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RoboCop Review: Well Played, Creep
A man with two robotic hands sits on a couch, staring blankly at a guitar. Hesitant, he picks up the instrument and feebly begins to play the opening to a classic guitar song. As he plays, the notes slowly become more and more finely tuned, floating as delicately as his metallic fingers while they flick each individual string with practiced precision. Suddenly, the robotic digits trip over themselves. The notes become jumbled. He grows frustrated. A medical aide in the background warns of his emotional state, and he is told by the doctor in the room that, in order for the robotic limbs to work properly, he cannot allow emotions to enter into his mind. He starts to play again, the notes once again rising, swelling. Then, again, he fumbles.
He pauses, looking down at the instrument that feels so foreign in his metal hands. In a distraught voice, he finally speaks. “I need emotion to play.”
Among the first of the opening scenes in RoboCop, this introduction sets up the question the film will explore throughout its 108-minute run time: what makes us human? What role, if any, should robotics play in our lives? What’s even more impressive about this scene is the fact that it serves as our introduction to the robotics and the technology that would eventually lead to the creation of the film’s namesake. This tender moment rife with emotion and the confusion that results from humanity merging itself with a soulless creation, instead of a scene accompanied with a heavy soundtrack, jarring images of a titan walking the streets of Detroit, and gunfire illuminating the night with the same seizure-inducing effect of a strobe light. These images will later appear several times throughout RoboCop‘s more action-driven moments, but they are not among the first to be seen by the audience and are used to supplement the action and character development instead of showing the audience how the people within this film’s universe deal with robots in their lives. As such, the man’s robot hands are what sets the tone for Jose Padilha’s reboot of the 1987 original RoboCop, resulting in a film that, while flashy and at times more action-oriented that it perhaps calls for, is a grounded and thought-provoking action thriller.
Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is close to solving one of the biggest cases of his career. He’s tracked down a massive arms dealer who has been doing business with crooked cops in Detroit’s corrupt law enforcement system, and prepares to move in on the target when a tip leads to his partner suffering a gunshot wound and later leads to an attempted murder that places Alex in critical condition.
His misfortune is another man’s luck, however, as robotics businessman and CEO of OmniCorp Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) prepares to prove to the “robophobic” American public how vital his creations are to bringing a new era of security and crime prevention to the streets of the great nation. Facing a bill that prevents the use of robots in law enforcement settings, Sellers finds a loophole that will allow him to bring the people around on his abilities and prove to the world how necessary his product is: take a crippled officer, and rebuild him into a mechanized and software-integrated body. Or, as he puts it, “place a man inside a machine.”
Enter the unfortunate Alex Murphy, who, at the reluctant permission of his wife, becomes the lab rat in this twisted corporate experiment meant to make the world a safer place. Under the ever-watchful eye of the ethically-driven Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman), Murphy’s remaining functioning organs are built into a machine, and hence, RoboCop is born.
Perhaps the most emotional side of RoboCop‘s narrative is Murphy’s ability to fluctuate between his human and robot form. Several times throughout, he is “modified” in order to be a solider as effective as his fully robotic counterparts. But that modificiation comes at a price: when in combat or high-stress situations, the software built into this brain takes hold of him, directing his actions while he still organically processes information, essentially giving him the total “illusion of free will.” These moments lead from scenes where RoboCop completely annihilates every foe placed in his way with extreme precision and reaction time, to others where Alex’s emotions are completely done away with, leaving him as nothing more than a soulless husk meant to rally the people behind OmniCorp’s mission. But, even in these darkest of times, we still see traces of Alex’s humanity peeking through, trying desperately to manifest themselves, eventually going so far as to completely override some of the software that dictates his every move. It’s this oscillation between control and illusion that really speaks to the heart of RoboCop‘s core theme: there is something that cannot be measured by science or physics alone that makes us human, and as such, cannot be regulated or broken down by mechanical means. No, try as hard as one might, there is truly no definitive way to completely snuff out human free will.
There are eerie parallels shared between the film and our reality as well that discuss ideas of a decrease in freedom in favor of increased security, machines taking the place of human jobs and reasoning, and the sensationalism of the agenda-driven media. At times, these moments are heavy-handed and preachy, but for all the hamminess in the world there are still trace amounts of sharp criticism of these issues that make for some truly chilling moments on-screen.
Much of RoboCop‘s thoughtfulness is undone, however, by the film’s insistence on being an action film and adhering to tropes that cheapen its more cerebral effects. A scene dealing with Alex’s struggle to find his humanity is outdone by flashy action sequences involving Batman-like motorcycles and quickdraw gunfire, the entire third act is a mess that devolves into cheap tropes and sees many characters steering off their development path in order to shoehorn in more villains RoboCop must overcome, little MacGuffins are thrown in for convenience’s sake toward the end, and the side plot involving Alex’s murder case and the unraveling that comes of it feels like fodder for a less interesting episode of CSI.
The villains in particular were some of the most cringe worthy in the entire film, with each of them sticking to many villain archetypes: rich corporate person who only ever thinks (and talks, dreams, and fantasizes) about money; a tough war expert who has a blatant and illogical hatred for the film’s protagonist; a TV show host whose sole purpose is to tie in the politics of the film and mimics our most vitriolic and sensationalist modern political pundits; tough crime lords; and crooked cops who look, act, and even sound cartoonish. Their lack of depth was clearly in service of helping you cheer on RoboCop as he took these creeps down, but felt more manipulative than organic and didn’t give you much of a reason to relate with anyone in the film.
But at its best moments it subverts these faults and feels like a cohesive work with some of the best elements of the 80s action movies we’ve come to know and love. While at times ancillary, the action is good and shows some of RoboCop’s vulnerabilities, the parallels drawn between the film’s world and our own leave one with some interesting questions and chilling images, and many of the scenes between Kinnaman and Oldman feel alive and driven by a script who often falters, but still says something of note more than once throughout the film.
Truly, RoboCop achieves a new level of meta existence by very nearly mirroring its own half-human, half-machine protagonist with its own structure. At the moments when the film seemed so fake, so contrived, so indicative of the Hollywood programming we’ve come to expect from these types of blockbusters, a tiny bit of humanity would poke through, balancing the cheap with something much more substantive and resonant. Although not likely intentional, this alone marks RoboCop as a success in my mind. It is a difficult enough task indeed for a director to take on a reboot and risk angering fans while balancing artistic license with a legacy, but it’s quite another to take this action-driven gore fest from the 80s and simultaneously update and adapt it to speak to a modern audience in both an entertaining and thoughtful way. Despite its cliches and shortcomings, RoboCop is successful in its ability to derive meaning from what should have been a largely throwaway film, transcending even its source material to become an entertaining action film that actually has something to say.