Opening scenes of a film are rather important; setting the first impression for a whole audience. Many films go for a big powerful action scene, others for a thoughtful, perhaps shocking beginning introducing tone or characters or setting or a combination of these. At any rate it should give us some idea of what we’re spending our next two hours watching. So Robocop begins, with the MGM logo mysteriously silent. Suddenly someone starts making vocal helicopter noises in time to the lion’s iconic roars, moving on to other humming, gargling sounds. It is revealed to be Samuel L. Jackson producing these sounds, warming up for a live broadcast. He turns to camera, stopping the noises and starts his report. Even when a film has a generic or otherwise underwhelming opening I find myself contentedly watching if nothing else, but at this point I could so happily have stood up and walked out of the cinema. Whether it is playing it for a deadpan laugh or is simply a broad attempt at subversion as a friend suggested, it missed the mark by a mile taking me right out of the film before it began. This is far from the only time the film is guilty of this. More on that later.
José Padilha’s retooling of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic is a very sleek and gleaming product, much like the titular hero but it never really digs deep into the many themes it seems to think it displays. With a well-rounded cast featuring Jackie Earle Hayley, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson who, helicopter noises notwithstanding, steals the film as TV host Pat Novak who serves as a commentator on the fictional public’s views and a somewhat overplayed, “Verhoeven-lite” brand satire of American media, there is more than enough credibility on paper. The trouble is the film does very little to keep the attention of the viewer. The first two acts are painfully episodic; scenes often last barely two minutes with only the featured characters present, discussing an important plot point and nothing else before it cuts to a completely different setting for another plot point to be discussed. There is no flow to the events and no sign of the intelligent writing that allows points to be made without it being so blatantly in-your-face and sequential as this script forces practically every forward movement to be. Back to my point about the film missing the mark frequently, there are a number of scenes that aim to delve into the deeper themes; the Human/Robot debate regarding Alex Murphy/Robocop himself, the family life that Murphy longs to return to, and the wider implications of modern-day surveillance and automation; a number of these scenes are so forced that it’s too blatant to feel genuine, and whenever it feels like we are about to dive in and feel something about what is happening there is a line or event that is either laughably clichéd, or similarly stupid that it once again takes us right back out of the moment. In fairness there are some moments where it manages to elicit some emotional response if these scenes were taken individually, but with a hit rate far, far below half of the in-depth scenes there is no lasting impression on any of the questions this film seems to think it’s so cleverly asking.
On to the more fundamental points of the film; as the trailers have gleefully spoiled already, Robocop has a major design change partway through the film from a look not-dissimilar to the original we all know, into an all-black, metal human form. Walking around he produces the same whirring, clunking noises as he did in 1987 with the iconic heavy stomp of the feet in place, but this sense of weight and, well, robotic-ness is thrown out the window in scenes where it is more exciting to have Robocop running like Usain Bolt, occasionally fighting hand-to-hand and jumping 20 feet in the air. These acrobatics, coupled with the new suit-like design, tripled with the heavy-handedly “dark” emotional connotations, quadrupled with Gary Oldman watching over, advising our hero like a surrogate father draw comparisons a little too close to a certain, more recent, wildly successful movie hero.
Action scenes are a mixed bag. Naturally this film has it’s fair share of them, but once again they struggle to hit the mark. One particularly stand-out scene works a rather brutal, high-body-count gunfight into the 12A rating with visual techniques that also give the sequence a striking impact, definitely proving to be the high point of the film. A couple of other perfectly agreeable sequences are ruined by music choice, one played for a 2 second gag that is carried on for 2 excruciating minutes. When the film hits the third act there is real promise of everything coming together as the film takes on a more controlled, fluid direction and there is an energy behind it as though we’re starting to care what happens, but it soon stops and starts, dissipating the energy, and climactic action scenes result in cliché-ridden, CGI-heavy, and ultimately quite inconsequential events.
Altogether, this is a film that on paper should be much better than memory leads me to believe. Everything is present; Robocop fights bad guys and tries to connect with his family, comments are made on the themes aforementioned, Gary Oldman offers profound advice, Jackie Earle Hayley wise-cracks, Michael Keaton hesitates on many lines, and Samuel L. Jackson is cool, shouting angrily once or twice. The cast all do a great job, but the script they’re working off offers no challenges so they’re actually obliged to phone in their roles, save for each star actor being given one or two scenes to show their stereotypical strengths, again pasted in so blatantly. Joel Kinnaman is never even afforded one of these, so his portrayal of Alex Murphy remains ‘fine’ for no fault of his own. It gives the sense that the makers had this checklist of components and, when all these items were placed into their plot, were happy to sit back and go ahead with the film like it was a series of requirements fulfilled; they’ve done their jobs. There’s no attempt to go one better, to try anything new, to surprise the audience or to convey the intended points by anything but the easiest, most two-dimensional means available.
Except for opening on Samuel L. Jackson making bloody helicopter noises.
As a massive fan of the original movie, I forced myself to clear my head of any preconceptions as to how Robocop should be portrayed or what the film should represent or anything else. And in the end it didn’t actually matter, because I don’t feel the need to compare the remake and original, to draw contrasts and similarities; taken as a completely standalone production, this is a bad film with only a handful of saving graces raising it above being dreadful, but so many opportunities to have been a hundred times better.