The 2014 remake of 1987's RoboCop (the word "reboot" is reserved only for remakes that start new franchises, and that doesn't seem to be a concern here) is a useless thing that tells a story which isn't very interesting in a way that is desperately tedious, but by God, it's so much better than RoboCop 3. I don't know if clearing that threshold counts as an achievement, but the film made it happen anyway, so kudos to screenwriter Joshua Zetumer and director José Padilha. The latter of whom has made it more less clear that the movie he has seen his name applied to and the movie he had desired to make do not overlap to an especially significant degree. And while we'll never know what vision Padilha had for the film before the studio execs slapped his hands away - maybe it involved an army of cyborg dachshunds flying around, or something, and would have been terrible - I'm inclined to think that he comes out on the right side of the deal, morally and artistically at least. It's hard to imagine a more anodyne, low-impact, aimless version of this film - hell, of this exact same script! - than the one we've been given.

A lot of that starts with Joel Kinnaman, a pretty anodyne, low-impact actor, in the lead role of Detroit police office Alex Murphy, who finds himself in the center of a horrible military-industrial complex PR stunt. I don't intend to flip back and forth between this film and the 1987 original too much, but it's certainly worth observing that in creating the role, Peter Weller played a pointedly robotic and inhuman version of the character with surprising, subtle flexibility and wit; in a revision that is vastly more sympathetic and emotional, Kinnman is stuck in a much more robotic, one-note performance. It's not a thing that torpedoes the movie - comparatively, RoboCop '14 has more characters doing more things to pull focus from Murphy - but God knows it doesn't help.

The story this time is that Detroit-based multinational tech company OmniCorp is desperate to expand the market for its military-application robots, and has been stymied in its efforts to introduce these machines as replacements for U.S. police officers by the Dreyfuss Act, a bill which prohibits the use of such machines domestically. Hunting for any sort of "in" with an aggressively anti-robot American populace, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) strikes upon the idea of combining a robot and a man in one high-efficiency, but still relatable figure. The test subject is, of course, Murphy, who effectively dies in an car explosion set up by local drug kingpin Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow); Sellars is able to sweet-talk Murphy's wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) into signing off on hooking him into a machine designed by the guilt-ridden Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who views it as a violation of professional morality that keeps snowballing until he eventually turns into a full-on Frankenstein.

There are multiple options for an A-plot in all of that, and the biggest problem by far with RoboCop's script is that no matter what we're watching at any given moment, it doesn't seem to be the most important thing. This is in part because out of all the angles that the filmmakers could have focused on, the lion's share of the plot is given to the part of the movie where Norton fine-tunes Murphy's link to the suit. It's probably necessary to focus more on this, given that the new film is so much more invested in Murphy's psychological state as a cyborg than the original trilogy ever thought about, but still, nobody could possibly thing that the R&D phase could conceivably be the most interesting part of any movie titled RoboCop, and it's leaden, deathly-dull, and not remotely as effective in exploring the man-machine link as it needs to be if it's going to land at all. In the end, it feels like 40 minutes of set-up just to get to the point that Norton confesses that he's programmed Murphy with only the illusion of free will, something that could have been established to much the same thematic and emotional effect with plenty of room left over for actual movie.

But then, RoboCop never really seems to know what it wants to be about. The opening ten minutes - by far the best part of the movie, and the only stretch where I genuinely thought it was going to be a worthy variation on the original - make a very, very, very clear point of comparing the battle robots with contemporary American drone warfare, complete with a cardboard right-wing ideologue newsman, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) - I want so bad for his name to be a combination of Pat Robertson and Robert Novak, but I don't think the evidence is there for it - spitting fire and brimstone about military might. But until a desperate Hail Mary throw in the final scene, the film immediately forgets about this them in favor of various half-baked attempts to observe that corporations exist. All of the film's satiric notions exist at the level of a passionate and angry and mostly naïve teenager just getting into politics (Novak in particular isn't a remotely clever or funny or even appealingly cheap shot critique of Fox News talking heads - all it takes is making a cheapjack copy of Stephen Colbert, and even that appears to be beyond this movie), though I suppose it's admirable that RoboCop wants to say something about modern life, even though it so signally fails to.

What does tend to save it from being a complete waste of time is that Padilha does have a good eye for an image, and he and DP Lula Carvalho frame the action well (the opening scene, again, is a treat), and even create one truly memorable scene when Murphy discovers exactly how much of his organic self remains inside the RoboCop suit, a moment of melancholy PG-13 body horror that I expect to carry with me long after the rest of the film has rightfully been consigned to the garbage heap. There's not much else that recommends the film - it wastes a genuinely strong cast on stock characters played mostly without distinction (Keaton is a particular disappointment, spinning every moment in the flattest way possible), and it wastes surprisingly high-quality CGI on bland design concepts - but merely for including some sequences where the pace picks up and there's a real sense of style around the action, it manages to justify itself more than something like the Total Recall remake. Which is also not a very significant threshold to clear, but '80s remakes are a degraded genre, and you take what you can get.