PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Director Jose Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer’s rebooting of the 1980s Robocop series expands the scope from just crime-ridden Detroit to the world—from a violent street in Tehran to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. This exciting remake raises contemporary issues, and not just that of corporate malfeasance as in the 1987 film. There is also more heart to the new version in that Alex Murphy’s (Joel Kinnaman) relationship to his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son David (John Paul Ruttan) is much more central to the story.
The film begins with a prologue in which we see Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, host of the TV show “The Novak Element,” talking via a satellite link to a female war correspondent accompanying a soldier and a team of robot soldiers moving down a crowded street in the Iranian capital. They are taking part in “Operation Freedom Tehran.” We learn that without risking our men Iran is about to be purged of its anti-American government, thanks to the invasion force consisting mostly of robot soldiers. The reporter enthuses that “in sunny Tehran, the locals have embraced security as a top priority!”
The Year is 2028, and our military has been using drone soldiers all around the world for “peacemaking” operations, thanks to the technology of Detroit-based OmniCorp, but not in the USA. Novak, asking why we cannot use such technology in America, rails against a bill authored by Senator Hubert Dreyfuss that has outlawed the use of such unmanned drones in the USA. Novak is certain that the machines ought to be used in what has been a losing battle against crime. He brings together in hologram form the CEO of OmniCorp Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and Senator Dreyfuss, supposedly for a debate, but after he and Sellars state their side, he cuts off the Senator before he can rebut them. Hmm, I wonder what cable news service is being lampooned here?
The front credits then roll, and we are introduced to good cop and loving family man Alex Murphy. He is in trouble with Chief of Police Karen (Mariennae Jean-Baptiste) over his attempt to bring down a major crime lord. Because he is such a big threat, a bomb is planted beneath his car parked in his drive way. In the resulting blast Alex is virtually killed, burnt over 80% of his body and suffering the loss of most of his limbs, plus a splinter going through his brain. What remains of his comatose body is kept alive on life support.
His misfortune becomes the good fortune for OmniCorp’s CEO Sellars, who sees huge profits in being allowed to sell his cyborgs to police forces in the States. He has come up with an idea that can circumvent the Dreyfuss Bill’s prohibition of the use of drones to police our streets. “We’ve gotta give Americans a product they can love, a product with a conscience, something that knows what it’s like to be human,” Sellers says. “We’re going to put a man inside a machine.” If they can embed the shattered remains of a victim of some horrendous disaster in a robot, then this new form of a drone would not be illegal. They go over the files of various victims, but OmniCorp’s chief scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) raises objections as to why each is not a good candidate. Then they learn of the massively mutilated Alex, who is already a trained cop. After meeting with and explaining to Clara the options for her comatose husband—letting him die or signing off on the experimental joining what remains of him to a robotic body—she hesitantly gives her permission to go ahead with the latter.
The rest of the film chronicles Alex’s feelings about being totally dependant upon mechanics and circuitry to stay alive—and also Clara and their young son’s feelings when OmniCorp sees the family as a hindrance to the mission of Alex. Alex, downloaded with all the criminal files of the Police Department and a host of other information, plus instant access to them via his wi-fi, proves an instant success. At his unveiling to the public by the Mayor, Alex scans the faces of the audience before him and spots a man wanted for murder. When the man tries to run away, he shoots him, to the acclaim of everyone.
Complications, of course, come up, which I will leave it to you to discover, other than to say that the struggle between human will and the power of outside controlling forces is involved. There is even a touch of the Frankenstein story when Dr. Norton begins questioning the decisions of how his boss is using his work. Clara and David also question OmniCorp’s handling of Alex, the company not permitting her much contact with him. Like those who are related to returned Iraqi veterans damaged by the war, both want their husband/father back in the family circle.
Many have reported that the remake is not as humorous as the 1987 version, and yet Padilha’s film is the one that includes the song from The Wizard of Oz “If I Only Had a Heart,” sung in that film by the Tin Man. This is not only amusing as we watch the building of Alex’s metallic cyborg-like lower body, but also the words in the first stanza provide commentary on Sellars’ attempt to subordinate Robocop’s human aspect to that of a machine u nder his control:
“And yet I’m torn apart
Just because I’m presumin’
That I could be a human
If I only had a heart.”
Alex’s helmet visor is open much more in this film, so we can see by his emotional expressions that he does have a heart, until OmniCorps tinkers with his brain and circuitry to improve his efficiency, and then…
Both films present violence as acceptable, the body count sky rocketing when Robocop goes after the bad guys. My impression is that there is not as much blood splattered around in the remake, but this is only an impression, my having seen the original so long ago. The bad guys shot by Model 2014 of Robocop merely fall to the ground, as if they were in a video game. We see no spurts or pools of blood. From a moral standpoint one would wish that those with such great technology as to be able to create a robocop might be able to come up with guns or other weapons that disable opponents rather than ones firing bigger and faster bullets into human bodies. What would a Robocop created by scientists with Gandhian ethics do and look like, I wonder? But then that would require the filmmakers, and the scientists they create, to think outside the box of the usual action thriller.
The film is timely, with the debate raging now over our use of drones to kill those whom our CIA deems the “bad guys,” including a few who are US citizens, plus the unease many have over how far the NIF should monitor our emails and telephone calls. It is actually an old debate over security versus freedom, safety verses privacy. Novak and Sellars believe that if people can be filled with fear, they will opt for security. There also is the CEO’s lust for profits fueling his desperate struggle to control Robocop and break his tie with his family. Thus by moving the action and its consequences beyond just the city of Detroit, the makers of the new Robocop raise issues of even more consequence than the original did. This is one of those rare times when the remake is as good as, and maybe better, than the original.