I’m not a huge fan of satire (ever since I read this Arthur Chu article about the game “Cards Against Humanity” and the inherent meanness of satire as a form of humor, I’ve just lost my taste for it), but I do have a sort of soft spot for the two Paul Verhoeven movies that I know I’ve seen (Starship Troopers and the original RoboCop), simply because they’re just so incredibly over the top (and they seem to have garnered a significant enough reputation that everyone knows without doubt that they are indeed satirical) presentations of future dystopias. Starship Troopers is fun because it takes an extremely conservative in principle book about the military (I read and enjoyed it some years ago, although what I now recall about Heinlein’s work is highly problematic) and turns it into an action flick that highlights all the problems with the military state Heinlein originally imagined; RoboCop works because it takes the premise of a typical cop movie from the ’80s and ramps up the violence with punctuations of commercialism that were extreme and absurd in their level of cynicism.
Essentially, what Verhoeven is good at doing is taking a concept and layering it with so many unsubtle eye-winks that you can’t help seeing the ugliness of the idea.
The Robocop remake doesn’t do that.
Yes, there is satire, and some of it is quite pointed (Samuel L. Jackson’s fun to watch as a variation on the Bill O’Reilly archetype), but the new RoboCop doesn’t invite you to watch its world with cynical distance and bemusement so much as beg you to marvel at the sleek visuals while occasionally pondering during lulls in the action whether Alex Murphy is still human once he’s been reduced to a head, a hand, and some lungs. Don’t ponder too hard though, because questions of what makes a human being are ancillary to the movie’s primary purpose, which is to emphasize just how cool everything looks. This new RoboCop looks sleek in matte black with a retractable visor that displays a scary red glowing line in place of his eyes, and the director seems to much prefer that you not consider what’s underneath that shiny exterior when he’s in the middle of taking down bad guys. It’s a real shame, because the movie’s strongest emotional beats come from all the downtime that Murphy spends in the lab being tended to by the doctor who rebuilt him, Dennett Norton.
It’s the relationship between Norton and Murphy that I most enjoyed about the movie, because Norton’s a pretty likeable guy who clearly has a clear philanthropic vision for his prosthetics research who also finds himself making more and more unethical decisions as he tries to satisfy his employer’s need for a marketable product. It’s Norton who always makes the ultimate decision to further dehumanize Murphy in the pursuit of making him more successful as RoboCop, and these turning points offer the best drama in the story. Murphy, unfortunately, often feels like he’s just along for the ride, which I suppose is appropriate given he’s the primary victim in the whole RoboCop scheme, but it’s interesting to see how he continues to put his trust in Norton until the point where his caretaker finally reveals Omnicorp’s manipulations all along.
But then there’s some action and we just kind of forget that Murphy’s had his brain rewired so that he isn’t even aware of his lack of autonomy, because look at how cool he is fighting those drones. Perhaps the biggest misstep that I see in the storytelling is that we’re told Murphy isn’t aware that he isn’t making decisions when he’s in combat, but then nothing ever happens where he hurts someone he wouldn’t intend to hurt so we never get to see him confront this problem. Yeah, they recycle the old device from the original where his programming includes a directive that doesn’t allow him to harm anyone with a specially protected status, but that’s not the same issue as what Norton sets up (and besides that, the original’s way of resolving it, with Omnicorp’s CEO firing the guy who staged the corporate coup in front of RoboCop so the directive no longer applies to him, is much more satisfying in its hard cynicism than the handwavy “he overcomes his programming with the strength of his soul” resolution the newer movie offers).
Ultimately, I don’t think RoboCop can decide if it wants to be a broody “what is the measure of a man?” film, or if it just wants to be an action flick. It does both things well up to a point, but they never quite mesh into something cohesive where their themes reinforce one another.