There was a time when Hollywood made good, B-level sci-fi action movies, and that time was the 1980s. There was a lot of crap, of course, but for every Arnold Schwarzenegger ham sandwich like The Running Man there was a RoboCop: a movie that smuggled ideas along with its cheap thrills.
In Paul Verhoeven's 1987 subversive masterpiece, officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a beat cop in a hyper-violent future Detroit. Gravely wounded in the course of ferreting out a bank robber with ties to the corrupt public/private partnership that runs the city, Murphy is transformed by scientists working for the corporation Omni Consumer Products into a cyborg law enforcement machine. In theory, the film's themes — cybernetic body horror, technological anxiety, corporate malfeasance, and authoritarian bloodlust — make RoboCop ripe for a remake in the strange, fearful world of 2014.
Director José Padilha certainly seems to have been inspired by the subversive spirit of Verhoeven's original as well as the Dutch director's even more overtly satirical Starship Troopers. But where the original RoboCop was elegantly cutting, this version is ungainly and ornate.
Verhoeven was the master of having the surface text and subtext flowing in two different directions at the same time, where Padilha feels he must underline and circle the satirical elements Verhoeven introduced with clever world-building. Maybe most of the problem lies in the fact that Verhoeven was making a sci-fi action movie, and this RoboCop, in keeping with the times, is a superhero origin story.
Verhoeven's vocabulary was taken from The Terminator and Dirty Harry (channeled through the comic book Judge Dredd). This version wants to walk the line between Iron Man and Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Just as in Marvel movies these days, Samuel L. Jackson shows up to frame the proceedings, now playing a right-wing TV blowhard named Pat Novak who cheers on Omicorp's operation exporting American-style techno totalitarianism to "sunny Tehran." RoboCop's opening sequence is by far the best thing about the movie, promising a cutting satire of military industrial politics with cool robots and big explosions.
But then the creeping Batman-itis sets in, weighing the film down with unneeded plot complexity, a RoboCop outfit designed to look like Christian Bale's Batsuit, a Batcave-like techno-lair, and extended, shaky-cam action sequences that seem like low-budget versions of those in The Dark Knight. Not only is there an actual Batman, Michael Keaton, as the twitchy Omni President Raymond Sellars, who wants to import repressive military technology to American soil for profit, but there's also Gary Oldman, wearing his Commissioner Gordon glasses while playing RoboCop's creator and protector Dr. Dennett Norton.
The movie's biggest problem is its lack of Peter Weller, who, in one of the great performances in science-fiction film history, animated RoboCop's struggle to regain his humanity with an operatic physicality. The Killing star Joel Kinnaman can't quite fill those metallic boots, and he ends up looking lost and confused instead of tortured and stoic.
There's a great movie to be made about the creeping militarization of domestic policing and the role of technology in our lives, and sometimes that seems to be the film that Padilha wants to make. But wrapping these ideas once again in the RoboCop label invites comparisons to the franchise's superior past. Maybe every generation gets the RoboCop it deserves. I'm just not sure what we did to deserve this one.