Silver Screen: RoboCop ***
The intersection of art and commerce is a strange crossroads, but in Hollywood it’s the most popular neighborhood. The economies of scale involved in making a major motion picture, coupled with the fragmentation of the viewership, pretty much guarantee that the profit motive will be the dominant factor in any modern movie’s creation.
Hollywood is a hooker who’ll kiss you on the mouth. The veneer of artistry is still important, if not to the increasingly savvy audience, then at least to the filmmakers who labor under the hope that they’re doing something beyond targeting demographies with mathematical precision. That’s how you wind up with something like The Lego Movie or the remake of RoboCop. Both films aggressively denounce rigidity and commercialism. But as was once said by Shakespeare— a guy who sold a lot of tickets— somebody doth protest too much.
Why did George Mallory climb Mount Everest? “Because it was there.” Why remake the 1987 kinda-classic RoboCop? Because the franchise is there, complete with a ready-made marketing angle and built-in nostalgia. Marketing isn’t just the driving force behind the camera, it’s the film’s central concern.
Detective Alex Murphy (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman) is close to catching a notorious drug kingpin when he’s nearly killed by a car bomb, then revived inside the body of a robot. Murphy’s own personal Frankenstein is Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), an earnest researcher in the employ of ultra-rich robotics pioneer Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Sellars has crafted an army of drones to police Afghanistan, but political opposition has kept him from releasing his machines into the American market. Sellars recognizes the American people’s hesitancy toward mechanized law enforcement, so he concocts a compromise: a robot cop with the face and brain (and little else) of a human being.
In the original RoboCop, Murphy (memorably played by Peter Weller) was an automaton whose humanity began to push through cracks in his programming. Director José Padilha, working from an updated script by Joshua Zetumer, inverts the premise: Kinnaman’s Murphy is in full control, with all of his memories intact, but the interface between his emotions and the overload of data from his programming pushes his mind to the limit, and his human instincts cause him to hesitate in the field. Sellars and Norton mute his humanity with drugs and alter him so that computer code dictates his actions in combat. This RoboCop is focus-grouped, painted black, and approved by a publicist (Jay Baruchel).
Eventually there’s the requisite shooting. RoboCop hunts down the crime boss who ordered his murder, then turns his attention to his crooked creators and their robot minions. Padilha stages the action sequences competently and coherently, although the computer-animated PG-13 destruction lacks the grit and gore that made Paul Verhoeven’s original such ghastly fun.
Padilha’s true focus is on turning RoboCop from an action figure into an actual character, and subsequently critiquing the market-testing process that gradually dehumanizes him. It distinguishes Padilha’s version of the story from Verhoeven’s, yet, as with poor Murphy, the beating heart is imprisoned in the skeleton of a machine. RoboCop’s protracted origin story winds up playing an awful lot like the boring, wildly overrated Batman Begins, the new template for comic-book franchises in which the superhero doesn’t even do any superheroics until the final act of the film, which is supposed to whet our collective appetite for the inevitable sequel. (And that sequel will set up the third installment, completing the trilogy, so we can reboot the whole thing and start over again with a younger actor a decade from now.)
Verhoeven’s RoboCop was gleefully unsubtle yet also archly funny. This more serious-minded incarnation pushes its subtext of drone warfare and privatization to the forefront... but then again, who wants a serious-minded RoboCop movie? When the jokes do appear, they’re obvious and flat. (An evil capitalist named Sellars?) Samuel L. Jackson appears in a series of interstitial scenes to directly state the movie’s themes in the guise of blowhard TV pundit Pat Novak, host of The Novak Element, but these media snippets are humorless, superfluous, and far too on-the-nose; cumulatively they lack the satirical power of Burgess Meredith’s one-line zinger, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”
Padilha struggles valiantly to sneak in a critique of the very system employing him to work on this competent but unnecessary retread, and to set it apart from other, lazier remakes that barely even bother to reimagine their source material. But ultimately it’s all in the service of getting you to buy that for a dollar— or ten.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.