Let me start right out with a surprise: I liked the new Robocop movie. I admit, I went into the theater expecting a dumb retread of a classic sci-fi film and was pleasantly surprised with director José Padilha’s take on half-man, half-robot Alex Murphy. Is it better than the original? Well, the 1987 film hasn’t aged gracefully and while I will forgive a lot because Peter Weller’s in the title role, there’s a lot of shlocky 80’s in the original movie too.
This new take on Robocop uses the smart narrative device of having a conservative talk show host, Pat Novak (an enjoyable Samuel L. Jackson playing, well, Samuel L. Jackson) lobbying for the American people to force Congress to repeal the “Dreyfuss bill”, which makes it illegal for robotic police to be deployed in the United States. The bill is sponsored by Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier), a bow-tie clad New England liberal who is vilified throughout the film.
The film opens with Novak’s team reporting live from Tehran, where Omnicorp military robots are on the ground going door-to-door to weed out terrorists and criminals. The big, bad robots are the At-At-like ED-209 units, big, loud and heavily armed. There are also more humanoid robots that are under the direct control of the U.S. military. The operation goes awry and live coverage ends abruptly with civilian casualties, something Novak quickly glosses over in his zeal to promote Omnicorp robots taking over policing of tough, dangerous neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, Detroit cop Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) and his partner Lewis (Michael K. Williams) are almost killed in an attempt to bust Detroit crime kingpin Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow, in a lackluster performance). Then the critical scene, Murphy is almost killed in the driveway of his suburban home. At this point the head of Omnicorp, the rather cliché heartless businessman Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) convinces his scientist in residence Dr. Dennett Norton (the always enjoyable Gary Oldman) to assuage anxiety about their inhuman robots by creating a new kind of human/robot hybrid with Murphy’s brain, lungs and, fortunately, face intact.
In the original film, Murphy is driven by a desire to exact revenge on the criminals who tried to kill him, with only vague memories of his wife and son who have vanished in the months it took Omnicorp (OCP) to turn him into Robocop. In the remake, Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son David (John Paul Ruttan) are very present throughout, and it’s their interaction and presence that helps Murphy find his own humanity.
The original Robocop had a subtle political message that pushed audiences to ask whether the danger of robot security is worth the loss of privacy both extant in the existence of Robocop and the ED-209 units, and in the more fundamental question of what makes us human? How many replacement parts can a person get before they cease to be a person at all?
In the remake, this element becomes much more overt through the device of Novak’s conservative talk show, asking us explicitly about tradeoffs, what we’d sacrifice to have a safe community and even comparing the American deployment of drones overseas to the deployment of Robocop in Detroit. At what price, freedom?
The special effects are solid, the performances are acceptable to good, and the film is definitely entertaining and fast-paced. Is it going to jump into the top 10 sci-fi films of all time? No, but at this point I don’t think the original would be on that list either. It is, however, a good few hours entertainment and the flaws and hiccups are easily forgiven for an interesting remake.
And yes, I’d buy that for a dollar.