Tuesday, 4 March 2014
The problem with José Padilha's RoboCop is that very little pops. The film has a couple of good ideas about state surveillance and American foreign policy, but zero venom to accompany the bites. Everything is experienced as a fleeting surface-level detail rather than the sustained, impassive gaze of Paul Verhoeven, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner's original. Crucially, the beat by beat updating (that passes for adaptation) invites a level of comparison that hobbles Padilha's film.
When 1987's ED-209 malfunctioned it shredded a bootlick yuppie. His death was then presented as a momentary inconvenience, a secondary concern to corporate grumbling about financial forecasts. '87 RoboCop dwelt on the disengaged, narcissistic environment that breeds men capable of transforming butchery into a career opportunity. 2014 model's has a similar event in a sequence heavily indebted to the ethnic cleansing that opened Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. In Tehran a child seizes a kitchen knife, using it to threaten an invading ED-209. We get a moment to ponder what damage a blunt blade could possibly do to a walking Apache helicopter before the boy is obliterated. We are alarmed, but the film isn't. Whatever issue the people of occupied Iran had with their mechanical oppressors is instantly discarded to concentrate on this America's squeamishness about having armed drone dudes patrolling the nation's streets. Tehran isn't used to fix tone, it's simply an arresting launchpad to blast us into another dull, heroic origin story.
Padilha's film apparently wants a few sour moments to bleed in around the edges, but the overall product remains defiantly safe, rote even. Horror is routinely mishandled. Never more so than in how the film communicates what's left of Alex Murphy. Pre-RoboCop we see him covered in third-degree burns and missing limbs. His left-hand side looks useless and dead, while his right recoverable. Immediately prior to this Gary Oldman's Dr Norton treats amputees with cybernetic limbs. We are given an expectation - Murphy will be completed by similar, military standard additions.
Alarmingly, we later discover that aside from a facelift, OmniCorp has whittled Murphy down to a face, a hand and a few pulsing organs. The obvious reaction to this is revulsion. Dr Norton isn't benign, he's a monster. There was zero communicated reason to dismember Murphy to such a permanent, horrifying degree other than control or boastful corporate posturing. Perhaps Dr Norton just wanted to see if he could scratch build a man? These ideas aren't even entertained. Instead Norton soothes like a father while Murphy experiences an acute kind of sexual shame about his lack of a body. RoboCop 2014 has the building blocks of a modern body-horror update, but it refuses to play with them, instead preferring to occupy its time with zero-stakes shoot-outs in a fraudulently picturesque Detroit.