The new RoboCop isn’t terrible, which shouldn’t be an accomplishment. But we live in a world that produced 2012’s Total Recall, not simply a bad movie, but one of the most misbegotten works of popular entertainment in history, “popular” and “entertainment” both used loosely. The Recall remake replaced everything that made the 1990 Recall entertaining with tropes purchased third-hand from a garage sale at Christopher Nolan’s house.
By comparison, there are things to enjoy about neo-RoboCop. The supporting cast is stacked with ringers. Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, and Jay Baruchel all have a blast with ripe parts, while Gary Oldman nicely underplays his compromised-scientist part. Whereas most remakes are work-for-hire hackjobs that only bow to the original for ambient bits of fan service, the new RoboCop actually seems tuned in to what made the original special. The media satire is actually more explicit – although that might just be because the American media has become more obviously idiotic in the last three decades. The first scene of the movie shows a group of suicide bombers planning an attack on American robo-forces in Tehran. The leader gives everyone a mission statement: “The goal is to die on television.”
There are more individual scenes that stand out in the movie. I’m tempted to say the whole mess is worth seeing just for the moment when exploded cop Alex Murphy (played here by Joel Kinnaman) gets a look at the parts of his body that aren’t robotic. What follows is a few minutes of pure Cronenbergian body horror, so horrifying that you can’t believe this new movie qualified for a PG-13. There’s also a cool gunfight in a pitch-black room, where the only light source is gunfire.
After I saw the new RoboCop on Wednesday night, I walked out satisfied: Low expectations, barely surmounted. Then I went home and watched the original RoboCop and basically forgot the new one existed. Some background is required. For a certain type of film-minded person, the 1987 RoboCop is a pivotal point in the history of post-corporate Hollywood. It was the first big success for Dutch emigré Paul Verhoeven, and it kickstarted one of the great weird directorial runs: After RoboCop came Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers. Right now you’re either thinking that he’s a great director or a terrible director. Perspectives on Verhoeven shift constantly: The general consensus among cinephiles now is that he was the second coming of Douglas Sirk, a filmmaker who couched deep themes and scandalous perversity within the bounds of popular genre. For Sirk, it was the soap-operatic melodrama; for Verhoeven, it was uber-violent action fests and uber-sexual erotic thrillers.
What’s undeniable is that the comparison between old RoboCop and new RoboCop makes a great argument for Verhoeven as a cultural seer. Somehow, even with the pre-digital videotape aesthetic, the original RoboCop feels more of the moment than the new one: More cynical, much funnier, but also possessing greater clarity about the central individual-versus-the-corporation storyline that dominates every iteration of the RoboCop myth. In the new RoboCop, the Big Bad Corporation Of America (OmniCorp) works alongside the police to develop their new cyborg lawman. When Murphy gets blown up, there’s a supposedly emotional scene where the corporation asks his wife to give her half-dead husband to the corporation: We’re meant to understand that it’s the only way to save his life. The scene is played for maximum pathos. Abbie Cornish cries.
In the original RoboCop, the equivalent Big Bad Corporation already owns the police. Law enforcement has been privatized; in the first scene at the police station, some of the cops are talking about going on strike. And there’s a key difference in the circumstances leading up to Murphy’s death. In the new movie, Kinnaman is a badass detective chasing down a big-time bad guy; in the original, Murphy is just a beat cop. At the beginning, he starts work at the worst precinct in town. This was no accident. In a great throwaway line, an evil corporate guy explains how they are going to kickstart the RoboCop program: “We’ve restructured the police force to place prime candidates according to risk factor.” What he means is: “We’ve put lots of good cops in terrible places, and we’re hoping one of them dies soon.”
Soon enough, Murphy does die – and he really dies, no heartbeat, total flatline. In the new movie, they manage to save one of Murphy’s original hands. In the old movie, they save his arm…but then the evil corporate guy, annoyed and probably coked out of his gourd, tells them to cut it off: “He signed the release forms!”
I guess you could argue that some of this makes old-school RoboCop feel dated. (Certainly, the idea of a union going on strike seems to come straight from the Reagan era.) But the film never loses track of how all the cops on the ground are just grist: Its vision of Detroit (and America) is a meat-grinder controlled by wealthy men in big buildings. Weird as the comparison is, there’s a bit of The Wire to the original RoboCop’s grungy specificity. In the new film, Detroit looks pretty nice: Sunny, suburban, Canadian. In the 1987 version, Detroit looks like postwar Dresden.
Of course, the original RoboCop was rated a hard R, while the new one is PG-13. The PG-13 action movie as an artistic idea has basically run out of gas, and the new movie does nothing to change that: There’s a long scene at the end when Kinnaman fights a bunch of giant robots, and you could be watching Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Star Trek Into Darkness or any other undifferentiated action movie where something small jumps on something big and something else happens. The original RoboCop is bloody, but it’s bloody the way Kill Bill is bloody. The gore is funny: It’s like The Walking Dead without the self-serious posing. Verhoeven loved the gooey silliness of prosthetics, and when you watch a scene like this, it works as both meta-thrill and pure-thrill, as “look at Verhoeven playfully tweaking our bloodlust” and “LOOKIT THAT BLOOD! BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD!”
Of course, like all Verhoeven’s movies, the original RoboCop has an undeniably pervy edge. There’s a coed locker room. Every guy in a tie is Jordan Belfort. In one memorable scene, a criminal holds a woman in front of him as a human shield, and RoboCop shoots through the woman’s dress and hits the man square in the crotch. (With Verhoeven, every gunshot has at least three levels of Freudian imagery.) The new movie is never sexy, and it gives much more time to Murphy’s wife.
But she does nothing with that time: She’s just The Wife, over and over again. No woman in the new movie is granted any agency separate from the male characters: There’s the Wife, the Assistant, and the Aide. Compare that to Nancy Allen’s
Louis Lewis, Weller’s bubblegum-smacking sidekick. Allen has a nice buddy-cop andro-chemistry with Weller, and there’s a nice bit of gender-flipping in their dynamic: Allen is the Riggs.
The whole context of Hollywood has shifted between the old RoboCop and the new RoboCop. The new film is quite clearly a pilot for a potential franchise – which, based on early grosses, might be a pipe dream. It was made for teenagers. And it never quite figures out how to ground the satire in a human story. The original RoboCop is much funnier and more over-the-top: Verhoeven just reaffirmed to Esquire that he considered RoboCop an American Jesus.
But it also feels more human-sized. In the penultimate scene of the movie, Louis and RoboCop have both been shot and beaten up and almost torn to pieces. “Murphy,” says Louis, “I’m a mess.” Says her partner: “They’ll fix you. They fix everything.” Weller’s monotone delivery makes the line sound sad and funny, amused and resigned. It could be a line from a mournful noir, from The French Connection or Chinatown. There’s nothing like that scene in the new RoboCop. The hero defeats the corporation, but you get the vibe that corporate realities and franchise requirements defeated the movie. The new film supposedly cost 10 times what the original did. The original is at least 10 times as good.