The trouble with Robocop
2014 saw the remake of Robocop hit the big screen. The original was a brilliant action sci-fi film from 1987 that was in no way asking to be remade. Being such a big fan of the original film I was pretty excited for the release of this movie. My enthusiasm waned with every screenshot that was released during its production, but I was reserving any judgement until after I had seen the movie from start to finish. Soon enough the time came, and despite my utter willingness to let many issues slide in the hope of a fun and competent movie, I left the cinema utterly dissapointed and somewhat heart broken. This could have been a great movie. And now with its release on DVD and Blu-Ray, I figure it's as good a time as any to air some of my personal grievances with the movie.
Let's get a few things out of the way first. The acting in this movie was pretty good. Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley, and Samuel L. Jackson stand out far among the rest, and the titular Robocop being played by Joel Kinnaman wasn't all that bad either. They just didn't give him much to work with. Factoring in the poor performances of Michael Keaton and Abbie Cornish would probably average the acting in this movie to just above okay. My major gripes with the film have very little to do with the acting performances, but more so with the story and direction of the film.
The visuals are nice at the outset and I'm especially impressed with the actual Robocop suit itself, as it looked appropriately modernized and, before the all-black paint job, looked amazing. The CGI wasn't bad either at the start of the movie, when automated bipedal drones and ED-209 units patrol a neighborhood. It looked like something out of Elysium (a far better movie). Things seemed to be off to a good start when the movie first starts up, but soon after it all begins to crumble at an exponential rate.
It's when the action finally starts (and there isn't much to speak of in this movie unfortunately) that things get pretty dismal. They decided to use mostly CGI for everything, which makes Robocop dive into the uncanny valley and everyone else like they are straight out of a Playstation 2 video game cut scene. Compounded by the incredibly short cuts that don't let you focus on anything, the complete lack of choreography, and worst of all the shaky-cam, the action sequences in this will induce nausea in even the most stalwart of viewers. The director of this movie should be slapped across the eyes for not making use of the technology available in an interesting or unique way. The climactic battle where Robocop faces off against numerous ED-209 units is borderline hilarious. Robocop dances underneath one of the giant walking mechs while taking cover behind their legs and firing pot shots at the other ED-209 units. Somehow he winds up on top of one and tears out its circuitry, but the poor CGI makes it look like a deleted scene from the first God of War game. I kept half expecting quick time event inputs to flash on the screen as if I were holding a game controller.
How could this have been rectified? My first instinct is to go back to what made the first movie so memorable. The use of practical effects has helped the original Robocop to still look real. Despite their understanding of future technology looking silly by today's standards, it still comes off as being more human (pardon the pun) and easier to believe. Why not actually have actors engage in a shootout with some well thought out blocking to showcase how effective Robocop's new targeting system can be? With trick shots being emphasized to take out someone holding a hostage perhaps like in Robocop 2? But instead one of the big set pieces takes place completely in the dark. With only muzzle flashes from gunfire to light up the room for microseconds at a time. It's like something out of a Paul W.S. Anderson movie for goodness sake! When Equilibrium did this for an opening gun fight at the start of their movie, it was to set the tone and show off some weird (albeit dated looking) special effects that both represent what sets the main characters apart, while providing popcorn action for audiences who came to see an action movie. But in this film it happens towards the end of the story and you're already bored to tears at that point.
Another major, and in my opinion more tragic, loss from the original Robocop was the TV commercials. In the first movie, acts were broken up by brief news clips that were always followed by hilarious ads that did something very important. Each advertisement went a long way towards world-building for the near-future Detroit setting that was essential to making the movie as fun as it was. And although on the surface they may seem like funny diversions to break up the serious tone of the movie, they gave you a very grounded understanding of the world the movie took place in. They have been replaced by a very enthusiastic Samuel L. Jackson, portraying a very Fox News-esque talk show program that has an obvious agenda bias. But somehow, they seem to not really have an agenda, if that makes sense. The program doesn't necessarily come off as having a specific opinion about drones, one way or the other, despite that being the main focus of the shows accusations. It might lean in one direction, but doesn't make the bold assertive claims that those types of shows are known for!
Those two major components of the remake are woefully missing or serve only to disconnect the audience to what's happening on screen. Add into that the terrible side plot of Robocop's family and his wife (who is crying in every scene she is in) and their son (played by a child actor who looks like he is on valium) and you get even more superfluous, boring footage that doesn't need to be there. The waste of a partner, who had such a strong presence in the original film, is now a character that serves only to be sidelined in an injury in order to spur the titular "hero" into action, it makes the whole experience frustrating for those who appreciate the real Robocop film.
In short, don't buy this movie now that it's on disc to own. Wait for it to show up on HBO or Netflix and watch it there first. Even if you liked it in the theaters, I get the very distinct notion that it will not age well at all, and repeat viewings will serve only to highlight the staggering problems behind this movie.