoboCop’s software wasn’t as Call of Duty-esque…because you know what I hate in video games? Excessive tutorials. A lot films have this problem these days, apparently everything needs to be spelled out on the screen for the audience to grasp the situation.  The action scenes themselves were well-directed, citing a specific instance when the fight takes place in pitch black. In another scene the perspective changes to first person for a short time, which was interesting. (If you’ll kindly remember, the film adaption of Doom was largely disappointing, except for the final sequence when it changed to FPS style.) I screened RoboCop in IMAX, and the gunplay was loud enough to leave my ears ringing. It’s rated PG-13, which may be a disappointing to some. 1987’s RoboCop was originally rated X, a rarity in non-pornographic films, but was later cut and repackaged to make the R it needed. It’s focus on ultra-violence was a critique on the flavor of the time, but I think the reboot adjusts well enough to the flavor of our time. The atrocities in the open have lessened…in a sense.

A large part of the story explores human conscience, emotion, and free will. Officer Alex Murphy is crippled in the line of duty, but his consent is essentially bypassed when he undergoes the procedure. His entire existence is now surveilled by others, and his status as a husband and father is challenged. These sort of dramatic elements need good actors to sell them. Joel Kinnaman plays the titular character. I’ve watched the first two seasons of AMC’s The Killing, and I enjoyed his work there. Most of his acting in the film is facial, as his body has the kinesthetics of, well…a robot. It almost seems a bit too odd at first, but it’s faithful to the original. (Fans will approve; one of the main criticisms after the concept/announcement stage was that the new design looked too much like a guy in a suit than a truly bionic man, drawing comparison to Nolan’s Batman.) As such, most of the emotion and acting is limited to the face, more specifically the eyes. It’s rather tough to work with, I’d imagine, but Kinnaman convinced me that there was emotion behind the machine. In addition, we’ve got Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman butting heads at OmniCorp, representing the business and the science, respectively. I thought both took their roles seriously enough and gave a good show, particularly Keaton. I honestly found more truth to the characters than in comparable action films…but I suppose that comes down to personal preference. Samuel L. Jackson gives a short but energetic performance, and Abbie Cornish does well as Murphy’s wife. I know people are always weary of  movies like this, but it could have been so much worse.

– Okay, I’d like to take a break to give you a little refresher about RoboCop‘s roots. The 1980’s are known for the acceleration of the action genre…in just about every medium. Terminator, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Commando, Die Hard, Rambo, and the list goes on. This cultural movement of testosterone correlated directly with President Reagan’s ideological renaissance of the political right. The “War on Drugs”, Reaganomics, the Contra affair, the nuclear arms race and Cold War peacocking, etc. (As I write this, I’m sitting just a few miles away from his grave, oddly enough.) The remarkable change from the relaxed 70’s toward aggression had changed the landscape of the media. While militarization had slowly been creeping into the minds of the youth, by 1987 it was palpable. In rolls a figure, half organic, half synthetic. RoboCop is unleashed onto a dystopian Detroit, cleaning up crime without putting a “human” officer’s life in danger. As Robo comes to realize he is actually Alex Murphy, events unfold that expose the dirty dealings of his corporate creators with politics and criminals. The film’s plot was set in 2014.

Now here we are, in that exact year. Two different topics arise: How did reality pan out in regards to the original, and how does this reboot predict our future?

The film itself is bookended by a political commentary program “The Novak Element” (hosted by Jackson’s character) that ironically critiques biased media, likely a parody of some Fox News shows. His conservative rhetoric suggests that U.S. senators are incompetent, and that deregulation is the key to progress. There are a couple clever and scarily familiar jabs at media tactics to be found, so keep your wits about you. Claiming that proponents of the “Dreyfuss Act” (a law that prohibits the use of drones on US soil) are “pro-crime”. That sort of hot-button sensationalism runs deeply through our real media, on both sides of the aisle. In the same category, RoboCop’s entire existence is a clever example of circumventing the law, while the entire purpose is to uphold the law itself. He’s not entirely a robot, and still has a human conscience, as far as the public knows. A subtle detail is that his trigger hand is also human flesh, asserting that a machine is not in control. The idea of “control” in an internal fashion is explored enough through the kill switch on Murphy’s brain and the manipulation of his hormones/body chemistry to influence his actions. There’s some very real science behind the manipulation of serotonin and dopamine, I mean millions of people have prescriptions for anti-depressants here, more than any other country per capita. All of this is being used to move an agenda upon the public and promote that the fully-automatic drones will be a benefit to society.

The term “drone” is all too familiar these days. We use them overseas for precise military strikes (although they cause a bunch of civilian casualties, hence the current controversy.) There has been talk about the military, government, and the vague wording of the NDAA, as to whether drones can be used on our own soil and against American citizens. What’s more interesting is the portrayal of surveillance and “guilty until proven innocent” mentality that has become more and more regular in our society. (New York City’s Stop and Frisk policy was a great example.) The NSA has been the talk of the town, with Edward Snowden revealing shocking insight into how closely the public is being monitored without consent, courtesy of the Patriot Act. RoboCop’s software allows him access to all CCTV footage, phone calls, and other data in order to target and arrest criminals. Furthermore, he is equipped with scanners that look for concealed weapons and access threats on the spot without consent. TSA full-body scanners anyone? The conservative right is against government regulation, but also supports laissez-faire economics and a free market, which both directly contradict with a corporate invention like RoboCop serving the public in such a manner.

The original explored the militarization of the police force in America, and boy, if only they could see how close we are to the fiction. The line between police and military personnel has grown finer than ever. The weapons and actual hardware have increased in scope, as well as the “probable cause” tactics. Moreover, RoboCop and the rest of OmniCorp’s mechanical minions are an example of the privatization of military technology and power. You can see the writing on the wall when the actual police force of Detroit is no longer fighting criminals, but OmniCorp’s own force of weaponized machines. It’s a bipartisan fear, as one is against militarization and the other is against the removal of freedom/power from the citizen (in regards to firearms). In the end, RoboCop finds that elusive balance in justice, and takes on being a true hero.

Even if you don’t buy into the sociopolitical material in between the lines, I think RoboCop at least deserves a movie ticket. It relates enough to the original film while also changing enough to make it interesting. Certainly not Oscar-worthy, but it’s one of the very few recent reboots that is worth the film it’s printed on. I mean, Detroit is erecting a statue of him in the next couple months to signal the rebirth of the city. Just grab some popcorn, join in the fun, and let the action do it’s job.

Rating: 7/10