by Adam-Troy Castro
RoboCop (1987). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Ray Wise, others. 101 minutes. ** ½
RoboCop (2014). Directed by Jose Padilha. Written by Joshua Zeterner, from the previous screenplay. Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson. 118 minutes. ** ½
Your friendly reviewer expects some appalled blowback from his decision to rate this particular original and remake as about equivalent in terms of quality, and neither with particular enthusiasm.
To which he can only reply, “Ah, well.”
He regarded some of the fanboy butt-hurt involving the newer RoboCop with the fascination he would have shown an alien artifact, fallen from space. He walked around it, nodding, trying to take in its contours, but reduced to noting those places where its dimensions failed to agree with its purported mass. The reviews he saw, complaining that the second film destroyed or even “raped” childhoods, by presenting as its cyborg RoboCop a guy in black armor instead of silver, a guy whose visor went up and down at regular intervals instead of remaining down until the character took a power drill to his head, and finally a guy who pretty much remembers his past life for the entirety of the film, instead of a guy who had that knowledge erased from him and only remembers it in fragments . . . well, these are indeed different takes on the story, that provide the whole with a somewhat different shape, but to take from these alterations the hysterical complaint that the new film “ruins ROBOCOP” or “completely misses the point of ROBOCOP” or performs the equivalent of sexual violations on a generation that revered ROBOCOP, is to declare a culture war over trespass at something that never should have been a shrine.
It’s bloody ROBOCOP. It’s a schematically-drawn nice-guy police officer who gets shot up almost as soon as we meet him and is re-built as a hulking machine who shoots bad guys.
Sacred, it never was; raped by the remake, your childhood wasn’t; the point of it wasn’t missed.
There are things the first film does better and things the second film does better, rendering any comparison between them pretty much a wash.
Nor will your friendly reviewer give so much as half a star’s additional credit to the first film on the grounds that “at least it was original,” because, let’s face it, its originality lay largely in what it chose to imitate. Even in the 1987 incarnation directed by Paul Verhoeven, RoboCop owes a lot to Judge Dredd, a comic book character created ten years earlier, who also patrols a dystopic crime-ridden metropolis, and also blows bad guys away while showing an absolute minimum of humanity or empathy; both characters have helmets that conceal the top half of their faces, both characters are impossible to reason with if you’re on the wrong side of the law, and both are played at a level to appall you even as you also root for them. Though production lag makes it impossible to declare a direct correlation with absolute confidence, the 1987 film would also seem to owe an awful lot to Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which, like the film, had a great deal of fun illustrating the sheer awfulness of its fictional universe with snippets of appalling news stories, many of which have nothing to do with the story at hand but do establish a society in such rapidly accelerating free fall that the vigilante at the center of story is not an anomaly but rather additional evidence that the world has gone insane. It’s impossible to say whether the makers of the movie cribbed the idea from Miller; nor is it reasonable, since the device is not all that startling. But it’s worth noting that when the time came to write a (terrible) RoboCop 2 (1990), it was Miller they went to for the story, and for the co-written screenplay; Miller who thus began a movie career that has for the most part been awful.
Defenses of the original film on the basis of originality are rendered additionally strange by the presence of so many scenes straight out of Screenwriting 101. I mean, this movie actually has the scene where a bad guy is taken down by a tough cop in armor, who then removes her helmet and reveals that she’s actually, gasp, a woman (Lewis, played by Nancy Allen). We can’t fault the movie for that, because there’s a reason why action movies default to scenes of that sort so often. They sketch in a character — here she is, she’s tough — in minimal screen time, and thus allow the moviemakers to get away with telling you almost nothing else about her. It’s mayhem kabuki. (The tough black cop who barks orders at the underlings is a similar plug-in value.) Murphy himself doesn’t get all that much more before he gets his limbs blown off. We know he’s a cop being transferred from a “nice precinct” to this much tougher one in the center of Old Detroit; we know he’s polite and personable; we know he loves his wife; we know he practices twirling his gun by his trigger guard because it amuses his son and gives him a kick as well; and that’s who he is, all he is, a collection of plugged-in traits, given what weight they have by a few scenes of the pre-cyborg Peter Weller. Which, Weller’s considerable talent as an actor aside, isn’t all that much.
(At this point, some of you might be screaming that I’m asking too much of it. It’s just a movie! you cry. To which your friendly reviewer replies, compare what we know of Murphy to how well we know Riggs and Murtaugh in those just as dumb-but-enjoyable Lethal Weapon movies; how well we know Peter Parker before the spider bites him, how well we know Bruce Wayne, in any incarnation of Batman; how well we know what really drives Clark Kent, in any Superman story that matters. You may be willing to call them two-dimensional characters, but in all those cases it’s one more dimension than Murphy gets. And that’s before his personality is smoothed over by his robotization, at which point he is for a while a homicidal ATM, blowing away scumbags while reciting cop-speak.)
The movie also suffers, in retrospect, from too much of the hero-as-unstoppable force. Almost every superhero’s introductory film has some of this, establishing just how formidable the hero is, before powerful enemies are rallied to confront him; there’s a wonderful montage of the sort in Superman: The Motion Picture. But in that film, the montage is Superman rescuing Lois Lane from a falling helicopter, then stopping the skyscraper-scaling burglar, then rescuing a cat from a tree. That movie gives us the most impressive feat first, then scales down, down to the cat-rescue, which underlines the key element of his character, that he’s here to help. RoboCop beats up a bad guy. Then shoots another bad guy. Then later on enters a drug den and shoots a bunch of bad guys. It’s one-note, developing nothing but the number of blood squibs.
The criminals, led by Kurtwood Smith and Ray Wise, are colorful enough, and again more fun to watch than the nominal hero, but let’s face it: they are characterized by how much they leer and giggle as they do brutal things. It’s again an awfully clumsy way to get us to hate them in minimal time, not a real substitute for making them interesting. They deserve to die. We get on with watching that happen.
With all this established, what does the 1987 RoboCop give us for our money? Well, there is some great mayhem. The scene where RoboCop confronts a rapist trying to use a woman as a human shield, and effortlessly fires through her dress and between her parted legs to hit the bad guy in the crotch, is black humor, but effective black humor. The then-outrageous concept of a privatized police force being run by a corporation for a profit turns out to have been a pretty sadly flawless feat of extrapolation. The corporate intrigue between rising young slimy executive played by Miguel Ferrer and established older slimy executive played by Ronny Cox — both of whom are more interesting to watch than the titular hero — is fun. So’s the boardroom meeting where the demonstration of a new weapons system goes awry and some poor schlub gets perforated with machine gun fire, leading the Old Man who runs the corporation to snarl that he’s very disappointed. The end of one of the bad guys, turning increasingly liquid after a dousing in toxic waste, is nasty and disgusting and very perversely funny. The sight gag of the unstoppable alternate robot that cannot descend a flight of stairs is a big laugh too. There is also a pretty damn wonderful running gag, scenes we see in passing from a puerile sitcom that seems to be universally popular in this awful world, in which a nebbish who continually finds himself in the presence of busty women cries the catch-phrase, “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” In short, the film is interesting for all the reasons that have nothing to do with its hero: which is good for those other elements, not so good for the void at the movie’s center.
RoboCop’s arc in the first film ends when he identifies himself by his human name, Murphy. He does not, in that film at least, enjoy a reunion of sorts with his loved ones. That had to wait for the sequel, RoboCop 2, where that scene was perfunctory and pushed out of the way so the film could get on with its (significantly inferior) story.
The much-derided 2014 reboot has some serious problems. And no, RoboCop’s new shiny black armor, which he turns in for his more familiar silver design at the end of this film, is not one of them; not being anal about such things, your friendly reviewer liked that new armor just fine. But the story is lumpy, and it remains not entirely clear just what corporate overlord Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is up to, that makes him turn villainous in time for the climax. It jettisons most of the satirical commercials and news reports in order to present us with a right-wing TV pundit and handy-dandy exposition guy played by Samuel L. Jackson, who just adores the RoboCop program and waxes rhapsodic on how it’s the best hope for all of us; he’s an ass, but he’s played by the guy we know as Nick Fury, and it would alas be too easy for lazy audiences to fail to see him as an ass. The guy who builds RoboCop is one Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who is in some scenes deeply concerned about his cybernetic patient’s welfare and in others perfectly willing to render him an unfeeling machine by shutting off his emotions — an inconsistent characterization to say the least, and one that doesn’t feel like we’re watching a conflicted character, but rather like we’re watching one who is willing to change attitudes on a dime in order to march us to the next scene. The action is more bloodless, the climax less memorable, the death of the bad guy less an effective punchline to a joke. These are not small flaws. They’re sufficiently glaring that they counter many of the film’s strengths, which as it turns out, are considerable.
For, as it happens, the 2014 version actually does have a new satirical point it doesn’t just carry over the first one. The years since 1987 have brought us well into the age the franchise posits, and so we are first introduced to the film’s technology via a prologue set in an occupied Teheran, where a captive population is dehumanized and humiliated by robotic “peace-keeping” even as one young boy seeking only to defend his father foments a televised tragedy by taking the machines on with a knife. The horror of the situation is not treated as a joke, even if Samuel L. Jackson, exposition guy, thinks it’s just an inconvenient annoyance. The scene has more to say about current events than the entire 1987 film had to say about its time.
The human element is also significantly improved. Unlike 1987’s Murphy, the 2014 version (Kinnaman), gets to express some reaction to what’s been done to him. He first panics, in a scene where he runs amuck and in so doing demonstrates his new abilities; then, restrained, asks to be shown just how extensive the damage to his original body was, and is reduced to screaming as all the additions are peeled away from him. His screams of horror, and his subsequent pleas for death, feel more real than anything in the original movie; it’s a great scene, better than anything in the earlier film (or, for that matter, anything else in this new one). The character’s subsequent attempts to reconnect with his old life, which are stymied for a while as his emotions are turned off, ground him in ways that the 1987 Murphy wasn’t grounded. He feels like a character whose humanity matters. At least a little, and alas, only for a while. But it’s more than we got before. So the new film is not exactly, as so many folks missing their childhoods whined, “missing the point of RoboCop.” It’s getting that point, for a bit, before the mayhem resumes and things go back to blowing up. This is no small thing. Nor is it enough to give the second film the classic status some would claim for the first. It’s just the minimum you would expect a competent storyteller to do.
We do movies no service by over-praising either version.
(Nerd alert: it was while watching the 2014 version that your friendly reviewer shouted, during one scene featuring Keaton and Oldman, “Batman and Commissioner Gordon!” He suspects he is not alone.)
In The Remake Chronicles, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro examines the stories that movies keep returning to. This column will alternate with A-TC’s regular video recommendations.
Fantastic readers take note: Adam-Troy Castro’s next major story publication is “Sleeping Dogs,” a novella in the July/August issue of ANALOG.