In many ways, Jose Padilha’s reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop is on a hiding to nothing. Fondly regarded as a sci-fi classic with plenty of satirical bite, the original RoboCop has plenty of admirers who will be appalled at the very thought of a remake. But if you can forget all that, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy Padilha’s turbo-charged update which tackles similar moral dilemmas to the original but in a world of technology that doesn’t seem so far from the present.
Set in 2028, Robocop starts with a spoof right wing TV pundit, Pat Novak, extolling the virtues of robot policing, switching to a live feed from Tehran where the streets are patrolled by security machines, robots and drones. Novak calls this freedom and security, though it looks a lot more like fear and oppression.
The company behind the robots is OmniCorp who are frustrated they can’t use their advanced technology in the most lucrative market of all, the US. Head of OmniCorp Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) wants his security technology in every US city but is blocked by Congress and a sceptical public. He realises he needs a robot with a human face to win people over and that comes in the form of Detroit cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who’s severely injured while investigating corruption in his own force.
OmniCorp’s neuro-tech boffin Dr Dennett Norton (the ever reliable Gary Oldman) rebuilds Murphy, who’s little more than a head and a pair of lungs, into the familiar figure of RoboCop and he’s quickly drafted into action, swiftly and efficiently capturing or killing Detroit’s most wanted. But where the man ends and the machine begins is a grey area and rather than follow his directives, Murphy starts dispensing his own justice – much to the corporate discomfort of Sellars and his multi-billion dollar business.
Padilha’s RoboCop is at its best when it’s exploring the corporate manipulation and scheming that lies behind the technology, embodied in Michael Keaton’s sneering Sellars. Oldman’s Norton is a Frankenstein-like figure, obsessed with his creation but also possessing the doubts and humanity Sellars so obviously lacks.
Kinnaman’s Murphy is a more restrained, one-tone character who’s a little flat compared to Keaton and Oldman while Samuel L Jackson’s Fox News-inspired broadcaster brings bluster and hilarity in equal measures. There’s no shortage of action in Padilha’s film but with enough brain engagement to keep you interested throughout. What doesn’t work is the emotional pull of Murphy’s family which feels a bit underpowered and tacked on.
The new RoboCop isn’t landmark sci-fi like the original but it’s great fun and zips along with barely a pause for breath. Its dystopian vision has corporations and the role of technology firmly in its sights, just like the original, only now it doesn’t feel like these things are far-fetched science fiction, just the near future. Despite a bit of an anti-climactic ending, there’s plenty to enjoy here if you like mainstream sci- fi movies with a light sprinkling of intellectual intrigue.