In the twenty years since RoboCop 3‘s failure, Officer Alex Murphy, Detroit Police Department, lived on through two TV series, four video games, and a small shelf’s worth of comics. Taken together, they compose at least five, and maybe as many as ten, alternate RoboCop dimensions. Not bad for a character who’s younger than I am. A reboot was inevitable, and for years it hung over us like a cloud, threatening us with just-as-inevitable disappointment.
Darren Aronofsky was going to do it at one point, but he made three other movies in the time between his name first coming up and this movie’s eventual release. It was going to come out in 2010, the year MGM (which bought up much of Orion Pictures catalog long ago) filed for it’s own bankruptcy, only escaping through agreements with its creditors that are, frankly, too boring to go into, but result in this being a Sony picture. Every A-list leading man in mid-to-late-2000s Hollywood got his name thrown around at some point, and they all either passed, or were passed over, in favor of Swedish cop drama/crime drama alum Joel Kinneman. This was right after Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie temporarily made my fellow Americans employ Swedish actors whose names aren’t “Skarsgard.” And hey, whatever gooses the European box office, am I right?
Brazilian director José Padilha eventually wound up in the big chair, having by then made two movies about cops and corruption in his home country I haven’t seen, because I’ll be damned if I go down the rabbit hole that is the history of the police and policing in Brazil. And though he put on a brave face in public (going so far as to say he specifically asked for this after seeing an old poster on an executive’s wall), he was allegedly miserable in private, telling friend and fellow director Fernando Meirelles “for every ten ideas he has, nine are cut.” And I’ll buy that for a dollar. Hollywood has a long history, which continues to this day, of snatching up foreign directors who’ve had a hit or two in their local markets, giving them moribund projects, and then micromanaging them into misery. But hey, whatever gooses the Brazilian box office, am I right?
RoboCop 2014 is enough to make even the most sincere normie critic as cynical as I am. It bares all the scars of a post-Batman Begins superhero origin story and a remake of a beloved 1980s film, made in the hope of cashing in on the Twenty Year Nostalgia Rule. Paul Verhoeven’s initial Hollywood successes fell under that rule in 2007 and -10, respectively, so we got a forgettable Total Recall remake in 2011 and this in 2014. I suppose we should be glad no one’s tried to remake Basic Instinct…yet. I also suspect Sony was looking for a superhero franchise other than Spider-Man to keep in its back pocket, this being right after the second Ghost Rider movie failed to make All The Money. And nearly everyone laughed at Sony’s hubristic announcement of what they’ve now taught us to call “the Spider-Verse.” Within a year, the Spirit of Vengeance’s film rights would revert back to his parent company, studio heads Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal would start hammering out Peter Parker’s shared custody agreement, and this RoboCop remake would be driving everyone to drink.
It drives me to drink still because it comes on as an All New, All Different RoboCop, then seems to get scared about halfway through and become the paint-by-numbers remake we all feared. Only dumber, with less interesting characters and an easier resolution. As a result, it’s a two hour slog, the longest theatrical RoboCop movie to date, and it feels like it, because it’s so poorly paced. There are three credited writers, including our Originals, Neumeier and Miner, but given the final product and the Development Hell it languished in, I can’t help speculating about the team of hands this passed through. Was it enough to field a whole baseball team? Or just a basketball team’s starting lineup?
The only new writer who did enough to get credit is Joshua Zetumer, who didn’t do enough to get credit on Quantum of Solace but apparently did enough to get himself this job. So kudos for that, I guess. But gven Zetumer’s history of uncredits, Padilha’s comments to his friend, and what I know about the general atmosphere of Sony Pictures in the last days of the Not-So-Amazing Spider-Man era, I see this RoboCop as another victim of corporate movie-making micromanagement. It wants to be a poignant characters study about a man fighting against the machine he’s put into after he eats a car bomb…but said character must also be an unambiguously heroic idol of American masculinity. The One Good Cop, patriarch of a post-Nuclear family who still talks to him, so their eleventh hour abduction will prompt suspense. It wants to be a hard-hitting action movie full of jaw-dropping, genre-redefining sequences…that also has to be PG-13 so theaters don’t have to card anybody. It wants to be a biting social satire of contemporary American life in the 2010s, dressed up in a not-too-distant, dystopian future…that was itself written inside the dystopian present of the 2000s (and 2010s) by people who seemed to have no idea they were already in a dystopia. Gods, they were so stupid they and thought Glen Fucking Beck was the worst American conservatism could foist upon us.
At least a third of my fellow Americans spent the 2010s pretending our present dystopia wasn’t happening, which is what allowed Trumpism to swim along and bite them in the ass. Another third, drawn by heat and conflict, actively longed for the dystopia to get even worse, and most of them are now either Trump fans or making a killing taking Trump fan’s money. The last third is just trying to get by, living day to day, and everyday they sink a little more into myopia and apathy, because what other options do they have? They have no dreams that haven’t been dashed, no great stories or love affairs to define their lives, and no power to speak of – be it social, political, or even just existential. They have the power to yell at people on the internet, which is like alcohol-free beer: such a poor imitation of the real thing it only reminds you of what you’re missing. And how in Dante’s Hell is a body supposed to satirize all that? Especially in a country like mine, where “satire” has long since become rhetorical squid ink, squirted out by people who claim to love Freedom of Speech. Except when I (or people like me) use it to say, “Hey – your jokes suck and you sound like an asshole, go fuck yourself.”
Pat Novack, host of the Novack Element – this RoboCop‘s version of Media Break – is an asshole…but he’s played by Samauel L. Jackson, meaning he’s far too charismatic to be the kind of asshole this movie’s going for. He’s trying to do the Bill O’Reilly thing of being an unbearably smug piece of shit who speaks only in tautologies about how America is great because America is good, and fuck you for thinking otherwise. And while this film did correctly predict American Conservatism would abandon the endless wars it started in Afghanistan and Iraq and move on the next shinny object on the Pentagon’s hit list (Iran), it did not predict that said abandonment would coincide with a dropping of all pretensions about America providing “safety” or “security” to the brown people’s of the world. I’m frankly glad we’re done with all that (at least for now). What, you actually believed in all that “freedom” and “democracy” bullshit? Next thing you’re gonna tell me capitalism is some great driver of “innovation.” After all, look at all these alternate RoboCop dimensions!
One problem is Novack’s less a parody of a Fox News host and more of a parody of Stephen Colbert’s parody of a Fox News host – a Parody Squared. The larger problem is somebody (or an executive committee full of somebodies, more like) saw the original RoboCop and thought the news broadcasts that are actually smug propaganda were the be-all and end-all of its satire. Really, the true satire lies in the fact that the propaganda news show, the cops whose deaths it fetishizes, the killer robots meant to replace those cops, and the local cop-killing crime boss are all owned (in one way or another) by the same corporation. That’s what Murphy Prime means when he tells Lewis Prime at the end of their first film, “They’ll fix you. They’ve fixed everything.” But that’s too bleak a satire for most of my fellow Americans to contemplate.
In this movie’s version of 2028, OmniCorp (a subsidiary of OCP) has already got the contract to provide armies of killer robots to every country on Earth, and the US military-industrial complex…but one law, the Dreyfus Act, championed by one eponymous bow-tied dipshit Senator and seemingly no one else, prevents them from deploying their killer robots onto the streets of America. This was a hard pill to swallow in 2014, and it’s even harder now. The business of America is business and the killer robot business has been booming ever since we declared (and then forgot about) a Global War on Terror.
From 2006 until the year this movie came out, the US Department of Defense sold north of two billion (with a “b”) dollars worth of surplus military hardware to local police departments across the nation, usually just for the cost of shipping and maintenance. Yes, Virginia, the Pentagon has its own, even more evil version of Amazon Prime…but only for cops. Its current form – the “1033 program” – has existed since 1997, where it was authorized by section 1033 of the Defense Authorization Act. Twenty fourteen was a banner year for “the 1033 program,” as the US military industrial complex’s boredom and frustration with its Forever Wars reached the level of our collective consciousness, probably for the last time. Almost eight hundred million dollars (that is, in internet nerd terms, four Star Wars movies) worth of armored vehicles, aircraft, riot gear, and good, ol’ fashioned guns got shipped out to your friendly neighborhood pigs in that year alone. And if you think all those aircraft had pilot seats in them, I’ve got some bad news. Keep watching the skies, folks, because they’re watching you right back. And you can say things like, “Well, I haven’t anything wrong,” until you’re blue in the face, but I’ve got even more bad news: it doesn’t matter what you do. What matters is, does a cop think they can stitch you up for something? Maybe get a promotion out of it? But certainly goose their monthly numbers, and really, what’s more important than that?
RoboCop 2014 posits a world where the US political class actually cared about all that and functioned well enough to effect it way before this film opens. And that’s a bigger, more out-there, science fiction-y idea than all the RoboCops in the multiverse. Senator Dreyfus, played by veteran “oh hey – it’s that guy!” actor Zach Grenier – gets on his high horse early on, and talks about how “Machines do not know the value of human life.” And I can’t help but go, “Yeah, right – like we actually value human life in this psycho country.” But he’s a Senator, and that’s something Senators are supposed to pretend they believe in public. What’s even more fantastical is that OmniCorp has completely failed to bribe Senator Dreyfus’ colleagues into fucking him over and destroying his signature piece of legislation.
“They don’t want to vote against their constituents,” one of the OmniCorp suits tells CEO Raymond Sellers. And is there a word for an attempt to be cynical that are actually, painfully, unbearably, “born yesterday” levels of naïve? The best I can come up with is “childish.” This movie’s vision of American politics is childish, and all the adults here are giant children, playing their giant child games. So, in a bid to sway public opinion to the side of making his company even more money, Sellers conceives of RoboCop: a way to skirt the Dreyfus Act, and it’s namesake’s moral grandstanding, by putting a man in the machine. All he needs is an idealistic doctor of cybernetics to string alone with some bullshit line about “helping people” and “saving lives.” Oh, look – here’s one, played by a complete waste of a Gary Oldman. Whatever gooses the Batman fan box office, am I right, folks?
And so, at last, we come to Detective (hey, congrats on the promo) Alex Murphy of the Detroit Police Department, who seems to begin his journey in another movie altogether – call it Elite Squad 3: Norte Edition. Murphy’s movie is mostly about the Detroit Police Department getting corrupted by a complete nothingburger of a crime-boss, Antoine Vallon. See, it’s not that the cops are agents of an evil, corrupt and corrupting system that’s slowly strangling the life out of human civilization for the sake of short-term quarterly profit growth. Oh, no – heaven forbid! Perish the fucking thought! It’s that there are Good Cops and Corrupt Cops, and if the former can just take out the latter, everything will be…well, still on track for a slow-motion, corporate-sponsored apocalypse… but at least the local crime boss won’t be stealing guns out of the evidence locker. Murphy gets a little too close to this deal, and Antoine Vallon gives him a car bomb facial. He wakes to face an idealistic doctor of cybernetics, Dr. Norton, and finds that he’s become a RoboCop.
When I showed Original RoboCop to a friend who had no effective memory of it she expressed a wish to spend more time with the scientists who pioneered OCPs “put a human brain in a robot body” program. She would’ve liked to see how they reacted to their revolutionary prosthetic and cybernetic technology being taken away and perverted into the mass production of killing machines. A monkey’s paw must’ve heard that somewhere, because here we are, and it goes the worst possible way. The only surprise is Dr. Norton and his team play “Fly Me To The Moon” to wake Alex up. And how dare they? I could be watching Evangelion right now, you bastards.
It’s not all bad. In this dimension, Murphy doesn’t technically die, so he retains both his memories and what little personality he’s displayed prior to eating that car bomb. The early bits of Murphy’s recovery and initial adjustment to his new circumstances are are, occasionally, quite effective, and effecting. He’s suitably pathetic in the scene where he finds out he’s just a couple of chunks on a coroner’s table and immediately asks to die…or the scene where he zooms the laptop camera way in when he calls his wife up, so she can’t see his new body. But I can’t help but think original RoboCop generated just as much pathos for its Murphy by having him walk through his old house. No ten minute training montages necessary, no tearful phone calls with the wife, no lingering tracking shots of his no-doubt daily hemodialysis.
By this point, I’d giving up on this being a holistic social satire about humanity’s struggle to assert itself through the machinery of late-stage capitalism and figured, what the hell? It’s going to be a character study about a man who gets turned into a machine that still thinks he’s a man, when really, he’s a corporate product. And that could be interesting. But then we reach the point I mentioned, where the movie gets (justifiably) afraid that it’s missed the essential point of RoboCop and decides to squeeze a beat-for-beat remake in the last hour. I don’t know if there’s a good time to try and upload the entire Detroit Police Department database into one brain, but right before a televised press conference with the Mayor is probably The Literal Worst. The freak-out this inspires in Murphy makes Dr. Norton fuck with Murphy’s brain chemistry until he’s exactly as cold and emotionless as his predecessor…so what was the point of all that preceded it?
What’s the point of uploading a whole departmental database into one man’s brain, augmented or no? We know this RoboCop has wifi – we see him use it throughout the rest of the film, to access Detroit’s not-at-all-creepy blanket of surveillance cameras. What’s the point of re-creating the drug lab shootout from the first movie, twice, but in less interesting ways that show less of Murphy’s personality than he displayed back in ’87, when he was just beginning to recover it? Where are the behind-the-back, or over-the-shoulder, no-look trick shots? Even the RoboCop in Mortal Kombat gets to show off more style than this one.
What’s the point of remaking RoboCop in the first place?
Well, the point is, this movie let Murphy keep his family and friends just so they could look very concerned by his becoming cold, distant and “efficient.” And so that, after a little montage of crime-stopping, he can be shocked out of his mechanical distance by a confrontation with Clara, his wife. And here’s that Healing Power of Love I mentioned way back in my review of the first entry in this cursed franchise – so central to American filmmaking it was already a cliché back before the Titanic sank. One of many, many cliches Original RoboCop avoided…unless you want to get real precious about Lewis. How the one lady character in the film is also the one who nurtures Murphy’s humanity out of its titanium shell, and that’s an even older cliché than the whole Healing Power of Love shit. And you know what? That’s fair. My whole “Healing Power of Friendship” thing was, at least partially, an attempt to recuperate all that.
But at least we can have these conversations about Anne Lewis. Her Rule 64 counterpart, Jack, is barely in this film, and more of a motivation for Murphy to solve his Elite Squad 3 plot than a partner in crime stopping. There’s no “Murphy, it’s you,” moment because there’s no need for one. There’s maybe half a scene where they commiserate about how Murphy can’t go home again (no way to fit his dialysis machine through the front door of their way-too-big-for-a-non-crooked-cop’s-salary house)…but it has none of the impact of, say, the seminal “really good to see you again, Murphy” scene because this movie spent all that on Murphy’s homecoming. Where he promised to watch all the Red Wings games with his son. But I don’t care about Murphy’s son…or his wife, for that matter. We don’t spend enough time with them to make me care, and the time we spend with them doesn’t reveal much more to their personalities beyond “Loving Wife” and “Dutiful-but-Traumatized Son.”
All of which makes the climax of this film anti-climactic, even as it starts, finally, in the last thirty minutes, to feel like a RoboCop movie. After Murphy solves the Police Corruption plot he started out with, and Congress repeals the Dreyfus Act (on the same night, conveniently) OmniCorp and Raymond Sellers have a bit of an “oh shit” moment when they realize they, pretty much by accident, have actually built the Future of Law Enforcement. A machine does what its told, but a man – a Good Cop, no less – follows where the case leads, even if it leads him to his own corrupt superiors. That’s the kind of thing that might scare politicians and the corporate shits who own them. Only the conflicted conscience of kindly Dr. Norton allows Alex to escape the corporate extermination squad so he can have a big fight with two ED-209s, one (criminally underused) Jackie Earl Haley, and eventually, Sellers himself.
Since he’s played by Gary Oldman, and since his conscience is the product of good, ol’ fashioned, English 101, Man-vs-Himself conflict, Dr. Norton is probably the closest thing to a three-dimensional character in the film. He spends most of it being a nebishy nerd, easily manipulated by Raymond Sellers’ (now vintage-2014) Silicon Valley tech capitalist rhetoric into doing inhuman things to his actually-incredibly-vulnerable-when-you-get-past-all-the-armor patient. But watching Murphy overcome the vagaries of brain chemistry through the power of familial love makes Dr. Norton believe in…something…the existence of the human soul, I guess, since that’s directly mentioned by one of the OmniCorp flacks as a dismissive joke. Or at least the inherent goodness of Murphy’s soul. I actually agree with the part of Bob Novack’s closing monologue that says Dr. Norton should be on trial for crimes against humanity. But so should Raymond Sellers, and the company he heads – OmniCorp – as well as OmniCorp’s parent company, OCP, which is barely mentioned until the end.
The reason being is OCP’s clearly being positioned, throughout this movie, as the Big Ticket Villain this 2010s remake decided to Save for the Sequel. In the meantime, Michael Keaton’s attempt to play an Evil Steve Jobs (so…just Steve Jobs with the serial numbers filed off) is as boring as Patrick Garrow’s Antoine Vallon. All of which misses the fundamental point of RoboCop. Still. The problem was never Dick Jones, or Clarence Boddicker, or Bob Morton, or even the Old Man, so easily replaced eventually. The problem was (and is) the entire system of capitalist society, over and around and inside all these people, dictating and constraining their actions with Directives as pernicious, and classified, as Murphy’s original Fourth. And a RoboCop movie that’s unaware of all that is as nourishing to the intellect as a McDonald’s chicken nugget is to the body. I hope I’ve managed to explain at least one aspect of why that is, because if I haven’t, the next RoboCop movie is going to be even worse. And even better received by those who can’t look past the superficial.
Gods, there’s a horrifying thought. I was trying to be flippant at the end of the RoboCop 2 review, but it turns out this movie really is Hell on Earth. I’ll put it this way: this movie makes RoboCop 3 look good and it makes RoboCop 2 look coherent. And if that isn’t a crime yet, it should be.