Let’s just get this out of the way first. RoboCop is not only as good as the 1987 original, in my opinion it’s even better.
Now that’s saying a lot coming from me because Paul Verhoeven used to be one of my favorite action filmmakers back in the day when I had an unabashed, exuberant love of cinematic violence that nearly rivaled Quentin Tarantino’s. Verhoeven certainly made three of my favorite sci-fi/action films of the 80s-90s: RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. The first two, in particular, effectively blended rousing action with social satire and commentary as only Verhoeven could while pushing the boundaries of R-rated films at the time .
As much as I love the original (and I really love it), particularly in the way it somehow pulls off balancing satire, delirious violence and a touch of warmth, one area that I always felt it fell ever so short in was in further exploring Officer Murphy’s human side. The first movie touched upon it, and even opened up some enticing romantic possibilities with Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen), but the sequels never followed through on any of these potentials and the franchise quickly devolved into B-movie camp.
Instead of adopting the same satirical angle as its progenitor, the new RoboCop takes the opposite approach in that—excepting a few tongue-in-cheek moments—it is completely sincere. It also delves deeper into the aforementioned human element. And it is a better movie for it.
First of all, the script (intelligently handled by Joshua Zetumer) does a fine job of updating the basic premise and making it more pertinent for our time. Next, unlike a lot of action blockbusters that simply use the plot as an excuse to rush into the action, RoboCop takes its time setting up its world, particularly in introducing us to all its characters and getting us to care about them. I love it when movies do this because it means, of course, that when the action does happen, it is all the more exhilarating because we are now emotionally invested in the outcome.
Unlike the original, this reboot also touches upon some of the philosophical questions that a modern science fiction work dealing with cybernetics and artificial intelligence seeking to be semi- or quasi-realistic simply cannot avoid: questions of consciousness, choice and free will, and the existence or non-existence of a human soul. There isn’t anything here that hasn’t already been explored by similarly themed works (Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, etc.) and it doesn’t go too deeply into them, perhaps wisely. Nevertheless, they are handled deftly and they could potentially be taken up further by sequels.
Speaking of sequels, if they can at least equal or even surpass the quality of this one, then this could become a series that approaches the standards set by The Dark Knight trilogy in terms of intelligent, serious handling of science fiction and fantasy material. In fact, I think the filmmakers are consciously aiming for that, not just in terms of the matte black suit, the Gary Oldman casting or the Hans Zimmer-influenced score (which, you’ll be happy to hear, does pay homage to the original) but in the way it paints a portrait of dizzyingly rampant corruption and the odds the hero faces in purging it.
Most importantly—and why I ultimately love this film and had such a good time at it—is that it takes the high road not taken by the original in terms of exploring the impact that Murphy’s transformation has on his family and relationships, not just his cyborgization but the fact that he’s now essentially corporate property. I can’t give it away, of course, but there’s one moment that was so beautiful in its hushed restraint and humanity that I let out a little gasp in the theater. It was sublime.
Admittedly missing from this film is the soft charisma of actor Peter Weller who really did give the original RoboCop its soul. Joel Kinnaman just doesn’t have that kind of compelling presence but the other factors more than adequately make up for this, I feel. And anyway the end result is that the titular character becomes more of an Everyman figure, prompting the question: how would I feel if I were in that situation (well, assuming I could feel)?
A lot of people criticize the current surge of reboots, claiming it proves Hollywood’s lack of originality or that the industry’s creative well has run dry. To an extent this may be true, but I believe that when it comes to great stories and characters, there is always room for reimaginings and reinterpretations so long as the new versions try to bring something fresh to the table. RoboCop does this and does it in spades.