The latest “reboot” Robocop is a kinder, gentler version of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi orgy of violence. Trimmed of its gratuitous gore director Jose Padilha’s Robocop does some of the things a good remake should do: it retains the central ideas and themes of the original while updating and rearranging the narrative to lose a derivative feel.
Robocop is set in the near future. Drones manufactured by OmniCorp, a conglomerate owned by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), have become one of the dominant world-wide forms of police but are barred by law from being used on U.S. soil.
Recognising the potential revenue being lost, Sellars embarks upon an ambitious project: create a cybernetic cop that combines the brain and heart of a man with a robotic body. His choice for “Robocop”: Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a morally upright Detroit policeman who is critically injured when his car explodes. With the permission of Murphy’s distraught wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), Sellars’ chief doctor, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), builds a new body that looks like a cross between Iron Man and a Cylon. With his emotions carefully controlled and a “kill switch” in place (in case he should turn against his “owners”), Robocop is introduced to the public and becomes an immediate sensation.
Robocop wants to be more than an action-oriented robo-romp. It wants to provide social commentary. To that end, Padilha provides clips from a TV talk show hosted by ultra-conservative Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who champions Sellars’ drone program and lambastes gutless politicians who back the law banning their use. This is intended to evoke the timeless debate of how much freedom people are willing to surrender in the name of greater security, but Robocop doesn’t offer anything that’s new or especially thought provoking. Its points are disappointingly shallow and its attempts at satire pale in comparison to Verhoeven’s edgy jabs.
The film also attempts to give commentary on free will and where and how the soul resides in the body. By extension, it asks what does it mean to be human. Does it answer these questions? Perhaps not as fully as one would expect – this is an action film after all. Early on in the film, Robocop is nicknamed Tin Man – in that he, like the Oz character has no heart and therefore no soul. As the film progresses the remaining parts of Alex Murphy begin to override his programming, seemingly suggesting the resilience of the human spirit.
The cast represents an intriguing blend of familiar faces and relative unknowns. Stepping into Peter Weller’s boots is Joel Kinnaman, the Swedish-born actor who made his name in television. Aussie actor Abbie Cornish plays Murphy’s wife grieving wife – in a departure from the original Murphy’s family plays a larger part in the story. Michael Keaton turns up the sleaze as Sellars. Gary Oldman has the most three-dimensional role, although a significant dose of ambiguity might have made Dr. Norton more interesting. Samuel L. Jackson uses his strident reputation to good effect portraying Novak.
Unlike the other recent 80’s reboot, Total Recall, this iteration of Robocop seems to have set itself apart from the original and given us a different, more straight forward and in some ways more formulaic film.
Although Robocop may not quite reach its lofty goals, it at least aspires to be more than just another dumb, special effects-focused blockbuster, and it deserves credit not only for that but for holding the viewer’s attention for two hours.