Rebooting ‘80s movie franchises seems to be a fashionable thing to do in the film industry. These reboots are typically a mixed bag in terms of quality: some, like “Dredd” (which remade the original 1995 film “Judge Dredd” starring Sylvester Stallone), are fairly decent. Others, like the 2011 reboot of “Footloose” and 2012’s “Total Recall” remake, are celluloid trash.
Fortunately, “RoboCop,” the 2014 retelling of the original 1987 film, belongs to the former category, as it does a fantastic job of rebooting the franchise in a way that has just enough similarities to the original film (particularly in setting and plot) for longtime fans of the series, while still being accessible and relevant to modern audiences.
Much like the original, the film is set primarily in a futuristic version of Detroit, Mich. where crime continues to ravage the streets. OmniCorp, a multinational conglomerate owned by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, “Clear History”) that provides robot soldiers to the U.S. Army for use overseas. The conglomerate seeks to create a new form of security robot for use in the U.S. (which has been skeptical about replacing police officers with machines) as it would be consumer-friendly.
Sellars decides that the best chance OmniCorp has at getting public approval for the use of robot police on U.S. soil is to “put a man into the machine,” and enlists the help of Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman, “The Dark Knight Rises”), a scientist specializing in robotic prosthetics, to complete the project. Meanwhile, Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, “Safe House”) is nearly killed by a bomb planted in his car while investigating a case involving possible police corruption. Severely injured with multiple amputations and little hope for survival, Alex is given new life as OmniCorp’s first test subject. Complete with the iconic visor and the pistols for which the character is widely known, Alex is tasked with single-handedly cleaning up the streets of Detroit. However, as the film progresses, the question must be asked: is Alex more machine than man?
The basic plot of the film – Detroit cop is nearly killed and becomes a cyborg to seek justice – remains more or less the same as the original. However, where the 1987 film dealt more with gentrification and authoritarianism, this remake addresses more modern concerns, such as the use of unmanned drones in U.S. foreign policy and the moral and ethical issues surrounding cyborgs, robotic augmentation and the nature of machine intelligence.
Several references to modern cognitive science are present: Dennett Norton’s first name, for example, seems to be a reference to American philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. While the film makes fairly good use of its plot to tell a story addressing modern issues, it becomes a bit too heavy-handed with its critique of drone usage on U.S. soil to the point that the far more interesting topic of cyborg intelligence and humanity is more or less thrown aside by the last third of the film.
The acting in the film is rather good, with Keaton nailing the role of Sellars and Oldman providing a sympathetic performance as Dr. Norton. Kinnaman also does an excellent job of portraying Murphy as the incorruptible-yet-not-infallible police officer that he was in the original, albeit with far less camp. Rounding out the cast are Samuel L. Jackson (“Django Unchained”) as pro-robotics news personality Pat Novak and Abbie Cornish (“Limitless”) as Clara Murphy, Alex’s wife, both of whom provide notably well-done performances.
If any complaint is to be lodged against the reboot of “RoboCop,” it is that the film tries too hard to be a platform for social commentary. That said, for a big-budget popcorn flick, the film provides social commentary that is highly entertaining at the very least.