Monday, 10 February 2014

Movie Review: RoboCop

I’ll start with a little bit of a disclaimer; I am a huge fan of the original ‘RoboCop’. Whether you think this has instilled a bias in me is entirely your own prerogative but know that I sincerely mean it when I say that I was genuinely looking forward to this movie. Which means I was all the more disappointed as to see just how badly it turned out.

Motivated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) sees his world flipped on its head when a fatal accident places his only chance of survival in becoming fused with machine to become a soldier capable of combining the calculating efficiency of technology and the empathy of man: RoboCop.

I can’t lie, I was very disheartened to find the film swiftly replace the iconic RoboCop chrome suit with a generic black colour but when you make a plot with this much potential seem as dull this film did then you can’t exactly be surprised about it.

There was a great opportunity here to reimagine the story of ‘RoboCop’ in a way that modernised the telling whilst retaining the mood and vision of the original; this film unfortunately does not go down that road. Instead it opts to flatten out the plot for all its worth and tack on useless plot threads that succeed neither at advancing the plot nor entertaining the audience. I can understand why this film wants to stand out from its famous predecessor but I’m shocked to find just how little there is in terms of reverence for the original here, in fact there seems to be a clear motivation to distance itself from the 1987 movie. This iteration of RoboCop desperately wants to have something to say but it falls so in love with its own mishandled political message that it neglects to actually cough up a comment of actual consequence.

Joel Kinnaman spectacularly underdelivers in the lead role of Alex Murphy. His primary flaw is that he fails to provide Murphy with the endearingly human qualities that the audience needs to see in him during his brief but crucial time onscreen before he is transformed into RoboCop. The sheer blandness of Kinnaman’s performance is a tragic injustice to what is such a complex character; his portrayal merely sees Murphy go from a moody and downright unlikable police officer to a RoboCop that is more petulant than conflicted. The only real accomplishment I found in Kinnaman’s interpretation came during the passing instances where his RoboCop was intimidating; sadly these moments were lost in a sea of dull and plodding scenes that were no more than a shallow examination of Murphy’s retained humanity.

If you look closely you can actually see the moment where Joel Kinnaman realises that Gary Oldman is outacting him without even trying.

Despite the disappointment of Kinnaman’s lacklustre leading performance there were a few notable supporting players who managed to carry the film by themselves for a time, these players were Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton. Oldman gives an enjoyable performance as Dr. Dennett Norton, the scientist responsible for merging Alex Murphy with technology. I found Norton to be quite an interesting character, he is a man who initially made his name by leading the way in advancements in human prosthetics; it is clear his main goal was helping to reunite the injured with the limbs they long to reacquire. This makes his journey to become the creator of RoboCop one of the only examples of character development in the entire film. Keaton meanwhile plays what is essentially the villain of the piece, Raymond Sellars, a charismatic but ruthless man who is the CEO of the evil OmniCorp. In all honesty it is Keaton’s natural charm alone that stops this character from becoming the moustache-twiddling antagonist the script would have him be.

What I have always admired about the original film was how much it had going on beneath the surface, as the unique setting of futuristic Detroit was as much of a character as Alex Murphy. Throughout the film we learned how this society had been affected by the rampant crime and corruption of the city; television was little but a vessel for advertisements that blatantly offend the customer (the popular car model 6000 SUX subliminally advised the consumer that GOOD SUX) and a highly popular farce about a lecherous older man with a catchphrase that represents the commercialist mind-set of the citizens “I’d buy that for a dollar!” There is only one hint of this illustration of the corruption of society in the new ‘RoboCop’ and that is through the character of fear monger and partisan television host Pat Novak, played excellently by the great Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson clearly enjoys himself here as he has the opportunity to spout a number of impassioned monologues directly to the camera; Jackson’s character was certainly one the best aspects of the film and his obviously biased opinions were about the closest this film got to actual satire.

Samuel L. Jackson performs his best Fox News impression as host Pat Novak.

This brings to mind the question of where exactly the parody was in this film. The original ‘RoboCop’ is renowned for the satirical bite that it had that set it apart as not just another action movie. This iteration of the character sadly does not possess that trait and ends up as just that: another action movie. In fact I found the only laughable thing here to be the god-awful script.

Much has been made of the age rating difference between the 12A (PG-13) certificate this film receives and the 18 (R) present in the original. The obvious conclusion is to think that this movie has somehow been neutered in terms of the violence and profanity it can showcase (both being memorable aspects of the original) but there are past examples of other films where this is absolutely not the case. Sadly though this time that theory rings true as the film lacks the ability to utilise the same visceral violence of the original ‘RoboCop’ which succeeded in clearly presenting the power and brutality that the eponymous character was capable of. That gore has been replaced by shootouts filled with faceless goons who add to the large but bloodless body count of the movie. Personally I felt that far more was accomplished with the bloody death of Boddicker in the original than with the sterilised feel of the warehouse gun battle here.

The new black-coloured RoboCop is about as generic as it gets.

It has long been said that computer generated effects are no match for practical effects; I’ve never totally subscribed to this belief as in the years since digital effects have become more advanced we have seen things created onscreen that practical effects just could not have achieved such as the stunning world of Pandora in ‘Avatar’ or the colossal mechs of ‘Pacific Rim’. So with my opinion initially leaning favourably towards this film I am yet again dismayed to find that, in the end, I was once again disappointed. The comparisons with the original film still come readily in this regard where in review the practical effects used in 1987 made RoboCop seem foreboding and powerful thanks to his presence as a hulking broker of penance; RoboCop’s immense power was very clearly evident in the slow, precise pace at which he moved. 2014’s RoboCop is limited in no such way as in one scene, thanks to the help of CGI he runs and flips effortlessly when combating with large mechanical sentries. In this case the same awe is not inspired in the audience as rather than seeming every bit the weighty fusion of man and machine, Murphy comes across as just another one of the film’s many disposable robot drones.

There was potential here, potential to reinvent RoboCop for a modern audience and make the mechanised lawman an icon once more. However with the quality of this film that shouldn’t happen, but if it does and a new franchise is sparked from the financial success of this RoboCop then I have no interest in spectating on the fruits of its undeserved achievement because to me this is not RoboCop, this is a poor imitation.

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