There is a reason why robots, cyborgs, and similar devices have gotten a lot of attention in science fiction over the years. The idea of man creating a machine and what that could mean for life is an intriguing concept that can play on both the positives and negatives of the scenario. Taking it further and creating a cyborg who is also a law enforcement officer is one way to emphasize the debate of whether it should be done. If handled properly, a story can flourish by developing those ideas, building a world around why this concept should happen and what the ramifications could be were it to actually happen. Along with many other main reasons, Robocop fails to embrace the strong ideas that could make it work, in favor of being a noisy and messy action film.
Raymond Sellars: We’re gonna put a man inside a machine.
Robocop starts out on a high, which makes it all the sadder. Samuel L. Jackson is featured in a role that had to have taken all of a day to film, but it is the most effective section of the film. He plays Pat Novak, the host of The Novak Network. Novak is the kind of loud and attention getting pundit that argues for a specific cause, with the hopes of blinding an audience with one-sided arguments. He is also setting up the world of the film, as he reveals current year is 2028 and robotic technology, developed by OmniCorp, has been militarized to an extent and is being used everywhere in the world, except America, to provide civilian law enforcement. The use of these drone-like products in America has been restricted, thanks to an Act of Congress that is currently being supported by public opinion. The problem, as OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) sees it, is that Americans need a way to relate and put faith in a machine.
I feel I could talk plenty about the opening sequence of this film, as it sets the tone for another movie, one that manages to balance political and social satire with serious issues taking place in the world, based on the development of new technology that is guiding the way of life. Shortly after we are introduced to these robots, as they monitor a random Middle Eastern territory, we then cut to a group of suicide bombers that stage an attack on the robots. We learn nothing more of why this occurred, but it is all handled in a way that feels overblown and borderline offensive, but also shockingly surreal and ideal for a film that may have wanted to explore the state of affairs that led to this, even while holding onto a PG-13 rating. Don’t fret though; Robocop has far less interesting things on its mind.
Back to the “getting Americans on board with robots” thing, Sellars and his team of snarky and unemotional humanoids played by Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel come up with a plan of putting a man inside a machine. They bring in Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who specializes in cybernetic limbs and enhancements, to figure out how. This concept gives way to the next interesting idea, as we are now watching a corporation determine the value of human life weighed against a business model, under the guise of pretending to be a benefit to Americans, given that the potential success could dramatically lower the crime rate. Still, this idea is merely brought up and not expanded on, even when you have a film set in Detroit, a city that lends itself to more interesting social commentary. It makes no difference though, as Detroit merely serves as a backdrop, as this film could have been set anywhere.
Finally getting to the cop in question, we are introduced to bland, tough cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnamen) and his partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams). There is nothing all that interesting here, just setup, as we watch these to find out there are some corrupt cops on the force, so their case involving a drug boss needs to be talked about on the down low…yada yada yada, Murphy gets too close, so they try to kill him. A car bomb pretty much ends Murphy’s life, but his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), signs Murphy up for Dr. Dennett’s “I’m going to vaguely explain what’s happening” lifesaving program. 4 months later, Murphy is now mostly machine and a stronger, better, faster cop.
Alex Murphy: Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.
Despite having all it needs to make a compelling narrative, the film ops for the taking a long-winded route to ultimately achieve nothing. Murphy basically has control of his own mind in his initial robotic state. Then we learn that his human instincts make him a slower cop in action, so the good doctor applies a couple scalpels on his brain and that is fixed. Then we learn that uploading too much information at once cripples his mind, so the doc presses a few buttons and that is fixed. Meanwhile, I care very little about who Murphy is, even though he and everyone else is shouting exactly how they feel all the time, because it’s in the script.
Eventually, with no personality to speak of, Robocop is finally sent to the streets to stop crime. He is good at it…the one time we get to see it, but one speech from his wife, and Murphy’s prime directives are overtaken by what amounts to “his soul” and he is back on the case of his own murder. How could this have happened? Human spirit I guess, the film never tries to go into it. We have plenty of time to listen to Carol Murphy explain that having her dad, who was killed in action and is now a robot, would be a great help to her son, who is having nightmares, if he just came home and gave him a hug, but when it comes to interesting science fiction ideas, this film comes up short on answers. Still, we at least have a couple more Sam Jackson scenes, where the movie once again finds some footing and tries to play into humorous moments of social commentary.
At the point that I saw this film, my expectations could not have been lower, which gave way to the chance that I may have really enjoyed what I saw on screen, but that was still not the case. This film is a mess of ideas that are underdeveloped, backed by the occasional jump into action mode, where some rock music and slick-looking gunplay give the film some semblance of an engaging action film, because at least there is some momentum on screen and thin characters have stopped speaking for a bit. Really, if screenwriter Joshua Zetumer cut down a lot of the redundant dialogue, the film could have at least moved a bit quicker.
Even the world-building is haphazardly handled. Given all of the resources and technology that isn’t robot-related and seemingly already available, how is crime so much of an issue, before Robocop comes to the rescue? Apparently only half-man, half-robots can access a database and security footage. What about ammunition and the dispatching of criminals? This movie’s PG-13 makes the violence (which I would call an important aspect of a film focused on law enforcement) so strangely inconsequential, as I began to have no idea whether or not tasers or bullets were being used, given how frequently they were switched between. Sure, we see many robot casualties, which moves the film further away from is overall concept of appropriate use of robot law enforcement in America, but just keep in mind that the film began with suicide bombers and moves on to bloodless shootouts for the sake of entertainment.
From a production standpoint, the film certainly looks expensive at times, which gives way to plenty of moments where the film looks quite cheap, given its use of green screens, the occasional dark action sequence, or the choppy editing during some of the human-based fights. Again though, just add a little spark to the soundtrack and I guess I’m supposed to go along for the “ride of excitement” that this movie wishes it was. Never mind the fact that most of the movie is all negligible in the long run, given that Murphy goes back and forth between his frame of mind and the plot never settles on would should really be the central conflict.
At least Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton seem to be having fun, along with Sam Jackson of course. Oldman gets one great scene where he explains to Murphy what is left of him. Keaton simply gets to bring a lot of energy to an otherwise one-dimensional character. If anything, this film is a prime example of why Keaton should be brought into play any part that might seem boring on the page. Even the supporting roles are given some life thanks to casting, except when it comes to “crying wife” or “honorable partner” or “corrupt cop” or…well pretty much most of the non-OmniCorp roles.
I was not a fan of this film. It does not matter that it is based on a pre-existing one and takes the time to make its fair share of callbacks. The goals of this Robocop were not met, despite having many. Sam Jackson vs. ideas surrounding drone warfare goes nowhere, despite being interesting to see. Murphy is trapped inside a machine, but that concept is not given much weight. A Detroit police department has a corrupt element, which I assume was based on money…I don’t know, but who cares anyway, as this is a science fiction film about robots. A business tiptoes on corruption, does not go all the way in, and is punished anyway. Fair enough, what now? Robocop is an action flick that is all flash. It is watchable, because it is built that way, but the interesting parts have apparently been all used up. If director José Padilha gets the chance to work on another robot-themed movie, hopefully he’ll be left to his own devices.
Raymond Sellars: Shut him down!