Robocop 2014

I just saw this movie today, so I’ll review it while it’s fresh in my head (never mind the backlog stretching several months). As we all know, Robocop is the latest remake of an 80s original, which is pretty annoying, but while Total Recall wasted the franchise, this movie attempts to explore the issues a little bit.

The framework that the new Robocop inhabits is actually very topical, given drone technology, self-driving cars, modern artificial intelligence, and the militarisation of law enforcement. In the movie there’s a domestic US opposition to robotic police that Omnicorp is trying to reverse in order to sell their product, and Robocop is the media-friendly face of their charm offensive, a pawn whom everyone has different ideas of. Advocating Omnicorp’s arguments is the Bill O’Reilly-like Samuel L Jackson, who possesses the passion of a true-believer – an interesting contrast to the glib spiels of the Omnicorp staff. Unfortunately the anti-robot side is represented by a weird guy in a bow tie whose argument is kind of incoherent and populist – which is a shame, given that legal obstacles are one of the main issues holding back deployment of AI decision-systems (eg self-driving cars, medical diagnosis tools), and the debate deserves airing. In any case, Jackson’s character is portrayed as a bullying extremist but his points aren’t really rebutted, which is a bit funny.

On the character front, there are some powerful scenes when Murphy is recovering, in particular one gristly revelation and ensuing conversation that I thought was perhaps the best in the movie. However once the action starts, we lose our line into Murphy’s emotional state and don’t see his family outside brief encounters that come across as important just for their effect on Omnicorp’s PR, which is a waste. Murphy proceeds zombie-like through shootouts and villain-busts with almost no indications of his human desire to do what he’s doing. Gary Oldman’s character has some significant words and actions about free will (by the way, there’s a neurobiological theory that free will is an “epiphenomenon”, an illusion) but the movie touches that thread incredibly lightly given how philosophically central it is to the themes (see the political struggle above, and how everyone is trying to manipulate Murphy).

The action is decent if underwhelming; the first couple of scenes in US-occupied Tehran (not a bad prediction I guess) and a bust-gone-bad in Detroit are excellent, and the HUDs of Murphy’s analysis (which many of the characters monitory throughout the movie) are very interesting; however the late action scenes look nice but didn’t give me a feeling of danger or excitement. I wanted to empathise with Murphy battling murderous thugs and military robots, but I got nice-looking action set-pieces that I couldn’t be a part of. There was great potential, like when Murphy is pinned under the ED-209, or is struggling against his programming, but these scenes are treated too lightly and superficially.

Keaton and Oldman are fantastic in their roles as amoral but persuasive CEO and idealistic researcher whose conscience sways; Jackson is solid in a shallow role, though the UI gestures are unrealistic.

The storyline is pretty straightforward but it justifies the transitions credibly; seeing Keaton reason through Robocop’s role and look, and his execs pipe up about managing the various situations with amoral disregard for the people involved, you can understand how the story develops. There was one point where Oldman argues for Clara Murphy’s (Robocop’s wife) rights to an Omnicorp exec (perhaps their general counsel?) that sparked a vociferous legalistic response – this seemed odd, given Oldman’s character’s emotional sensitivity, I’m surprised he didn’t pursue a different angle. Or perhaps that’s the dominance of “rights theories” in US-based discourse.

The 1987 Robocop was highly satirical and engaged in exaggerated world-building – who could forget the advertisements for skin-cancer inducing fashionable sun cream, the nuke-the-world family games, or the thief-electrocuting cars? Robocop 2014 does none of this, instead emphasising the closeness and plausibility of its future. And after all, solariums and any number of computer games have made the commentary of the first two advertisements moot; we’re not yet at thief-electrocuting cars though. Ironically (or not) Robocop 1987’s themes of corporate political influence are treated as a given in Robocop 2014. I’m surprised the latter didn’t do more with Detroit given the city’s current situation though.

Robocop 2014 touches on interesting and topical technological issues even if it doesn’t go into much depth and discards the social commentary; it has great acting and before the action starts some solid emotional content; however the action gets in the way towards the end, and it’s not a worthy substitute. Nevertheless the movie legitimately tries to dig into the Robocop concept, approaching by grounding it in reality and discarding the tone and commentary of the original, pushing the technological sci-fi angle harder than the action-movie (and the soft-sci-fi) element. With some ambivalence I do think it deserves the Robocop name, while it in no way replaces the original.

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