With Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson. Written by Joshua Zetumer. Directed by José Padilha. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material. 118 minutes.
Like many viewers, this critic went in to the ROBOCOP remake wanting to dislike it. How dare they remake a classic science fiction film? Then something odd happened. It became apparent that the filmmakers had actually put some thought into why the story should be told again and how things have changed since the original was made. The result won’t satisfy everyone but unlike the remake of, say, the 2008 “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” no one can argue they were merely ripping off the reputation of the earlier film.
For one thing, the emphasis is different. We’re still in a future Detroit where OmniCorp wants to introduce their robot crime fighters, but instead of the corporate infighting that was the focus of the 1987 film, the satiric jabs are aimed at the government and politicians. The corporate types, led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), are pretty much on the same page.
In a prologue, TV news host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) shows us how robots are already bringing “peace and security” to nations elsewhere in the world. Only the United States forbids their use domestically. In swift strokes we see the problem with the robots and how corporate media follows an agenda rather than simply reporting the facts. The solution, according to Sellars, would be a robot with some human elements to it, making it more acceptable to the public.
At that point, the story follows several beats of the original. Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is near death after an attack planned by a particularly vicious criminal boss. Scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a specialist in advanced robotic prosthetics, creates a robot shell to contain what remains of Murphy. Here, again, the film doesn’t merely ape the original. With the new RoboCop, we still get to see his face–except when a protective shield drops down–and he has his full memories, not just vestigial images of his previous human life. Indeed, the question of whether he can resume a relationship with his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) becomes ones of the film’s major plot lines.
It’s foolish to argue if this “RoboCop” is better or worse than the original. It’s different. It raises the question as to whether Murphy has free will or is simply part of a machine in much greater detail than the original. It replaces the satiric TV ads with the darkly satiric newscast, although OmniCorp robot wrangler Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) does get to quote one of the signature lines from the earlier film. Where the executive suite in the first film seemed to be a nest of vipers, it’s a much different environment here with Norton being the most complex character, trying to follow corporate direction but also wanting to do the right thing. As is often the case, Gary Oldman gives one of the film’s standout performances.
Where it seems to take the easy route is turning several of the action sequences into the cinematic equivalent of “first person shooter” video games. It makes up for it by daring to take its conceptions all the way through, so that the question of whether Murphy can be “programmed” and who is really in control becomes a central issue. Too often big-screen science fiction movies finesse such complicated matters, with the recent “Her” being a good example of a film that ultimately avoids facing the full implications of its premise.
As a fan of the original, this reviewer really didn’t want to like this one… but he did.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.