Robocop: Part Action, Part Drama, All Mediocre


For a remake of an '80s action movie about a robot with a human brain shooting up drug dealers, Robocop is surprisingly low-key at times. In fact, it's almost too restrained. Directed by José Padilha and set in a near-future United States, the film follows the travails of Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit police officer so dreadfully injured by an explosion that he must be reborn with a mechanical body.

Once you get past trying to say the title Robocop with a straight face, there's actually a lot of potential here. What makes someone human? Memories and emotions, or flesh and blood? How much freedom must be sacrificed in the name of peace? Which is more corruptible, human beings or machines made by human beings? How trustworthy is something without free will? What is free will, anyway? All of these questions are glanced at in the film, but none are dealt with directly. It's hard to tell whether the movie is leaving the audience to form their own decisions, or whether its creators simply lacked the desire to explore the philosophical issues in any depth.

For those unconcerned with the peripheral treatment of ethical dilemmas, Robocop is comfortably paced and offers some respectable but unspectacular action sequences. Much of the original film's grim whimsey is absent, but some subtle humour is provided by Samuel Jackson as the highly opinionated TV personality Pat Novak. There are a few nice touches in the musical score, including an all-too-brief appearance of Basil Poledouris' theme for the 1987 film, and a caustically amusing use of "if I only had a heart" from The Wizard of Oz. The cast is uninspired but solid and would serve the film admirably if the leading man were only a bit more compelling.

Given that the dramatic core of the movie consists of a human mind trapped in a mechanical body, it would help tremendously if Alex Murphy actually had a distinctive human personality to contrast with the robot. Unfortunately, he's utterly bland and two-dimensional even before the metal limbs are attached and the corporate-sponsored doctor (played by Gary Oldman) starts messing with his emotional responses. There isn't a twitch or a quirk of speech to distinguish him from the hoard of other generic "decent guys" in movies. While the script and director must shoulder a large part of the blame, little good can be said of Kinnaman. His performance isn't wooden, exactly, but it lacks most of the little details that would have made Murphy a likeable and interesting character.

A flat hero might be more forgivable if Robocop were just another mindless action movie, but it's clearly trying to be a good deal more. A respectable amount of screen time is devoted to Murphy's family (played by Abbie Cornish and a pleasantly understated John Paul Ruttan) and to the people responsible for his transformation. The movie wants to have an emotional arc keeping pace with the flying bullets, but it doesn't quite manage. It seems that Padilha set himself the ambitious and admirable task of combining mechanized crime-busting action with a futuristic drama. The resulting hybrid is — like the title character — a bit of both worlds, but far from the best of either.


11 comments on “Robocop: Part Action, Part Drama, All Mediocre

  1. Future? It’s already happening. That movie was so republican-scary I was surprised not finding the GOP and the Tea Party in the credits.

    Did it lack cyberpunk’s usual gore and explicit violence? It did, but it had far more sci-fi than the original, and it more than made up for the lack of gore with plenty of emotional violence. Watching the surgeon supress Murphy’s instincts felt like rape.

  2. It’s funny you ask, I just watched it yesterday, ready to see a movie which would shatter my childhood memories. But then, I was pleasantly surprised to see how the movie had more neurons than one could expect at first glance. Who would have known?

    As for your question, I think Robocop made, as pretty much all robots/AI sci-fi, the faulty assumption that functional AI is just around the corner, when in fact (or at least, according to the sources I’ve read), it is more likely to be at least a century ahead. If not more.
    By functional AI I mean, software that can interact with people and recognize, even in the most basic of levels, what is it they’re seeing and what the people they’re interacting with are doing or trying to do. This level of recognition and understanding is used by the “drones” in the movie and portrayed as something rather primitive and clunky. But in reality, those are freaking complex brain skills that are almost always hand-waved in sci-fi movies as non-important or easy to do, when in fact, they are extremely hard to emulate with any reliability at this point in history.
    This is not to say computers will never reach this level of complexity, but I think us ordinary people don’t realize just how hard the challenge really is. I remember reading that we’re as close to create reliable AI as we are of developing interstellar travel. That is, not even close.

    Now, putting all this party pooping aside, I think the really compelling concept in the movie was the portrayal of bionic implants and the way the brain will interact (or fail to interact) with them. In this regard, I think the movie did a better job, and I personally enjoyed a lot the scene with Gary Oldman and the guy who is trying to play the guitar once again with his new robotic hands. I really liked that scene. It was a moment that showed all the promise, and all the frustration, of robotics implemented in humans. If the movie had dedicated a little more time into this difficult relationship I think it would have been much more thought-provoking.

  3. Katya, well it’s not far from it as it is :D But hopefully not..

    Joel, that sounds like just another decision to make while growing up, something like deciding your major.. You have to sacrifice something to get something.

  4. We are probably only two decades or so away from cybernetic implants. I doubt this will be of huge interest to the non-disabled, at least for some time after they are invented. This is because there would have to be a common format.

    If you were to get integrated cybernetic systems placed in your body during your young adult life (ie. after you stop growing) in order to get a job (such as a police officer) then you risk a hardware upgrade making your potential employment obsolete within 5-10 years (possibly even sooner depending on advancement rate). Essentially it is not worth getting an implant unless the implant can be removed and replaced with upgrades in the future. While someone with older technology could opt in for improvements at a cost (just as we do with mobile phones), there is still the problem that certain biological interface issues with their prototype hardware means they would never reach the potential of a newer model.

    The modern example would be someone who has an iOS device wanting to switch to an Android device, however find that to upgrade they can not use their iOS apps on their new phone. Essentially they would either have to forgo the advantages of the apps they used, or spend lots of money to re-buy the equivalent on the play store.

  5. I actually thought it was far too similar to the original movie and story. This fact, barring anything else, made it a tremendous disappointment for me.

    I did not want to see a reboot of the Robocop story, but rather a complete retelling of it with new angles and NEW ideas. This would have been more like what Ridley Scott did with Prometheus or what is being done (to a slight degree) with The Planet of The Apes franchise.

  6. I prefer the original but the remake wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I like Kinnaman he’s a cool actor.

    I didn’t want to see it but I got free tickets and said what the Hell and glad I did but the original is still better.

  7. It was a fun popcorn movie and had its moments, that said it really needed a hard R rating an practical effects to be a legit RoboCop movie. 

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