Sunday, February 16, 2014

RoboCop (2014)

RoboCop (2014)
Dir. José Padilha

3 out of 5

"Deferential" is the best way to sum up director José Padilha's approach to RoboCop, a remake of the 1987 classic about a left-for-dead cop reclaimed and re-branded as the savior of crime-ridden Detroit.  In addition from its main character and a few nods in the direction of its source text, Padilha and 
screenwriter Joshua Zetumer celebrate the legacy of the Paul Verhoeven-helmed original by recycling its cautionary tale of corporate malfeasance and connecting it to contemporary concerns such as artificial intelligence, state surveillance, and drone warfare.  And while the investigation of these themes is admittedly less than rigorous, their very existence gives RoboCop what so many other lazy, mechanistic remakes lack: a soul.

When Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is badly disfigured by a car bomb, his only hope for survival lies with Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), whose company manufactures combat robots for the American military.  Sellars wants to tap into a lucrative domestic security market ,but is barred by a federal law that prevents the use of robots as potential arbiters of life and death in a criminal justice system.  He needs to prove that he can create a machine with the empathy of a human.  Enter Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who fuses Murphy's remains with a state-of-the-art supercomputer and a powerful exoskeleton that allows him to continue patrolling the streets.  Here Padilha makes Murphy's connection to Frankenstein's monster more explicit than Verhoeven ever did, a motif that continues when Murphy's increasingly dispassionate behavior begins to alienate his family.  

However, this RoboCop is ultimately less about one man reclaiming his identity and more about the trials of any person - robotically enhanced or not - struggling to preserve their humanity within a corrupt system.  Padilha puts such a cerebral spin on the material that he loses much of the poignancy of Murphy's transformation and gradual acceptance of his new self.  But in pulling the focus away from RoboCop himself and onto his creators, the movie gains an intriguing subtext that suggests how Murphy could be a metaphor for the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood remakes.  As the corporate power structure pressures Norton to chip away at Murphy's personality and emotions, replacing them with predictable programmed behaviors, the doctor offers passionate but doomed resistance that's tellingly quashed by promises of greater resources.  Gradually lobotomizing Murphy tests Norton's conscience, yet he swallows all the excuses and believes that some good can still come of his work.

It's possible to read too much into Padilha's intentions, as he adheres to a far more conventional tone than the playfully subversive original.  The film's imagination is likewise limited to current trends in action cinema, as Murphy's upgrades (enhanced speed! incredible jumping ability!) belong more in the realm of superheroes than robots.  Still, Padilha's serious approach masks its rebel heart, and his social critique sneaks through in flourishes like Samuel L. Jackson's po-faced parody of a right-wing media demagogue.  Such authorial fingerprints, along with the stellar performances of an immensely qualified supporting cast, rescues RoboCop from the dustbin of forgettable PG-13 shoot-em-ups.  It doesn't quite redeem remakes - it's hard to imagine any film doing so, let alone a remake of such an influential and cultishly-adored property - but it wisely refuses to compete with the original, making an admirable attempt to engage its audience with more than just name recognition.

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