The film has plenty of flaws but should be entertaining for sci-fi action fans, thanks to interesting world-building, captivating existential ideas, and cool robo-action.
In RoboCop (2014) OmniCorp is the premium tech company on the planet, developing groundbreaking cybernetic implants for amputees as well as exo-skeletal suits that enhance human strength and speed. Still, the company’s most lucrative products are the ED, EM, and XT lines of security robots – used in nearly every country around the world (except the United States) to fight terrorism and maintain social order. In America, the robots are illegal – with a significant portion of the country opposing legislation that would put the unfeeling machines in charge of life and death situations.
Intent on paving the way for expanding their product line in America, OmniCorp CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), decides to put a man in a machine – selecting strait-laced Detroit police detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), left in critical condition following a retaliatory attempt on his life, as OmniCorp’s candidate for the project. Sellars, with the help of colleague Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), succeeds in creating a half-human, half-machine police officer but not without significant tinkering, suppressing Murphy’s human side to make their RoboCop more efficient – that is until Murphy begins to take control of the system (and his life).
After mixed reactions to RoboCop 2, the universally panned RoboCop 3, and two lackluster TV shows (RoboCop: The Series and RoboCop: Prime Directives), fans of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop movie were extremely skeptical when it was first announced that Elite Squad director José Padilha would helm a modern reboot with Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) in the titular role. After all, Verhoeven’s film was intentionally self-referential and violent, in service of satirizing American consumerism, adding a level of depth and cult-credibility to the arguably silly premise. Yet, over the 25 years since its release, many sci-fi ideas in the original RoboCop have become reality (or will in the near future), meaning that Padilha needed a different approach to successfully reintroduce the character for modern audiences.
As a result, the 2014 RoboCop reboot is a significant departure – one that will likely leave franchise fans fuming but could still appeal to moviegoers who don’t feel as though a Hollywood reboot needs to be a complete improvement on the original (to be worthwhile). In spite of their many similarities, Padilha’s film limits satire in favor of asking philosophical questions about humanity – especially in the face of vastly evolving cybernetics and robotics in the real world. The narrative focuses heavily on Alex Murphy’s existential experience transitioning from family man to cyborg – all while OmniCorp tampers with his cognitive functions (read: humanity) in order to deliver the best possible RoboCop product. Returning fans looking for tongue-in-cheek satire might be disappointed by the serious approach but, as mentioned, it’s a timely story – and one that explores interesting questions that Verhoeven never had the chance to consider.
Kinnaman’s performance isn’t as iconic as fan-favorite Peter Weller but he’s still an enjoyable and believable Murphy, capturing different aspects of the character journey – from an impulsive human cop, tortured and scared experiment, to a soulless machine, as well as a convincing composite of all three. Along with the more serious tone, Kinnaman manages to exude an absorbing blend of both the robot and the man – with a number of subtle but humorous moments (including riffs on iconic lines) that help accentuate the character’s humanity.
Of course, Murphy is still half-machine and Padilha came up with a number of shiny updates that guarantee RoboCop is equally well-represented – such as real-time access to camera feeds around Detroit, unsolved crime files, including suspects and known associates, as well as evolved weapons tech. Franchise purists might scoff at Padilha’s choice to improve the character’s speed, movement, and program features but, in addition to making RoboCop believable in a modern setting, the enhancements also make this Murphy significantly more exciting (and at times interesting) to watch on screen. That said, even though RoboCop includes some slick battle sequences, fans expecting a popcorn action flick might be underwhelmed by the amount of gunplay (and violence) – given that the film’s primary focus is to explore the character.
This isn’t to say that Padilha entirely succeeds in updating (or even presenting) some of the movie’s most intriguing ideas either – especially since other aspects of the narrative are undercooked (by comparison). Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan are fine as wife, Clara, and son, David, respectfully but select scenes (especially those shared with Kinnaman in the RoboCop suit) are thinly drawn and often melodramatic – falling short of Padilha’s (admittedly ambitious) goals for the story. The choice to explore Murphy’s post-accident familial relationship is interesting (his wife and son moved away in the original) and helps support the movie’s philosophical ideas but it also leads to more than a few plot holes and inconsistencies.
Similarly, despite solid performances from key supporting actors, the OmniCorp side is equally uneven. Keaton is fun to watch throughout much of the film but is an otherwise stock villain that fails to provide an interesting foil for RoboCop. The inclusion of Jackie Earle Haley as an OmniCorp heavy is equally wasted, preventing Padilha’s evildoer team from being strong enough to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the film – either in terms of action or emotional catharsis. Oldman’s Dr. Norton is one of the more nuanced additions, with some smart subtleties; but, like Sellars, he’s still locked into a pretty formulaic arc.
RoboCop is also playing as an “IMAX Experience” but it’s hard to recommend purchasing a premium ticket – at least to anyone who expects a significant return on the added price. Certain scenes, especially those featuring the sizable ED-209 models, benefit from the added screen size, and the upgraded sound ensures viewers will hear audible details that make RoboCop’s engineering more immersive, but neither is essential.
In general, impassioned fans will likely find Padilha’s RoboCop to be a watered down reboot that’s missing both the satire and violence that made the original a classic. Nevertheless, even though it shares the same premise and central character, the two films are extremely different – and Padilha made a smart choice by not “remaking” Verhoeven’s film and instead “reimagined” the character in the modern world. The film has plenty of flaws but should be entertaining for sci-fi action fans, thanks to interesting world-building, captivating existential ideas, and cool robo-action. It might not be necessary but Padilha’s RoboCop reboot still offers an intriguing take on the character.
If you’re still on the fence about RoboCop, check out the trailer below:
RoboCop runs 108 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material. Now playing in regular and IMAX theaters.
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