Friday, February 21, 2014

On RoboCop Comparisons

RoboCop (2014) is the new remake of the original RoboCop (1987) and as such was doomed to begin with. The original has a large fan base and is widely considered influential if not masterful. As with any kind of remake or reboot, there was significant backlash even before this new film came out. This preparatory backlash is silly, and comparisons to the original are unnecessary and unjustified. The new movie's not going to erase the old one, and in this case it didn't even ruin anything. The new RoboCop might not be better than the old one, but taken on its own merits it's a solid, enjoyable movie.

More important than anything else, the new RoboCop does not try to be the old RoboCop. It has a very different tone and style and it tackles slightly different thematic issues. As such, the plethora of comparisons to the original are a bit misleading and misguided. I mean, there are plenty of movies the new RoboCop is worse than besides the original RoboCop, and while the comparison may feel logical because of the similar titles I've always felt that remakes want to pay homage to their source material rather than copy or improve it. Furthermore, it's unclear why the natural inclination is to compare it to the original rather than either of the sequels. RoboCop 2 was funny but relatively shallow and RoboCop 3 was a total disaster. RoboCop (2014) is easily the second best RoboCop movie ever.

Admittedly some of the new film's problems are revealed by comparing it to the original. For example, it has a slower pace and not quite as much personality. But it also shows some of the remake's strengths, like stronger character development. The reason this comparison doesn't work is because it doesn't explain what's wrong with the remake, because as much as I enjoyed this more than the average critic it does have its flaws.

The reason this movie exists is because Sony Pictures has been trying to find someone to make it for almost 10 years (originally with Darren Aronofsky at the helm), so part of its trouble is that it's not some passion project from a director with a specific vision. Like Man of Steel, last year's sci-fi action extravaganza, this is an effort by a studio to capitalize on movie rights it's already paying for.

Maybe the comparison to Man of Steel is more appropriate then, in which case this is a much more interesting and well-developed movie thematically. Where that film's Clark Kent is given good principles but faces a crisis which has nothing to do with them, here Alex Murphy is actually torn between the opposing forces of his family, his desire for justice, and the technology he depends on to live. The conflict is an inextricable part of his person, intertwining the arcs of both character and narrative. The action scenes are arguably less exciting here, but where Superman is hard to relate to or care about, RoboCop is ironically more identifiable and human. Focusing on the ordeals of the protagonist rather than separating character development from action gives the conflict more impact.

Visually however I feel myself drawn toward comparisons with last year's Elysium. Much of the technology feels like it was taken straight from that world, in particular the ED-208s (above) and the power suit worn by Jackie Earle Haley (here's a clip). Unlike Elysium, however, I felt RoboCop didn't have quite as cohesive a universe. Several scenes happen in a vacuum, and the action takes place in too many different locations for the movie to establish a sense of unity. This scattering seems to want to add to the movie's critique of US politics (robotics manufacturing is outsourced to China), but it also makes the world feel scattered.

As far as RoboCop himself is concerned I thought the two tone suit was much better than the flat black one. Yes, I get it, it's a joke about how every movie has to be dark now, but let it be a joke and leave it at that, let me have my prettier RoboCop. There are scenes where the suit works well (like when he's taken apart), but as it is he looks like something rejected from the Dark Knight collection.

For some reason the comparison I keep coming back to however is Oblivion. Both movies deal pretty adequately with typical sci-fi themes. Where Oblivion dealt with identity and ideology, RoboCop deals with free will and political corruption. The central tension revolves around whether or not Alex Murphy controls RoboCop or vice versa. He's brought back to life by the same corporation which wants to restrict his freedom. He is a living dead man fighting to get his life back. It works pretty well, but it's something we've seen plenty of times before. Neither RoboCop nor Oblivion is terribly original, but both are at least competent.

And at the end of the day that's what I want to say about the new RoboCop: it deals competently with some generic but always interesting sci-fi content. It's not bad, but compared to last year's sci-fi it doesn't stand out too much. Check it out if you're open to seeing more RoboCop and can enjoy some fairly mainstream sci-fi, but don't go in expecting a modern classic.

(Enjoyably average, solid & functional construction, and interesting but potentially problematic)

Quick Zizek-style reading (SPOILERS): Alex Murphy has Drive for police work, is taken too close to the edge of Death Drive & exposed to the Real (explosion and near-death); reintegration back into Symbolic is difficult (robotics & loss of free will), but eventually he gets his Drive back and fights for his own version of justice.
Succeeds because:
 - objet a around which he revolves is justice, not law (he destroys Sellars)
 - drive/desire is arrived at through repetition of trauma (his loss & death in particular)
Potentially problematic because:
 - drive possibly portrayed as controllable
 - drive possibly portrayed as compatible with Symbolic
 - fantasy of surviving one's own death


  1. As you may know, Rotten Tomatoes is pretty much split on this movie, and has been that way since the very first reviews (I've been keeping track religiously). I've also been watching YouTube movie reviews and a lot of those critics are more positive, although I listened to a 30-min negative one which was very good. In my opinion, it was a cool movie, hampered by a lack of pace, a lack of spirit, and too much seriousness. There are a few poor goofs. This is silly, but I kept wondering why his wife wants to get involved when he doesn't even have a dick anymore! That was really bugging me. In terms of what you were saying, it does have some interesting stuff that just isn't utilised properly. The film didn't do too well at the box office maybe because the good parts are intermingled with all these lousy parts. There's mild greatness, but it's bogged down in a boring atmosphere. It's slick (and that's what makes me want to see it again on disc), and that helps and has people wondering, why exactly do I like this when it wasn't exactly half as exciting as the original movie?

    1. I think you're right that its lack of success probably has something to do with its inconsistencies. It has some cool and interesting stuff going for it, but long stretches of it are just boring. I think it's also probably not succeeding at the box office because nobody really wanted a RoboCop remake, so with a little bit of negative hype its chances for success just plummeted.

      I'm vaguely annoyed by the comparisons to the original which is kind of why I wrote this review this way. I understand it's a remake so everybody has to go crying back to the original, but it's also a different movie and I wish it were evaluated on its own merits. Like I say in the review, there are plenty of movies the new RoboCop is worse than besides the original RoboCop. That's why I enjoyed open-minded reviews like yours.

      It's cool (slick is a good word) and fun and occasionally even interesting, which is definitely enough for me to say I had a good time even if some of it was a bit uneven or generic.