Oh dear. I just went back and read my review of the original Robocop and there I am, asking for a remake in which they go further into the emotional content. Well, that film is here, and it's really quite good for two-thirds and--well, remember my two-thirds theory? No? Well, in a long-lost essay on the earlier incarnation of this site, I speculated that most sci-fi and horror movies are only interesting for the first two-thirds, becase that's when all the thought-provoking stuff happens. And it sure is the case here. It's too bad, because it was headed straight for awesome, and ended up slightly above meh.
We open with Samuel L. Jackson as a Bill O'Reilly-type on a show called The Novak Factor, saying that American-made robots are patrolling the streets and "keeping the peace" in Tehran. We see the robots calling the locals outside with hands raised and hear an American reporter saying "locals have embraced these routine scans, and are working in collaboration with the machines!" All of which is clearly not true. There is an attack on the machines, and a young boy is brutally shot. All of the footage is edited from the Novak show "for security reasons." Okay, as far as social commentary, I'm on board!
We now meet Michael Keaton [nice to see you again, sir!] as Ray Sellars, CEO of Omnicorp, who makes the robots, and Gary Oldman as his lead doctor, Norton. Sellars is trying to get robots accepted in the United States, but the public doesn't like the idea of robots cops who have no conscience. He has the idea to put a human inside a robot. We find out that Norton only agrees to work for him if the work has no military applications. We see that he has given an amputee guitarist robot hands, but learn that emotion messes up his ability to use them to play. "But I need emotion to play," he says. Then we meet Alex Murphy, cop who just lost his partner. Yeah, it's a lot of exposition. We meet his lovely wife Clara [often pronounced Claire by several people throughout], and know that they have a good relationship because they're about to pork it when Alex is blown up by crooked cops out to silence him. Whew! Okay, can we get this movie started now?
Murphy wakes up, sees his new self, and freaks. He is later woken again by Norton, who shows him how much of his actual body exists, which is a head, lungs and heart, and one hand. It's pretty harsh! He learns to deal with it, and the movie actually delves into the mind-mess and surreality of being made into a machine. Meanwhile, having spent a good long time in some pretty big-shit marketing agencies, I am totally down with the view of uber-villain Sellars as this cool, down-to-Earth guy who wears hip sweaters, cool scarves, distressed jeans and sneakers. He's the super-cool guy you want to be around, even AS he's ruining the world! It turns out that Murphy's conscience is actually slowing him down, so Norton turns off his conscience, only without telling Murphy, or the public. Murphy thinks he's making decisions, but it's actually the computer. "It's the illusion of free will," says Norton. Hold on, are we really having these big ideas in my mainstream sci-fi action film? We are for a while, and I was really, really into it.
SPOILERS > > >
So Murphy is ready to go before the public, and for some reason that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, they decide to upload every crime of the past few years into his brain right as, and I do mean AT THE VERY MOMENT, he is supposed to make his public debut. He freaks when he sees his own murder, and they have to remove all emotion. Which means that, a second later, he doesn't recognize his wife and son [whom he had visited tenderly earlier]. He catches a criminal at the event, and he's a pubic hit. We then have a [very] short montage of him on the streets, fighting crime. By the way, this movie still takes place in Detroit, but while the previous film made what was happening to Detroit a central part of its mix, this one makes nothing of it, to the point where I think they should have placed it somewhere else. It's a bit ugly to show a city that has just declared bankruptcy in real life and is disintegrating rapidly as a gorgeous, festive, well-lit active metropolis.
Well, now the rest of the story begins, and here's where things start to underwhelm. First, Murphy decides to solve his own murder. The deduction process is good and exciting--I also like the subtle commentary that Murphy has total access to the citywide mass surveillance that is becoming common--but the film is rated PG-13, and it's not that it's missing gore, it's that it shies away from letting Murphy have any satisfying revenge. He raids his killers encampment in a very unexciting mass shootout, and just unemotionally shoots his killer without any payoff. Come on, man, this guy has earned it--let him have a little fun getting his revenge! This problem plagues the rest of the movie. There is one good moment when he overrides his programming to shoot one of the cops who set him up, and it works so well it illuminates what's missing in the rest of the story. Revenge isn't worthy, true, but it's satisfying, especially in a movie, and we really want to see Murphy let these guys have it.
So now Sellars have trouble selling Robocop to senators, since the idea that he fights corruption doesn't sit so well with them. So Sellars has the idea that Murphy will die, and his example will have helped but other robots in operation. He tells Norton, who then goes downstairs and sets Murphy free. Now, here's the second big disappointment of the film. This should be a hugely exciting moment: Norton sets Murphy free to go get revenge. But he doesn't say go for it, go out and get 'em, he's all concerned and tries to stop Murphy from leaving. And we don't get the huge "Now it's ON!" moment we should, we just get... a bit of a squish.
Then we go into the climax, which, like everything else in the latter half, is lame. First, Alex is denied the pleasure--and we are denied the vicarious enjoyment--of seeing him get revenge on this asshole trainer dude who has been tormenting and degrading him the entire film. You ordered mac and cheese, you got broccoli. Then we're supposed to get wrapped up in whether he can overcome his programming and shoot Sellars, which he finally does in a quick second that is over before it began, as though the whole thing was an afterthought. Our hero just killed the villain, and you might not have noticed. After some cursory wrap-up, we're out.
< < < SPOILERS END
Well, I wouldn't care so much about the botched ending if the first half hadn't been so darn good. I don't care about PG-13 movies softpedaling gore, because we all know that an inventive movie can get by on simple filmmaking intensity, but this film goes suddenly timid on the personal revenge angle, which necessarily calls for a heaping helping of sadism--and which gives us in the audience vicarious pleasure. A full half of the content here is revenge/empowerment story, but halfway through, that gets neutered and we treat the revenge with apologetic reserve, and we don't get a lot of empowerment, either. Might make it good for your soul [debatable], but it is BAD, VERY BAD for your movie satisfaction. So while this movie starts out strong, it ends with a shrug and you walk out feeling not quite had, but not quite thrilled.
Which is too bad, because it was spot-on for the first half, and we had some pointed social commentary [and some intriguing background social commentary, like the whole reliance on mass surveillance], and it was very nice to go into depth about Alex dealing with being a face and a few organs powering a machine. But apparently they felt a little bad that some might see him as a mean man for killing the people who killed, used and betrayed him, and ended up embracing mediocrity instead. It could have been a contender.
If you want, it's quite good for a while, then: Squish.