(We're going to get into spoilers for the new RoboCop almost immediately, so if that will bother you, feel free to turn back now.)
There's a scene relatively early in Jose Padilha's remake of RoboCop that left me legitimately shaken. Police officer Alex Murphy, gruesomely disfigured in a car bombing that was supposed to take his life, has been sold to the robotics company Omnicorp, which transforms him into "the future of law enforcement." But Murphy had no say in any of this -- one moment, he's in pain on his driveway and the next, he's waking up in a facility wearing some kind of metal suit. Or at least he thinks it's a suit. When he demands to know what's left of him, Gary Oldman's sympathetic scientist shows him. First, his robotic legs are removed. Then his arms. Then most of his abdomen. By the end, the only parts of Alex Murphy that remain are a face, a digitally enhanced brain, a throat and a handful of organs, all contained in a transparent core.
Upon seeing what's become of him, Murphy asks to die.
This was the moment where I thought RoboCop 2014 was going evolve from a competent remake into something special. The original film makes it clear significant portions of Murphy's body were removed to transform him into a law enforcement cyborg, but the remake makes sure you know that our hero has literally had his humanity cut away. The fact that it's presented so clinically and cleanly only adds to the sheer terror of the situation. It's science fiction body horror at its best, a scene that would make David Cronenberg grin. The new RoboCop is a film sets out to expose the horror and indignities that await humanity in a world where we hand the tools of violence and justice over to machines and this scene is a pitch-perfect examination of modern science gone horribly awry.
If only there were more scenes like this. Despite flashes of brilliance, Padilha's RoboCop feels compromised in every scene, like the talented Brazilian filmmaker was trying to direct while wrapped in studio-imposed Saran Wrap. Padilha probably understood better than anyone that a RoboCop remake would have to do something completely wild and different if it wanted to win people over and there are glimpses of a grander, smarter, darker vision. Those glimpses are wedged into a generic action movie with a screenplay that's ultimately more about a hero reconnecting with his adorable tyke of a son than exploring the moral grayness of robotic warfare. Paul Verehoeven's RoboCop avoids cliches by cutting anything remotely touchy-feely out of the story instantly, using constant brutality to isolate its hero, make his desire for vengeance stronger and make the goofy satire of the film feel even ickier and unpleasant. Not so much with the remake. With its PG-13 rating and family subplot, this is a science fiction action film made for family audiences. Hell, RoboCop himself fires a powerful taser instead of a gun. The screenplay feels like everyone sat around and actively looked for ways to add convention to something supremely unconventional. Verehoeven's movie is wild and angry. Padilha's is boilerplate and occasionally ticked off.
What would have happened if Padilha had total creative freedom on this film? I imagine we would have gotten more scenes like the opening sequence, where robots patrol the streets of Tehran, scanning civilians and engaging suicide bombers. Like the best moments in the film, this plays out more like a horror movie than an action movie. Although Samuel L. Jackson's right-wing TV personality approves of what he sees, the film itself does not. The massive ED-209s and their smaller companions are shot with menace and when they scan men, women and children to see if they're a threat, Padilha makes sure that we see the terror in their eyes. It's unpleasant and more importantly, it's a mirror. If the original RoboCop presented a terrifying vision of '80s corporate greed and excess, the remake wants us to consider American foreign policy. When a hulking robot executes a young kid holding a knife, it stings. A person wouldn't have done that. It's not subtle stuff, but it doesn't need to be. As a franchise, RoboCop has always been about delivering its politics with the force of a sledgehammer.
But then we move onto some generic "rogue cop" antics. And a boring gunfight. And an Alex Murphy execution that feels woefully sanitized compared to the unforgettable original film. When Murphy goes on the warpath in the '87 version, it's with entirely justified anger -- he wants to get the sons of bitches who made him hurt and scream before they "killed" him. The clean, mostly off-camera car bomb in the remake feels like it represents the film's problems as a whole. It takes something awful but doesn't go far enough to make us truly feel how awful it is. It goes halfway when it should be going for the throat.
When it does go for the throat, RoboCop 2014 flirts with being a really, really good movie. There's something special and unique to our era lurking in here. It's a shame it couldn't escape.
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