It’s official, Humanoids: I upgraded my iPhone to iOS 7. Seeing the visual upgrades on other people’s phones was enough for me to hold out for as long as I could. And now that I have crossed over, in the interest of protecting my credit card information, my displeasure with the new operating system has only intensified. The icons look like they were redesigned for kindergartners, and the minor functionality changes are unattractive by proxy. As an admittedly phone-dependent person, I tip my hat to Apple for performing the feat of making me dread picking up my phone to face the unwelcome makeover that I must now live with until they say otherwise.
Surprising no one, humanity’s reliance on technology resembles our attachment to big-screen entertainment. The immediate backlash in response to movie remakes, for instance, afflicts purists primarily, but now also disenchants moviegoers tired of the unoriginality exhibited by Hollywood’s theatrical offerings. And although I count myself among the perpetually skeptical of whether an original production will be improved upon, there are several efforts that pleasantly surprised me (Fright Night, Ocean’s 11, True Grit, to name a few). I mention these examples to establish that my aversion to José Padilha’s RoboCop in principle had the potential to change completely had the film come together in practice.
It didn’t…because it didn’t.
For a narrative in which a detective (trained to take orders) becomes a machine (programmed to take orders), RoboCop has neither the focus to justify why such a scientific breakthrough is relevant in the world Padilha created nor the sympathetic elements to make the audience invest emotionally in the characters.
Set in 2028 Detroit, a massive corporation pilots a program wherein weaponized machines will reduce crime. Knowing the condition of real-life Detroit, justifying the need for such devices would not be out of range of suspended disbelief. Unfortunately for everyone involved in this experience, 2028 Detroit does not seem worse off than any major city that has yet to go bankrupt. Although homage abounds throughout the film, Padilha shows no traces of the moral wasteland that the dystopian original film needed in order to demonstrate why a man-bot would be necessary in the first place.
Instead, the film opens on Pat Novak, a jingoist talk show host a la Bill O’Reilly (played by Samuel L. Jackson), using footage of robot peacekeepers in hostile Iran to justify why such tactics are crucial to keeping Americans safe. An inferred attempt at satire, the Novak character reeks of textbook Fox News, but the reference to uber-patriotism in the media felt more like a distraction from the overall weakness of the story. To be clear, there was never any explanation as to the connection between insurgent warfare in Iran and the state of crime in 2028 Detroit. The absurd yet well-crafted parallels normally forged by O’Reilly and company were apparently not in Samuel L. Jackson’s script, which could have helped…a little.
What also would have helped RoboCop succeed as a story is humanity to counterbalance the high-tech strokefest that clearly made the producers think this film would clean up at the box office and at toy stores. And the emotional anemia begins with the lead role, Alex Murphy. As a husband and father, who risks his life for a living, Murphy never demonstrates a sense of…well…anything. The witty-gritty detective audiences expect to see in cop movies was not invited to this one, the father-son dynamic that could have made Murphy a likeable hero didn’t report to set either, and the chemistry between Mr. and Mrs. Murphy was comparable to that of a mail-order marriage. So when Alex Murphy dies, only to be reborn as a superior killing machine, the justice he is designed to exact has no emotional stake for the audience. And without characters to love or hate, the movie looks like the product of a brainstorming session where everyone involved shouts out the elements needed to make an action movie, but omits the human element (an ironic flaw indeed once a character mentions that the human element is integral to what would endear RoboCop to Americans; go figure).
Supposing that the aforementioned brainstorming method even remotely resembles how RoboCop made it back to theaters, the finished product indicates that the group responsible rested on the assumption that audiences would infer the message that the goodness of humanity prevails no matter how powerful the efforts are to control it. While it is true that implying such a message is not hard work for the average audience, the satisfaction of the action movie viewing experience comes from not having to work too terribly hard to fill in the blanks. RoboCop, however, went in the complete opposite direction, creating new blanks for the audience to toil over instead of executing a story that, although seen many times before, could have scratched the metaphorical moviegoers’ itch.
Were this movie a computer program that everyone was waiting for, no one can deny that RoboCop could have used a lot more time in beta. Luckily for movie audiences, finding a satisfying product to consume so that we can forget about this one can be both an effortless and low-cost endeavor. Would that the same were as true for cell phones (I really hate iOS 7, you guys. I tweeted about it and everything).