Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop was a cheeky satire of American trends such as urban alienation and consumerism, with a few lashes at the military-industrial complex. As it turns out, his use of a transhumanist hero and further revelations in AI and robot warfare ended up foretelling actual modern developments in military tech, and a bankrupt Detroit further created ideal conditions to dust off the old stop-motion cell-printed story and review the tropes with a little hindsight and a lot more CGI.
Brazilian filmmaker José Padhila has decided to keep the remake close to its source material, or at least its plotting. This is not so much a remake as an upgrade, changing the details of OmniCorp and the media to fit a more familiar modern landscape and introducing hot topics such as drone warfare and the surveillance state to less wink and more nudge the viewer into understanding exactly what the Robocop story is all about. Though still gleefully satirical, Verhoeven’s prescient mirror has become Padhila’s shrill soapbox.
Part of the issue is that though RoboCop is still tongue-in-cheek, it keeps biting its own tongue. Padhila comes from Brazil bearing Elite Squad, a down and dirty low budget film about a Brazilian troop attempting to take down drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro. Elite Squad’s roughness and grit is given a good try in RoboCop, a move that doesn’t translate well to the film’s budget and sense of fun. Instead, most of the action actually plays across like a teaser trailer protracted to a couple hours’ length, always dancing around the hero as if we’re supposed to get excited we may get our first look at him. Problem is, this is the actual movie. We have our good look at him.
Luckily Padhila isn’t even able to keep it up. As the CG starts taking over the camera slows down and steadies up, and when RoboCop isn’t running around shooting baddies and blowing stuff sky high the movie becomes much more stable. It’s even pretty good.
Alex Murphy is taken over by Joel Kinnaman, who sustains the characterization created by Peter Weller, more or less. Much more interesting is his supporting cast, including Michael Keaton as OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars and Gary Oldman as the corporation’s super prosthetics scientist Dr. Dennett Norton.
These two are wonderful. Sellars tries to finagle his way into the US market despite a ban on OmniCorp’s military tech stateside, while Norton engages a transhumanist’s wetdream. Sellars wears his sleaze like a beacon, Norton can’t resist temporary lapses of his own conscience to play along and push his work further than he’s ever done before. After Murphy gets blown up by an evil Detroit cartel, Sellars sees an opportunity to sell the US public on security tech. Together Sellars and Norton cleanly step over each arbitrary moral boundary they set for themselves in order to package Murphy up for release date (egged along by a marketer named Tom Pope, played by Jay Baruchel of all people).
So there’s plenty of work for RoboCop to do, but nothing as exceptional as watching the intricate process of Sellars and Norton incrementally destroy Murphy’s consciousness and cause from behind computer screens and lab windows as Murphy struggles to become a real boy and cut the puppet cords. The root of the story is here and is where the movie should have kept its focus.
As stated before, the story sticks rather close to the plot points of the original, in this case to its detriment. It’s like a Facebook update, attempting to fit in more of everything but mostly just annoying regular users.