The Malfunctions of RoboCop

The entirely unnecessary remake isn't awful. But it's not good either.

RoboCop, Endless Love, About Last Night

Surveying the peculiar array of 1980s retreads clustered into release this week, I’m reminded of Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part II, traveling forward in time 30 years to discover that everything is still the same, only worse. I can hardly wait for the inevitable reappearances of The Breakfast Club, Rain Man, and Escape From New York. (Oh wait, that last one is actually happening, proving once again that commerce outstrips comedy.)

Let’s start with the good news: The new RoboCop takes place in 2028 and The Atlantic is still in business!

We know this because early in the movie a conservative talk show host (Samuel L. Jackson) flashes the magazine’s cover onscreen to illustrate a controversy coursing through the body politic: whether or not America should amend its laws to allow robots to patrol the streets as law enforcement. They’re already performing this function, after all, on peacekeeping missions in locales such as Tehran—and what U.S. city wouldn’t want to adopt that civic utopia as a model?

Public opinion is resistant, however. The American people want to ensure that whoever wields the power of life and death has a “conscience.” So Omni Corp, the manufacturer of the cybernetic patrolmen, comes up with a compromise. As CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) declares, “We’re gonna put a man”—or least the crucial parts of one—“into a machine.” After incorruptible Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gets himself blown to pieces in the line of duty, Sellars has himself the makings of a Robocop.

The only problem is that all-important “conscience”—or more accurately, consciousness—tends to slow down the law-enforcing. Where Omni Corp’s robots can take out a bad guy in milliseconds, Murphy’s impulse to think first and shoot later is messing with his performance. And so, at Sellars’s behest, Omni Corp doctor Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman) starts screwing around (literally) in Murphy’s head. The result is a cyborg that responds autonomously to combat situations with Murphy’s consciousness merely following along for the ride—an illusion of selfhood. (Somewhere, Rust Cohle is laughing.)

It’s an intriguing conceit, though RoboCop doesn’t get much mileage out of it. There are other glimmers of ingenuity scattered throughout the movie as well, and the cast (which also features Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Michael K. Williams, and Jay Baruchel) is unexpectedly top-shelf. But there are plenty of missteps too—including a couple of the most risibly ill-timed medical interventions ever committed to celluloid—and the pieces never cohere into a satisfying whole.

As a general rule, a not-exactly-clamored-for remake such as this one needs some powerful animating vision, a writer or director who wants to claim authorship and make the material his own. (An earlier iteration of the project was attached to Darren Aronofsky—now that might have been interesting.) Instead, RoboCop has the feel of cinema by committee, the product of acquisition rather than inspiration. The direction (by José Padilha) is competent and, as noted, the script (by Joshua Zetumer) has its moments. But there’s little joy or wit on display, and the longer the film progresses the harder it becomes to shake the sense that everyone is merely going through the motions.

The original RoboCop was hardly a masterpiece, but it was original. Though its relationship to the crime-phobic zeitgeist of the time may have been a bit silly, it was at least authentic. The political resonances of the remake, by contrast—a half-hearted bid to achieve topicality by connecting the story to U.S. use of drones—is self-evidently contrived. (The fact that drones aren’t robots and robots aren’t drones is a problem the film barely even tries to paper over.)

Is RoboCop a terrible movie? Not really. By the dubious standards of off-season action remakes, it’s better than most, and perhaps an acceptable diversion for those in need. But be forewarned: This is a diversion that—like its protagonist—is 100 percent canned.