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Empty Popcorn: Robocop

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I’m accustomed to having my Nerd Card revoked on a regular basis. Being more of a fantasy genre fan than a science fiction aficionado, my elite social circle of High Nerds is almost always rolling their eyes at me when I tell them things like, “I’ve never watched the original ‘Robocop.’ I don’t even like Sylvester Stallone.”

Sidebar: Today I learned “Robocop” (1987) is not a Sylvester Stallone movie. I lost 6 points off my Nerd Card but luckily did not have to pay a fine this time. However, if I lose any more points I have to take the class.

My husband has been eagerly anticipating the release of the “Robocop” reboot since the release date was announced – to the point that he actually requested that when I reserved our tickets I got us an IMAX showing. I rolled my eyes. I dragged my feet. I grumbled. I’m in the middle of re-reading Dragonlance for the umpteenth time, I don’t have time for yet another reboot of a sci-fi story I never cared about in the first place.

“Gary Oldman is in it.”

Oh. Okay. IMAX showing it is. (Gary Oldman wins me over every time – how does he not have an Oscar yet??)

Our afternoon showing of the film was woefully under-attended. Including my husband and myself, I counted eight other viewers in the audience. I know it was a mid-afternoon show time, but I felt like a highly anticipated reboot should have warranted a much larger viewership. I guess there’s just not that many suckers out there that will shell out almost $40 bucks for the “IMAX Experience.” However, we IMAX participants were treated to an exclusive extended preview for the also highly-anticipated sequel to the airbrushed abs hit “300.” I was looking forward to “300: Rise of an Empire” before, but now I’m practically salivating for its release. Other notable trailers included “Noah” and “Stalingrad” – the latter being the highest grossing Russian film of all time, and which actually looks pretty bad ass.

“Robocop” opens with a bang – quite literally. Samuel L. Jackson stars as a news pundit in a very Fox-News-y manner, covering the use of robots in Tehran to pacify the population. When suicide bombers take out the machines, it hurts the image of Omnicorp, the manufacturer of the machines. Omnicorp is desperate to begin marketing the robots to American police forces, but a pesky law stands in their way – a law endorsed by something like 70% of the people in the country. But who cares about the opinions of millions of American citizens when there’s money to be made and jobs to be stolen from actual police officers, amirite?

Enter Detective Alex Murphy (played by relative unknown Joel Kinnaman). He is investigating a gun runner named Antoine Vallon in Detroit and during a bad undercover gig, his partner is shot and they lose their advantage over the bad guy. In retaliation for getting up in his business, Vallon (Patrick Garrow) arranges for Murphy to die in a fiery explosion. Only he doesn’t die, clearly, because that would be an extremely boring and depressing (not to mention short) movie.

Murphy is pulled for a special program that will fuse his remaining human parts (heart, lungs, some brain, face and throat) with Omnicorp robotics. Once man and machine are fused, he’s to be a marketing scheme to get the American people to change their mind about robots on their streets.

The overall story arc revolves around several major themes – greed, political corruption, police corruption, human error and fallibility, and, perhaps most of all, the concept of free will and right vs. wrong. Omnicorp represents the greed and the political corruption as they desperately attempt to overthrow the will of the people through persuasion and government intervention. Dirty cops are rampant and address the fallibility of mankind, the way promises of power and money can change a person. Free will, of course, is the major theme of the film in the heavily augmented brain of Detective Murphy, who is trying to find a balance between his programming and his human instincts.

Gary Oldman is brilliant and subtle as Dr. Dennett Norton, the genius behind the Robocop model. He plays the role with obvious throwbacks to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” – at first proud of his creation, then with growing remorse and feelings of guilt he realizes that what he’s done is too much, too soon. There’s some minor involvement from Murphy’s family – his wife and son – but the characters feel incredibly one-dimensional, as though the screenwriters added them in purely as an afterthought.

But how does Robocop himself look? Kinnaman was a decent choice. His relative newness in major Hollywood titles enabled me to get caught up in his performance rather than his reputation, but he had a difficult task in front of him. It’s one thing to portray a human character, or a robotic character – but trying to strike a balance between robotic and organic in the same role is clearly not easy. Kinnaman was often stiff when the situation didn’t call for it, and the family interactions weren’t always in the realm of “believable.” Still, part of that may be due in part to the fact that the wife and kid felt like they didn’t belong in the movie to begin with.

Good Cop:

  • Lots of explosions and cool graphics. This movie is not available in 3D, and I feel like that was a good choice. There’s enough going on in the film without adding another layer of distraction.
  • Samuel L. Jackson is a joy to watch in any role.
  • Gary Oldman. ‘Nuff said.
  • It’s nice to see Michael Keaton return to the big screen, and it’s even nicer to see him as a villain. Not just a villain, but a really believable one in that he’s completely without guilt or remorse for his actions.
  • Believable “futuristic” technology. The movie isn’t set too far ahead of our time and they didn’t go overboard with the incredibly futuristic stuff. Most of the gadgets in use are already basically in use now, just in the most rudimentary of forms.
  • Clear nods to Frankenstein which satisfies my nerd cred requirements for the day – both since I recognized the thematic elements and also because Mary Shelley, as a teenager, essentially invented science fiction as a genre and that’s one of my favorite pieces of literary trivia.

Bad Cop:

  • The thematic elements of free will, good vs. evil, etc. are poorly executed. We see Murphy fighting with his programming but we’re never told how it is that he was able to overcome it throughout the film. It’s implied that it’s the indomitable human spirit but…the execution is definitely lackluster.
  • Battle scenes are sloppily choreographed and, honestly, not as impressive as they could be. Robocop doesn’t get to show off his super robot powers nearly often enough in the field, so it’s hard to remember that he’s 90% robot and not just a guy in a suit that makes noise when he walks.
  • (POSSIBLE SPOILER) The Chief of Police side plot isn’t really ever resolved and I’m left wondering what in the actual hell happened there.
  • Gary Oldman does not have a cool mustache (a la Chris Nolan’s Batman reboot) nor does he have a plastic wig (a la “The Fifth Element”) and that is very disappointing.

As I’ve said, I have no basis for comparison as I’ve never seen the original 1987 movie. When “Robocop” (1987) premiered, the social commentary was on point, it was innovative for its time, and it fit well in a society that was ready to enter the 90s, get all hyped up on Internets and cell phones, and start making robots come to life. This iteration is a fun couple of hours, but does not push any boundaries or provide any poignant insights into our society today. It seems content to be a B-grade action movie with A-grade talent and special effects, and for a 2pm showing, it definitely serves its purpose. Kill a lazy afternoon with it, get some friends together and laugh at the good jokes, but maybe don’t spend the extra money for the “IMAX Experience.”

And now I have to go and watch the original so I can earn some points back on my Nerd Card.

Colleen Bailey writes for emptypopcorn.tumblr.com. a place for film reviews and critiques from an "unqualified observer" who loves bad cinema and extra butter.

What do you think?