Film Review: ‘RoboCop’

'Robocop' to release in Asia ahead

Jose Padilha's smarter-than-expected remake of the 1987 action classic holds a mirror to the political present.

If anyone was under the impression that Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 “RoboCop” was a vision of the future, Jose Padilha’s  pumped-up, cleaned-up update makes it clear that this sci-fi concept merely holds a mirror to the political present. Shifting the prime target of its satire from corporate greed to post-9/11 jingoism, this well-cast, smarter-than-expected remake repairs much of the damage done to the iron-fisted lawman’s reputation by meat-headed sequels and spinoffs; it’s a less playful enterprise than the original, but meets the era’s darker demands for action reboots with machine-tooled efficiency and a hint of soul. The new model should capitalize on a dearth of equivalent genre fare in theaters, without automatically activating a franchise relaunch.

The once-mooted prospect of a Darren Aronofsky-directed “RoboCop” was certainly tantalizing, but producers Eric Newman and Marc Abraham were wise to secure Brazilian adrenaline-monger Padilha (best known for his hard-edged “Elite Squad” thrillers) to take the reins here on his first English-language feature. Just as the bleakly cynical liberalism of the original “RoboCop” was ideally suited to Verhoeven’s European perspective, so the new film benefits from a foreign helmer’s distance as it sends up American right-wing security concerns with a mostly straight face. Stylistically, however, Padilha and Verhoeven are very different brands of outsider: While the Dutchman aimed to beat Hollywood at its own flashy game, the Brazilian brings a rough, street-level energy to the proceedings, sometimes to the point of affectation.

Set in an eminently recognizable 2028, “RoboCop” begins, as did the first film, with a current-affairs broadcast. Rather than the chirpily delivered evening-news bulletin of the original, however, we’re now tuned into “The Novak Element,” a Fox News-style outlet for the heated political commentary of Pat Novak — a Rush Limbaugh-like figure played by Samuel L. Jackson, and an unreliable Greek chorus of sorts for the film. Blessed with a toupee straight from the “Hunger Games” school of future hairstyling, Novak is a vocal ally of OmniCorp, a U.S. robotics development corporation whose peacekeeping machines are — in the first of several key deviations from the original script — already in use abroad, though not in “robophobic” America, where politicians fiercely debate the ethics of non-human policing.

Working with brilliant but ambivalent scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) hits on a solution: a robot fused with human body and brain parts that is capable of making moral judgment calls. Over in Detroit — the city’s crime-ridden image scarcely updated from 1987 — a prototype emerges in the sharp-jawed form of slain cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman of AMC’s “The Killing”). With his comatose remains signed off to OmniCorp by grieving wife Clara (Abbie Cornish), Murphy is reformulated as RoboCop — though when he underperforms in initial testing runs, Norton has his brain rewired to follow software rather than human impulses.

This essential elimination of the moral conscience that makes RoboCop politically palatable is snuck through the system, and the android Murphy is a hit on the Motor City streets, while Clara grows increasingly suspicious of OmniCorp’s motives. Order is short-lived, however, as Murphy’s emotions gradually override his programming — a development that the script’s already sketchy movie science sentimentally attributes to the power of the human spirit — and he sets about solving his own not-quite-murder.

Joshua Zetumer’s script cleverly reshapes the psychological quest of the original film to fit a 21st-century American culture arguably more preoccupied with emotional intelligence than it was in the late Reagan era: Where the first film had RoboCop discovering his humanity after being conceived and introduced as a robot, his more complex goal here is to regain the human qualities he was initially given, and by which he has been advertised to the public, politicians and his family alike. There’s an increased satirical focus here on the corporations’ positioning of RoboCop as both product (“He transforms!” a marketer enthuses, slyly referencing a certain other metallic action series) and patriot. Tellingly, as befits a humanized, Captain America-style national protector, the new RoboCop suit has a retractable visor that allows the audience access to Murphy’s face earlier and more often than in the 1987 film. (Purists may object, but there’s only so long you can reasonably keep the model-handsome Kinnaman covered up.)

Placing Murphy’s wife and child at the center of the narrative is essential to this more EQ-driven approach, though it’s also a more predictable — even conservative — route than that taken by the original film, which effectively wrote the family out of the picture, instead placing the emotional burden of recognition on his spunky female partner. Zetumer and Padilha’s modernization of the RoboCop mythos doesn’t extend to feminism: Though played with some steel by Cornish, Clara has no identity or agency beyond her marriage to Murphy, while more coldly high-powered roles for Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Jennifer Ehle (both excellent) are hardly flattering.

The cast in general performs well above the minimum demands of the material. Kinnaman lacks the lithe wryness Peter Weller brought to the 1987 film, but has his own cool authority, while Keaton (perhaps having less fun with the role than the initially cast Hugh Laurie might have done) is a reserved, genuinely off-putting villain, leaving the maniacal business to a ripe Jackie Earle Haley as OmniCorp’s chief militarist. Best in show, handily, is Oldman, whose tender ruefulness as Norton does a good deal of the film’s emotional legwork.

Verhoeven’s film stirred controversy with its level of bloodshed, though the franchise’s strange evolution toward a youth audience not necessarily attuned to the first film’s irony — fans may even remember the “RoboCop” cartoon series — diluted that intensity. The new “RoboCop” hits on a compromise: The degree of direct onscreen gore is sufficiently modest to ensure a PG-13 rating, but the clammy, on-the-ground atmosphere conjured by Padilha and Lula Carvalho’s restlessly roving camera feels both urgent and adult. After the “Elite Squad” films, Padilha knows the perils of urban warfare better than most, though the handheld authenticity card can be overplayed in the film’s talkier interior scenes.

On the design front, the updates to the familiar RoboCop iconography are respectful but sleekly streamlined. Gone are the endearingly clunky robot effects of the original film, as all the machinery here — including, of course, that all-important suit, here given a slight Daft Punk accent — exudes contempo architectural glamour. Uniformly solid visual-effects work is most arresting in the lab scenes that show what remains of Murphy without his armor — a reveal that leads one to wonder, at least fleetingly, how a David Cronenberg “RoboCop” remake might play out.

Film Review: 'RoboCop'

Reviewed at Dolby Screening Rooms, London, Feb. 3, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures presentation of a Strike Entertainment production. Produced by Marc Abraham, Eric Newman. Executive producers, Bill Carraro, Roger Birnbaum.

Crew

Directed by Jose Padilha. Screenplay, Joshua Zetumer, based on the original screenplay by Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner. Camera (color, widescreen), Lula Carvalho; editors, Daniel Rezende, Peter McNulty; music, Pedro Bromfman; production designer, Martin Whist; art director, Brandt Gordon; set decorator, Cal Loucks; costume designer, April Ferry; sound (Dolby Digital), Glen Gauthier; supervising sound editor, Karen Baker Landers; re-recording mixers, Scott Millan, Greg Russell; visual effects supervisor, James E. Price; visual effects, Framestore; stunt coordinators, Joel Kramer, George Marshall Ruge, Richard Forsayeth; line producer, Lyn Lucibello-Brancatella; assistant director, Jeff Authors; second unit director, George Marshall Ruge, Joel Kramer; second unit camera, Patrick Loungway; casting, Francine Maisler.

With

Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Samuel L. Jackson, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Zach Grenier, Maura Grierson.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 24

Leave a Reply

24 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Jamal Heiden says:

    That was a good review and not one that I can really disagree with. I mostly feel that if we had to have RoboCop now, this was the right RoboCop to have. I put my thoughts in audio form.
    http://www.looktothecookie.org/2014/02/robocop-vs-robotcop.html

  2. guardienne says:

    great stuff! loved the cronenberg reference. seeing as they are interrupted earlier it’s a shame the film never picks up the intimacy issue.

    overall, i enjoyed it. and i haven’t seen the old film so can’t comment on whether it’s better or what. i feel that this one is playing for tragedy and that’s not a bad thing in my book.

  3. Victor says:

    Well I love that they made this remake, I loved that the director wanted to brought a more adult, more realistic and serious aproach to the movie. Most people agrees this formula did wonders to Batman and relived an icon. However Padilha is no Chris Nolan. And so, even if he does have the skills to do the same for Robocop as nolan did for Batman, he mostly certain does not have the power yet to do so. The way I see Hollywood producers will always try to aim at a more large audience by so doing a more entertaining, simplistic and special effects oriented stories. Few directors can ignore this direct influence to his work. Nolan is one of them, Padilha is not, so he delivered the best he managed and for what I am reading so far, it seems he did his homework well.

  4. Ashley says:

    Sorry to say.. I’m so extremely disappointed. It’s too much, it ruined the story of the original! I went straight home with my whole entire family and watched the original. It was graphically impressive but I couldn’t bare sit there seeing how RoboCop wasn’t RoboCop.. As a true fan.. Sorry I hated it.

  5. I enjoyed this movie. I found it refreshing that a sci-fi/action flick wasn’t crammed full of ridiculous catastrophes and dumb chase scenes that go on forever. I appreciated the human side of this as well.

    I liked that it painted the concept of instantaneous justice in a poor light because I don’t think most of us want to live in that kind of world, yet the more automated L.E. becomes, the more it will be like this.

    I only have two problems — it plodded along for the first hour and the conclusion was kind of iffy.

    There’s a “training exercise” scene early on that features one of the best rock songs of the last 40 years (Hocus Pocus by Focus)– when music was about the music and not about looking pretty. There were some other clever musical choices as well.

    I think reviewers are being a bit too harsh with this edition. Some are comparing it to the old version (apples and oranges), some are saying it’s too action-oriented. Other’s are saying it’s not action-oriented enough. The

    Considering the negativity aimed at this one months before it was released, there’s an uphill struggle built in and that’s unfortunate. This flick stands on its own. I wouldn’t give it lower than a B.

  6. Dave says:

    For those of you hatin on the movie, go see it first! The movie was good, the reveal was a highlight, and they make some classic references to the original as well! Some of you need to understand that just because it is a remake and the original actors/actresses didn’t want it, doesn’t mean you have to disregard the movie as trash! Go see the movie for yourself, you may be surprised!

  7. scootrmonkey says:

    Reblogged this on my mostly unfabulous life and commented:
    i wasn’t holding out much hope for this , but the reviews i’ve read have been fairly positive …

  8. Mermaid24 says:

    The movie is a complete disaster and we all knew it before it was officially released.
    There are furious fans around the world (me included) for the audacity of director Jose Padilha to rip off a classic movie that didn´t need to be remade.
    Peter Weller and Nancy Allen have both said publicly that they believe a classic like RoboCop should have been left alone. And they are right. Instead of giving us a GCI Robo movie, new animated series or even a fair sequel, Hollywood decides it´s time to destroy Verhoeven´s vision and turn RoboCop into a complete different thing: A mix of Batman and Iron man in black spandex. And they want us to buy their idea. I hope this film fails miserably at the box office. Thank you but not thank you. I stay with the original classic of the 87.

  9. Walter White says:

    Variety was once the epitome of good film reviews and even dared to ask if Jessica Chastain was a great actress? Nah, I’ll give this RoboBore a miss – not interested in the melodramatics of a human (who’s badly wounded from a bomb blast, ohhhhh) and coming to terms with his new outer shell.

    • Dunno how about you but for me there is nothing more desirable and interesting than the ability to resurrect or to restore an irreversibly crippled person to a normal life. All the other issues are just minor compared to that.

  10. franie says:

    We don’t care if you think the lead actor is attractive. We don’t care if you think Cronenberg, or Aronovsky, should’ve made it instead, and NO, we do not remember the cartoon series or the short lived live action canadian produced Robocop TV Series, what we do care about is why your review is called positive by Rotten Tomatoes?

    It’s pretty much useless.

  11. andrewhyte says:

    This is a great post about the movie. The update for having a Brazilian director that compares to the English director of the original 1987 director is great. It’s reassuring to know that the storyline is updated and has different elements from the original.

  12. Jose says:

    Guy, how much of Limbaugh have you listened to?

    He is hardly a proponent of aggressive domestic policing.

  13. clydee says:

    love joel K. !!!!!

  14. guylodge says:

    An absent-minded slip! Thank you.

  15. JOE S HILL says:

    As i have yet to see this remake,which i’ll likely be in no rush to do so,the 1987 Orion Pictures movie
    IS still the best,and ONLY version to date! and given MGM’s financial arrangements with Sony,i just
    wish that one day,or soon,that MGM can stand on its own feet,without depending on Sony’s backing,
    much less anyone else’s! as for this remake,,let’s see how it can do on its own steam,,but unless this
    director has done what Paul Verhoeven hasn’t,i don’t give it much good odds!

  16. I read in another review that the “reveal” of what’s left of Murphy is very very poor and the film’s lowpoint.

More Film News from Variety

Loading