The Robocop remake, out in theaters today, is a pitch-perfect, badass update of a movie that is practically legendary. As if that weren't surprising enough, it also manages to revive that lost art of the 80s: the smart B-movie that stumbles a bit but still goes where blockbusters fear to tread.
The original Robocop was very much a film of its time, full of jokes about Reagan Era missile defense technology and focused on union politics that seem almost quaint now. In Paul Verhoeven's original film, Robocop is touted by the evil corporation OCP as the ultimate cop not just because he's ultra-strong, but because he'll never go on strike. A lot of the story focuses on what it would be like to actually work with robots in the line of duty.
Filmmaker José Padilha does a brilliant job updating this scenario for a world where soldiers are working with robots in combat zones every day. And he retains the subversive politics of the original, too. We begin with a segment from a right-wing TV program, The Novak Element, hosted by Samuel L. Jackson doing a fantastic parody of a FOX commentator. Novak is pissed that progressive politician Hubert Dreyfus is blocking the US from using combat robots at home with his Dreyfus Act (this is a knowing tip-of-the-hat to the anti-AI philosopher of the same name).
To show Americans how great it would be to have robot law enforcers at home, Novak's reporters take us into a scene of "quelling" rebels in Tehran — which ends about as badly as you might expect. Already, Padilha has cleverly placed his Robocop in a believable context for Generation Terror — and things only get more interesting when we meet the head of Omnicorp, who is desperate to find a loophole in the Dreyfus Act so that he can get robots into police departments.
That loophole turns out to be Detroit cop Alex Murphy, who is blown up in a car bomb set by gun runners working with corrupt cops. While Murphy's partner (the always-awesome Michael K. Williams) is discouraged from figuring out who basically killed his partner, Murphy's wife is told (truthfully) that her husband won't survive unless he's placed in what amounts to a full-body prosthetic. Omnicorp head Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, in hyperactive creep mode) realizes that if they put Murphy on the street as a "Robocop," it's a great legal loophole — because after all, he's sort of human — and a perfect publicity stunt.
Here is another area where this Robocop goes places where the original never did. We're allowed to see how head scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman, in fine form) clashes with Sellars over how to handle Murphy. For Norton, whose work is with prosthetics, Murphy is a human being who happens to be wearing the world's most extensive prosthetic device. But for Sellars, he's just a robot. The whole middle section of the film, which is absolutely superlative, deals with how Norton has to change Murphy's brain so that it can work as well as the processors inside Omnicorp's combat robots.
The Murphy in this film is fully human, with all his memories intact, but we get a chance to see how easily he can be transformed with the addition of a few brain implants and neurotransmitters. There are also terrific moments with Sellars trying to figure out how to market Murphy — "Make him more tactical-looking," he barks, which results in the matte black suit you've seen in ads. And Jay Baruchel has a great bit role as Omnicorp's marketing director, who keeps popping in to explain how well Robocop is doing on social media.
One of the central questions in Robocop is whether Murphy truly is human by the time Omnicorp is done with him. Is here merely a robot who thinks he's Murphy? In one of Murphy's training sequences — set to the music of classic prog band Focus — we discover that when he's in combat mode he "thinks he's in control" but actually the robot is making all his moves for him. "It's the illusion of freewill," Norton says. But this movie is smart enough to get us wondering about whether freewill is always an illusion, especially in a combat situation. Are we not always, to a certain extent, just acting out orders and doing what our bodies have been trained to do?
You'll be surprised at how deep the science fictional speculation is here. The action is pretty damn fun too. And Padilha keeps us focused on the bigger political picture by including several more hilarious segments of Jackson ranting on The Novak Element. Will Murphy win over the American people and get the Dreyfus Act repealed?
There are a lot of balls in the air, both in terms of Murphy's character development and the big picture, and that's the moment when Robocop shows its B-movie side. Though it's a fantastic action flick, with lots of smart ideas, it feels like nobody really knew where to go with the ending. There's a hint of conspiracy, which is too easily resolved. There's a "this time its personal" thing, which feels flat. And then there's Norton, the good scientist, who grows a conscience and is threatening to go to the press with information about how Murphy is being treated like Omnicorp property rather than a man. But in B-movie fashion, none of these plots ever reaches a real punch-you-in-the-gut conclusion.
While the ending isn't as satisfying as one would hope, the fact is that this movie is brutally awesome in ways it simply has no right to be. This Robocop is so fully reimagined that it might as well be a different movie from the 80s original. Many of the themes are the same, as are the characters, but this Robocop shines on its own terms the way the Planet of the Apes reboot did in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
I never thought I'd be saying this, but Robocop is one of the better science fiction movies of the year so far. You won't want to miss it.