There’s a moment in RoboCop when the eponymous law enforcer races through downtown Detroit on his sleek, black motorcycle and the camera follows him from behind at full speed, weaving through moving cars just as he does. Suddenly, horns take over the score, and I’ll be damned if many viewers don’t immediately think of the exact same shot from The Dark Knight (it doesn’t help that RoboCop and Batman have similar black suits either). And this isn’t the only time Jose Padilha’s reboot of the 1987 science fiction classic by Paul Verhoeven calls to mind Christopher Nolan’s game-changer. Look, it’s been six years since Knight redefined the standards of the genre picture, and, believe me, I too get annoyed with having to go back and compare current movies to that milestone, but it’s almost impossible not to do so when genre picture after genre picture, from Superhero films like Man of Steel to other Verhoeven remakes like Total Recall, aims to match Knight’s unified blend of tone, action, and post-9/11 social commentary. Fortunately, RoboCop isn’t an outright mess, it’s actually a lot better than the cliché trailers suggest, but it does struggle to maintain a tone that desperately wants to be both an awesome, robo-fun action picture and a self-serious commentary on the intriguing technology vs. human soul debate.
I should note I’ve never seen Verhoeven’s classic, so I can’t attest to how faithful this version is or to how clever it updates the material to the present day, but fans of the franchise should take comfort in knowing the basic story structure is intact. When loving family man and Detroit cop Alex Murphy (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman) is critically injured after a murder attempt, the technological big business OmniCorps, headed by the duplicitous Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), transforms him into the title’s half cop/half machine. You see, every country but America has been using OmniCorps’ robotic law enforcements to keep their streets safe, igniting a global debate over whether humans or robots should be trusted with making life-or-death police decisions. Sellars hopes this new RoboCop will silence the anti-robot parties and begin an American robot revolution that will leave him with billions of dollars. But things get complicated as man and machine fight for ownership of RoboCop. Alex uses his new technological powers to solve his own crime, which leads to growing tension in his marriage (his wife is played by Abbie Cornish) and OmniCorp’s alteration of his programming so that he can be more of a robot and less of a man.
The social commentary regarding technology and how it de-sentimentalizes the human race is easily the strongest part about RoboCop, especially for twenty-somethings like myself that have grown up with this very question. Unfortunately, the screenwriters try to cram in a few more social critiques too, annoyingly breaking from the action for a Wolf Blitzer-style news show led by Samuel L. Jackson that mocks the subversive dangers of American media. That too is an intriguing and timely theme, but the film hits it on the head so hard that not even Jackson’s wacky eyes and over-the-top delivery can save it. Every time the film cuts to Jackson, you wish it could continue intriguing you with all its hints about how technology affects the souls of not only RoboCop but also every player involved in his making and experimentation. Kinnaman has the face of a handsome leading man, though he seems a little nervous in his first headlining movie role. His stiffness ends up being ideal for the parts of the film where he must be an emotionless robot, but it’s quite ineffective during emotional scenes with his family when he must go head-to-head with an emotionally resonant Abbie Cornish. Cornish is very convincing in even the most cliché scene, making Kinnaman’s stiffness all the more noticeable.
What ultimately undoes the movie, however, is its tone-jumping from self-serious genre pic about the harms of manipulating technology and media to what it hopes is a really cool genre pic about awesome gadgets and crazy action set pieces. These two simply don’t mix, and that’s why a lot of contemporary genre pictures fail miserably in The Dark Knight’s large shadow. Imagine if Nolan set one of his gritty Batman fight scenes to the yodeling rock of Focus’ “Hocus Pocus”. How ridiculous would that be? Very, and it proves just as confusing when the song plays over a crucial shoot out that will prove whether or not RoboCop can be shown to the world and put into operation. Song choices like that, in addition to the 80s feeling electric guitar score, don’t really mesh well with a self-serious social commentary. Neither do action set pieces that are directed and staged like wannabe videogames, with the camera taking on a first person shoot em’ up format. One scene even adds night vision. These throwback choices fit better with Jackson’s loopy media satire than they do with supporting the heavier contemporary themes at play.
While the suit and its many abilities are undisputedly badass (the shots from inside RoboCop’s helmet that show you just how quick he can pick out a suspect from a large crowd are awesome), and there are some occasional moment of robo-awesomeness (I got gloriously creeped out when the robot suit dismantled to reveal what was left of Alex Murphy after his accident), none of these elements really push the social messages of the movie forward and the film lacks a sense of urgency because of it. It wants to have the same thematic gravitas as The Dark Knight but ends up telling you more about its themes than having you actually feel them yourself.
RoboCop is more proof that it’s incredibly hard to deliver a social message with dramatic weight like this one when the action is desperately trying to be eye-poppingly numb. None of this is to say that a light and bouncy action movie can’t have social commentary, just look at the mesmerizing Dredd 3D for proof, but RoboCop deliberately puts forward some pretty big existential themes from the get go and barely can support them with thin, mindless action. It just doesn’t work, which is especially disappointing given the talented supporting cast features Gary Oldman as a right-minded doctor and the great Jennifer Ehle as an icy business associate. Alas, if you want super cool robo-action, see the previously mentioned Dredd, and if you want a stirring commentary on the technology vs. soul debate, you’re better off seeing Her, it’s far less noisy.
Review by Zack Sharf