Robocop Under the Microscope – Critical Review
1987’s Robocop was a savage commentary upon the state of western civilisation. In the wake of Happy Days, the Beach Boys’s resurgence and, of course, Reagan and Thatcher, the power of conservatism loomed large but just as revolutions are prone to breed their own counterrevolutions, the status quo, particularly that type which revels in its own version of success, breeds dissent and critique. Robocop, in spite of its pulpy moniker and fantastic premise, was a part of that cultural process, a cynical, knowing and, sometimes, sneering assessment of the world as it was. Through straight faced satire it mocked the celebration of greed and the arrogance of big business, taking each to extremes and wallowing in the resultant fallout.
It is appropriate, then, that 2014’s remake has gone to such great lengths to criticise the modern world, taking liberties with setting and context where necessary to update the satire and critique of the original. The commercials and newsreels of the first have been replaced by the ‘Novak Report’, a shock jock caricature which often feels uncomfortably close to the real world news programming it seeks to send up. Big business remains a target, though its characteristic 1980s sheen has been replaced by something much blander. That stylistic loss is somewhat mitigated by the substance added by Gary Oldman’s Dennett Gordon who serves as a means for the remake to explore the problematic relationship between the sciences, the pursuit of knowledge, and capitalism, the pursuit of money – it is a welcome addition, but not one which is entirely successful. Those changes help to bring the remake up to date, but much -too much- is lost in the intergenerational translation. That being said, the opening ten minutes of 2014’s Robocop are an almost unqualified success, laying bare, as they do, America’s drone policy and the world’s slow march towards automation and pervasive surveillance. If science fiction is at its best when it explores the problems of today, then Robocop should, by a wide margin, be the best genre movie of the early 2010s. Tellingly, it is not.
In spite of the significant potential shown by the remake, little of it is fully realised. Its attempts to explore issues acutely relevant to today’s world are admirable and, at times, effective, but they miss the mark far too often. In the early parts of the film a series of satirical vignettes do much to provide the film with a meaningful voice but once a point is made there is little value gained by later revisitations. That speaks to the strength of these early sequences, but it also speaks to the pacing weaknesses which affect the film’s second and third acts. Early on Robocop is an exploration of the modern world masquerading as an irrelevant science fiction film. Later on it becomes a ponderous masquerade of the original, exciting and interesting at times, but lacking the beautifully executed style of its clunky, but thoroughly effective, progenitor. The more it presses its commentary of the modern world, the more preachy, and less interesting, it becomes. That failure is perhaps the remake’s most significant fatal flaw. Even had the original Robocop been completely superficial, nothing more than an action film with no deeper agenda, it still would have entertained. The same cannot be said of the remake. Stripped of its satire, of its social awareness, it would offer audiences little of interest. The new focus upon the relationship between the titular hero and his estranged wife adds depth, but in the end it serves mainly to distract from the satirical strengths which are present, diluting the film’s focus and undermining its core thematic successes.
Compared to the original Robocop, the 2014 remake is a chore but there is something, particularly in its first act, that lifts it out of the gutter. When exploring Robocop’s origins the film touches new (for the series) ground whilst the satire present can be cutting and even witty. Beyond that, it stagnates, never failing utterly but rarely reaching the level achieved by the Paul Verhoeven’s enduring original.
Robocop (2014) Trailer
Robocop (1987) Trailer