Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop was not a film that needed to be remade. With its countless memorable lines and scenes, over-the-top violence, and awesome, original sci-fi world building, the 1987 movie remains an action classic to this day (even if some of the effects can’t compare to what modern Hollywood can do). It’s a shame that this will always remain a strike against the new RoboCop from director José Padilha, because with the exception of a few detrimental flaws, the remake actually plays with some legitimately interesting, different ideas that come together to create an attention-worthy entry in the science-fiction genre.
Taking the original plot and making the proper adjustments to make the movie a closer extension of our own world, the film takes audiences to the year 2028, where one of the most controversial issues around the globe is the increased use of robotic drones in both war zones and city streets. With the American people split on the issue -- many fearing that drones have no morality or value for human life -- robotics manufacturer OmniCorp, led by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), is forced to explore a new avenue: putting a man inside a machine.
Enter Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), an honest Detroit cop, husband and father who is blown to smithereens with a car bomb after beginning an investigation into one of the most powerful crime lords in the city. With the help of the brilliant Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), the company is able to save Murphy’s life by putting what remains of him into a robotic suit of armor. It seems the solution to swaying the American people has been found – that is, until the executives and scientists begin to change the titular hero’s dopamine levels, emotions and free will, leading the experiment down a dangerous rabbit hole of incredibly important and dangerous ethical implications.
Unlike most remakes, which simply work with the original’s themes and ideas without much alteration, Padilha’s RoboCop is not only different, but actually quite smart. Like all the best sci-fi out there, the film is an entertaining, thought-provoking reflection on issues we’re dealing with in our contemporary world - namely drone warfare - seen from a different angle. It’s handled both seriously (such as when Dr. Norton struggles with the ethical implications of changing Murphy’s brain chemistry when in “Battle Mode”) and in satire (namely through a pro-robot TV news show called The Novak Element, hosted by Samuel L. Jackson), and comes together as a smart conversation starter.
It’s in expressing these thoughts and ideas that RoboCop stumbles like an ED-209 on a flight of stairs. The film dedicates an important chunk of its 108 minute runtime towards the building of the titular cyborg and Murphy’s emotional and physical journey through the process, and as important as that is, it winds up harming the story’s pacing and structure, the audience left waiting for Murphy to finally depart his training facility and head on to the streets of Detroit. This problem compounds as the film falls into the trap of telling instead of showing. Possibly handicapped by the PG-13 rating, the movie constantly has characters talking about how dangerous the world has become and the importance of technological advancement in law enforcement, but fails to ever actually show the threats on the streets or what RoboCop is doing to stop them (which, naturally, has a deep impact on the action sequences, which are too few and far between).
Doing their part to fortify the film is what actually amounts to a terrific ensemble performance by the entire cast. Stepping into the shoes of Peter Weller, Kinnaman puts on an impressive leading man turn, really nailing every emotional moment for his complex character. Likewise, Oldman – who really deals with the most important moral decisions in the plot – creates Dr. Norton to be both sympathetic and human. Really stealing the spotlight at every turn, however, is Keaton, who both brings a fun charisma to Sellars while also capturing the pitch-perfect moral ambiguity of a classic ‘80s corporate villain.
The end of the film suggests a future for the new RoboCop as a series, and while that didn’t exactly work out too well in the ‘90s, there is some potential here. For all of its deep flaws, the movie Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have crafted puts down an interesting groundwork, taking an old idea in a new direction and actually having something to say. It’s not Verhoeven, but it’s a start.