Where is the movie “Robocop”‘s soul?

There are a lot of critics out there that are bashing the new Robocop movie by comparing it to the original 1987 film. I won’t do that because I haven’t seen the original in a long time. (But believe me, I will before we record the Podcast Unlimited episode about it.) However, back in 1987, it was possible to create an action movie that had no clear message, motive, or agenda. Which is why Paul Verhoeven was able to direct an over-the-top sci-fi film with tons of gratuitous violence and silly catch-phrases. The 2014 reboot, like its titular cyborg, is hampered by its corporate masters’ greed. In this case, I refer to its PG-13 rating which waters down all of its potential for strong action, moral and ethical themes in order to cater to a wider, younger audience. I am a GenXer, so my initial reaction to a Robocop remake was initially positive. But as a cynical soul who has studied pop culture for the past 20+ years, my next reaction was dread. Not that they were going to  tarnish a golden legacy, but that they were gong to make it something that it isn’t. And that thing is “fun.”

There is much to like about the 2014 film. It’s strongest point is in the acting. Not the protagonist, Joel Kinnaman himself, unless you are going to meta-critique his monotonous, robot-esque performance. I am referring to the brilliant performances of 3 of my favorites actors: Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley, and Michael Keaton. (when we upload the podcasts, you will hear how much we love Michael Keaton’s acting.) The action scenes are quite thrilling. The shoot-out scene in almost all night-vision goggles stand out in particular.

However, every time director José Padilha wants to make some stinging commentary: whether it is about American imperialism, the corporate influence within the military industrial complex, or the quintessential man vs machine philosophical debate, the movie pulls its punches. The movie opens in the streets of Tehran, Iran, but never goes back to discuss the growing resentment of the natives being bullied by the “occupying” robot police force. Any time Officer Murphy, in his cyborg body, shows any lingering signs of humanity, the movie literally pulls the plug by having someone pulling the plug on Officer Murphy. It may not be visually exciting for a movie audience to see internal conflict vis-a-vis a gun fight or a motorcycle chase scene, but it can be done. The studio had no faith in Padilha.

My bottom line: while others compare this film to the 1987 film, I kept comparing this to the 1995 anime film, Ghost in the Shell, and its 2002 & 2004 TV series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Both titles did a better job in telling a story and hammering home a point at the same time than the 2014 Robocop. I believe it is a more apt comparison when considering the scope and ambition of the director. I’ll take José Padilha over Mamoru Oshii any day. There is just enough action and character development to be entertaining, and while the acting and directing were superb, the script and PG-13 rating acts as an Asimov’s Law of Robotics upon the film. My grade: C+.


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