I’ll take what’s coming to me on this one.
I haven’t been able to make up my mind between 4 1/2 and 5 stars for this remake of Verhoeven’s famed 1987 masterpiece Robocop. In the end either rating is probably to be considered insane by a vast majority of people, but as I mentioned in my review of the original a few weeks ago I’m not sure how much of that sentiment is authentic. Here is probably the closest I’ve come to admitting a dichotomy between favorite and best when it comes to a critical eye on cinema. I said closest.
The original Robocop is a masterpiece of its genre, deftly merging the commercial element of the big studio sci-fi blockbuster with an artistically rendered commentary on the socio-economic inequalities and rampant seeds of corporatism found in the 1980’s. It’s also been rattling around in my brain for over a quarter of a century. I can recite scenes by heart, and eagerly anticipate upcoming scenes during a rewatch that makes the film impossible to turn off once my remote control discovers it on my television set.
There is just no way, no way, that watching something once in a theatre can engender the same feelings that have stayed with me for most of my life since I can remember. But that’s not how rate films. Deconstructing Verhoeven’s original, it’s impossible for me to come to any other conclusion than the remake by Jose Padilha is every bit as good. Padilha’s film, first and foremost, is a perfectly conceived update of everything Verhoeven was trying to say in 1987, for 2014 audiences. And man is it ever a different world, while simultaneously being much more of the same. Corporatism might still be around (will it ever die?), and the firstRobocop might have just been a few years away from the first Gulf War appearing like a video game on our television screens, but today we fight wars and take out “enemies” with unmanned robotic drones, and Padilha beautifully echoes this in his remake by asking the question how far removed can a human element be before the robot and not the human is responsible for its actions.
So thrilling and relevant is this premise, that it practically invites the film’s much heavier reliance on the human story of Robocop, also hand in hand with our latent twenty-first century focus on feelings, and human interests, littering the blogosphere. His wife and child are present in the film, in a big way, raising the stakes against OmniCorp’s insistence that they own the fallen cop Murphy. Likewise much more time is spent on his transformation, which the anxious might confuse with time wasting, but which is actually setting up the film’s overall dramatic arc through Gary Oldman, who I am so pleased has lately adopted a pattern of alternating between artsy, thespian fare and Hollywood blockbusters. The man can act head and shoulders above everyone else in this film, and he gives his character of Robocop’s creator great depth, facing a constant battle between hubris, morality, and what philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil,” in his mere taking of orders as a hired hand. It’s the classic struggle of man versus nature retold in a way that actually attempts more than its predecessor.
Admittedly there is a point in the film where it almost tries to do too much. Juggling Murphy, his family, the corrupt police force, the corrupt corporation, Gary Oldman, and Samuel L. Jackson, this film’s update of the news commentators which casts the actor as a FOX News/CNN type pundit surrounded by digital screens that he can wipe away with his hands, begins to pull the film away from the revenge angle which was so pivotal in the original. I confess the very moment that thought popped into my head, it also popped into Murphy’s and in the ensuing ten minutes he proceeded to storm his murderer’s hideaway, captured by Padihla in a dark hallway amid the flash of machine gun fire in a bravura feat of action filmmaking that rivals the best Hollywood has ever put out. And this updating, along with the human story, are the reasons why I put Robocop on the same pedestal as the original. Boddicker and his gang were indicative of the festering inhumanity that was growing exponentially from Reagan’s reduction in federal spending that was felt in state police departments, while the corporation was still for the most part a force of good infected by a few greedy individuals. Today, criminals like Boddicker are marginalized against the real blight on society, which goes all the way to the top of OmniCorp, and Murphy’s quick dispatching of the people that killed him underlines their ultimate insignificance. Robocop literally is every single important element from the 1987 version, from a contemporary perspective, and there is not a wasted moment in Padilha’s mad genius orchestration of multiple themes and plot threads into a cohesive whole.
Peppered throughout the film are little homages to the original which are done I feel out of pure respect. The lines “I’ll buy that for a dollar,” and “dead or alive you’re coming with me,” make an appearance, as well as a hilarious boardroom meeting where the OmniCorp executives discuss “social mode,” a version of Robocop that resembles the Murphy of the original with his helmet off. And there are countless others, including the sound of Murphy’s footsteps which I swear is the same sound from the original. These little nods underscore Padilha’s desire to honor Verhoeven’s film while at the same time making one that stands all on its own. This is much more than a cash grab, with wall-to-wall CGI, or at least it is not ONLY that, but rather a work of pop-art which has been labored over and invested with the patience to get it right, and the visceral thrills of a foreign director hungry to make a name for himself in Hollywood. Jose Padilha succeeds more than I ever thought possible, or could have ever expected. I enjoyed the hell out of his Robocop, and as I left the theatre it had me pondering things both existential and practical, the former a rare occurrence dating all the way back to Kubrick’s 2001, and the latter about how dangerous it is that the United States is setting the example and leading the charge across the world in drone warfare. The very last line of dialogue should make it very clear Padilha is not just aiming to please.
The Verdict: Rave