One thing people rarely concede of nihilism: Its scope is infinitely epic. Compared to its new remake, Paul Verhoeven’s big, brass-balled American breakthrough, RoboCop, looks cheaper than ever, a mess of dirty matte shots, Class of Nuke ’Em High splatter, and Silver Era stop-motion miniatures that quite literally look like someone bought for a dollar. But you can’t put a price on Verhoeven’s pitch-perfect tone. An allegory for corporate culture’s insidious infiltration of governing bodies that, by virtue of its crowd-pleasing vulgarity, somehow became a huge hit at the tail end of the antitrust law-relaxing Reagan administration, RoboCop envisioned a scarcely distant dystopian world in which both law and lawlessness are owned by essentially the very same interests. And the illusion of competition between good and evil is carefully fostered by a highly controlled media. Verhoeven housed his no-exit vision within what was one of the most gleefully over-the-top violent entertainments of its era, both satirizing and embodying its own excess in a manner Martin Scorsese proponents believe their maxi-messiah did with The Wolf of Wall Street.
Finally emerging from development hell, the 2014 model RoboCop is excessive in its own ways, to be sure—$130 million of them. The bailout-level expense is crisply apparent in its basic professionalism. And, early on at least, it feels as though the filmmakers managed to retain the toxic levels of skepticism that Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner brought to the original, updating them for the endless war generation. In its perturbed opening sequence, TV pundit Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson, seething with both great vengeance and furious anger) tosses his program over to a live shot of robotics-engineering corporation OmniCorp rolling out their latest line of mechanized soldier drones in Iran. Hoping to demonstrate the robots’ infallible ability to detect civilians from terrorists, the report goes haywire when a group of bomb-strapped insurgents effectively force the ’bot force to waste them on live TV. Though the camera catches one of them annihilating a knife-wielding kid who was only trying to protect his father, Jackson’s Novak instantly characterizes the carnage as proof positive that the force works, and that Congress’s namby-pamby law against allowing the drones to police domestic streets is, you guessed it, un-American.
So far so good, but then the film quickly switches gears to officer Alex Murphy (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman), a clean cop struggling to figure out why his investigations into potentially shady practices among the thin blue line aren’t getting anywhere. As soon as you can say snitch, one man’s near-death explosion is another corporation’s opportunity to redirect the conversation about robotics and the human element. Murphy wakes up encased in an attractive mass of alloy, his brain, jaw, and lungs merged with the most cutting-edge robotics that Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) has to offer, the intended poster boy for reversing the national resistance to drone patrols in the homeland. No sooner does Murphy come to than we learn that he’s also still retained full use of his tear ducts. (Somewhere Kurtwood Smith can be heard to say, “Bitch, leave!”)
Maybe the presence of Michael K. Williams as Murphy’s police partner clinches it, but the remake’s satirical potential short-circuits under the looming influence of The Wire. Instead of depicting a world where traditional models of good and evil aren’t so much interchangeable as they are fiscally irrelevant, the film accepts as a given that everyone’s got their reasons—a valid point, but one hardly served justice against the cartoonish antics of both Novak and Michael Keaton’s master-spinner CEO. The whole reason OmniCorp spends $2 billion building RoboCop in the first place is to prove that you can’t engineer empathy, a paradox the film never seems willing to explore.
Verhoeven’s genius was to create a Hollywood entertainment (a robot, if you will) that self destructs through its own internal contradictions, bad faith incarnate. When RoboCop saves a woman from two rapists by shooting a bullet through her dress and into the aberrant crotch of her would-be assailant, he then monotonously assures that he will deliver her to the nearest rape crisis center, a gesture of chivalry deliberately undercut by its clear function as a punchline. In contrast, the remake short-changes its own potential for satirical offense, leaning heavy on cheap pot shots taken at clearly biased news sources, but never actually exploring the consequences of tailored media silos. Verhoeven deftly demonstrated the many ways communication can be controlled by forcing you to distrust it. The remake, helmed by José Padilla, who, as the director of the jaw-dropping Bus 174, you’d have thought would’ve been craftier on this very point, actually becomes another representation of incongruous demographic fulfillments. It tries to be all things to all viewers, and so the movie’s sarcasm over how crassly OmniCorp and Novak both manipulate the masses’ sympathies rest alongside heartrending depictions of Murphy’s tattered domestic life and deafening action set pieces straight out of a body-counting video game’s final level, and without any apparent self-awareness. Ultimately the film is, like the Faux News programming it caricatures at face value, a deck-stacking simulation of a dialogue it isn’t even remotely interested in opening. Early in the film, Dr. Norton explains that when RoboCop enters combat mode, he believes himself to be in control when in reality he’s actually only observing the stimulus-response of preexisting programming. How many viewers will buy that for a dollar?