Movies

'RoboCop' reboots man vs. machine tale for the modern world

Feb. 12, 2014 at 6:05 AM ET

The original "RoboCop" was a classic of its kind which caught American viewers by surprise with a mix of ultra-violence, dark comedy and social commentary. Action fans were wowed — and underneath it all was a political subtext. With a reboot hitting theaters, it's worth asking whether it can approach the ingenuity and edge of "RoboCop" 1.0.

In 1987, "RoboCop" delivered wicked satire masquerading as an action film. It was a sci-fi adventure about a dead policeman who is resurrected with an industrial operating system and an armored body that turns him into a walking tank. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's American debut was a corporate "Frankenstein" tale dropped into a near future full of rampant crime. The filmmaker's savage wit and penchant for pushing the envelope resulted in a vision so violent that he recut and resubmitted "RoboCop" 12 times before it was given an R-rating.

But the film was funny — pitch-black humor, to be sure, with extreme violence played for splattery sight gags and wincing laughs — and it was prescient. The city of Detroit was going bankrupt, corporations were bidding to privatize the police force, and high unemployment and poverty left a growing gap between the rich and the rest of us.

Maybe it missed the mark on the punk fashions and out-of-control gang violence, but then science fiction has always been a better barometer of its own era than a predictor of the future. "RoboCop" snuck its take on the creeping fears of Americans under the radar and into a blast of an action spectacle.

The new "RoboCop" stars Swedish import Joel Kinnaman (of TV's "The Killing") as officer Alex Murphy, the human street cop turned into a walking tank. Gary Oldman is the film's Dr. (Frankenstein) Dennett Norton, the benevolent inventor of sophisticated robotic prosthetics who reluctantly builds a military-grade robot body around what little is left of Murphy after an assassination attempt. Under pressure from the CEO (Michael Keaton) of ominous military contractor OmniCorp, Norton overrides the human side of their new model soldier with an operating system that makes him a frighteningly efficient killing machine operating under the illusion of free will.

This "RoboCop" finds its center in the struggle between the man and the machine. Is Alex Murphy still a husband and father, or is he simply a sophisticated piece of hardware? Can emotion and conscience fight programming and corporate control? Murphy's wife was practically absent in the original film but she's in the thick of it here, taking on OmniCorp to protect what's left of her husband after the transformation.

Of course, all of that is subtext in an action-packed crime film set in the not-so-distant future with a hero who, coincidence or not, evokes Batman — from the black tank-like suit of armor to the cowl-like mask that drops over his face to the fat-tired motorcycle on which he speeds through city streets. (Keaton, who had some experience acting under a bulky, suffocating suit of armor in Tim Burton's "Batman," teased Kinnaman for having it easy because his suit was air-conditioned.)

From the training sessions that look like Special Forces exercises by way of video game fantasy to all of the shoot-outs in this urban warrior's tour of duty through 2028 Detroit, there is plenty of firepower and fallen bodies for a PG-13 film (parents beware). Kinnaman trained with Swedish Special Forces and Los Angeles S.W.A.T. police to learn the moves for his super soldier and he ended up doing all of his own stunts. "The stunt men couldn't keep up," he told WestSound Radio.

Fans of the original are going to be hard to please no matter how good it is, which Brazilian director José Padilha, whose startling "Elite Squad" confronted crime and violence and corruption in Rio de Janeiro, understands. "I'm not trying to remake 'RoboCop' because I don’t think 'RoboCop' is remakeable," he said to Slash Film.

Padilha went into more detail with Den of Geek. "The original 'RoboCop' idea has Alex Murphy inside a machine fighting its directives. That's perfect to talk about the drone issue, to talk about the philosophical thing about what's the difference between man and machine. What I saw was a very fertile idea, which in 1987 was sci-fi, but now is going to become real. It's going to happen."

"The human element will always be present," Oldman's character reasons in the trailer for the new film. "Compassion, fear, instinct ... they will always interfere with the system."

The box office will tell us whether the human element will be present in theater seats, and whether 1987's idea of the future was just more fun and less scary than 2014's.

"RoboCop" opens in theaters on Wednesday.

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