Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Robocop 2014 is in no way anywhere near as good as Paul Verhoven’s original masterpiece. Such comparisons wouldn’t be fair in the first place but are inevitable. Even compared against the much weaker latter installments, Robocop 2014 falls flat.
Compared against its franchise lineage this film isn’t good. Compared against itself, Robocop still isn’t a good film. It is a sterile and soulless film that tries to be about human emotion and the soul wrapped in the current drone conversation. Right before the newly redesigned Robocop Alex Murphy is about to go through his final test, Dr. Norton(Gary Oldman) explains to Omni Corp CEO Raymond Sellers(Michael Keaton) that Murphy is more a machine that thinks it’s a man thanks. This movie thinks it is playing with ideas of the loss and reclamation of humanity but unlike its lead never manages to override the programming. Instead it mechanically goes through the motions of action cinema, with Elite Squad director José Padilha only able to show hints of how stylishly he can frame action. At least the Total Recall remake attempted to be something different from the thing that birthed it.
Robocop frames itself as a drone film, not all drones are the kind that fly around and rain hellfire down after all. In this not too distant future America, despite ferociously using machines in their foreign policy to “pacify” certain areas, is as Patrick Novak(Samuel L. Jackson) (a cheap Bill O’Reily or Keith Olbermann stand in) puts it, “robophobic” domestically. With legislation blocking the usage of robots on American soil. By not working in America Omni Corp is losing too much potential money, even though their stock is perfectly fine. Leading Sellers to try and put a man inside a machine to circumvent restrictions and curry public favor. That’s about as much development as the world of Robocop gets.
The film starts strong at least, it’s first scene being the only one with real heart or emotional impact. Novak Element reporters are on the ground following Omni Corp drones as they do a routine patrol in some Middle Eastern city. The General off screen talks up how the locals have come to trust the robots and enjoy the “security” they bring as they come out of their homes with their hands up. A small child is nearly deemed a threat by poking at the robot. This marks the only real sequence where attempts at commentary come through. As powder kegs are one to do, the situation quickly blows up. Amidst the chaos, a mixture of “news footage” and traditional shots, a character who has less than 5 minutes of screen time makes a bigger emotional impact than anyone else in the entire film, as he is blown away by the large ED-209.
It’s a short moment of emotional resonance. In dealing with drones and the idea that Murphy is nothing more than a soulless corporate killing machine, the depiction of violence is paramount to expressing these ideas. Due to its PG-13 rating, violence is efficient, and sterile. All qualities found in an Omni Corp robot. There is barely any blood splatter and shots are never held on the corpses of the defeated. Short point of view cuts from Robocop’s visor do nothing to build empathy for this killing machine or show him to be just that. It becomes a meaningless style shot. Violent action is never emphasized or pondered, that is this films greatest sin.
Like its cyborg lead, this film lacks a heart. Never dose it build any sort of emotional connection with Alex Murphy played by Joel Kinnaman. It coldly and mechanically goes through the plot movements that one would expect to build that connection. We see him as a driven detective trying to bring down a major weapons dealer, as a loving husband and father, and still nothing. If you didn’t care about Murphy before he is blown apart, it’s highly unlikely you will care about him as he is slowly robbed of his humanity. It doesn’t help that he regains this humanity at the flip of a plot switch either.
This isn’t to fault Joel Kinnaman’s performance. Like the majority of the characters in the screenplay by Joshua Zetumer (his first screenplay credit), he is under developed. Kinnaman dose what is asked of him by this film which is act like an emotionless automaton with a human face. You can’t fault him with that.
In general the cast is underutilized, only Gary Oldman manages to make any sort of impact but that’s only due to his characters moral complexion being driven by plot necessity. Michael Keaton appeared to be a fun scene chewing corporate villain in marketing material and is never given a chance to sing here. Jay Baruchel makes the most out of his minor supporting role as a douche bag head marketer for Omni Corp.
Robocop isn’t as terrible as you may have expected. It is a totally competent soulless action film. But when it portends to be something more it fails to even remotely grasp at what it’s trying to say.
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