The original 1987 version of Robocop is a cheesy idea that turned out to be anything but. In the story of a man who becomes a crime fighting machine, director Paul Verhoeven infused the film with a sensibility and satire all his own, rising above the B-movie premise to become a fascinating study of what makes us human. Twenty-seven years and two sequels of diminishing quality laer, Robocop is back on duty.
Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnamon) is a good cop, a good husband and a good father. He’s fighting injustice, both inside the police department and in the crime-ridden city of Detroit. After a car bomb leaves him a shell of his former self, the robotics company Omnicorp, led by their CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), offers to make Murphy “whole” again by turning him into Robocop. Any by whole they mean replace every part of his body except his head, lungs and right hand with robotics.
Verhoeven’s Robocop worked so well because it ran with the idea that if you took a man’s life, body, everything, his soul would still find a way. In the case of the original, Murphy was dead when he became Robocop. His soul was essentially a ghost in the machine. With this new Robocop, director Jose Padilha eschews that for a man who awakes to find his body completely replaced with a machine. Watching Murphy deal with that reality is one of the more fascinating aspects of the new Robocop, but one that isn’t fully explored.
The new Robocop has so many good ideas flowing through it, but since this a $100 million film, once the action starts, everything else gets shoved to the side. That includes a subplot involving free will, where Murphy’s performance doesn’t match that of his robotic counterparts at Omnicorp, so his doctor (Gary Oldman) inserts software to make him think he’s running the show when in action. Another involves Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish) and son dealing with the fallout of making the decision to allow Omnicorp to turn Alex into a machine. Omnicorp may have promised Murphy would have a normal life, but hearing the hollow sound of metal on his body as his son touches him is a painful reminder that will never be the case. He’s Darth Vadar without the lightsaber or cool hoo-per breathing sound. Nobody can have a normal life living like that, even in a galaxy far, far away.
With this being 2014 and unmanned methods of warfare, like drones, taking center stage, it’s surprising that not one second of Robocop is devoted making some sort of robotic drone people can remotely control instead of a cyborg. In 1987 that technology wasn’t possible, but the new film even features robotic drones, so why not humanoid drones? Oh. Because this is Robocop, not Remote Control Cop.
The new Robocop isn’t a bad film by any stretch. It even manages to retain some of the original’s media satire, with Samuel L. Jackson playing a talk show host in the vein of something found on Fox News. Robocop is almost a worthy successor to the original, but its so focused on hitting all of the action beats that anything with a chance to be smart and compelling is drowned out in a hail of gunfire and metal.