387;573Directed by Jose Padilha

Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson

Rated PG-13

It’s pretty easy to determine if a reboot film is a financial success. For the film to be considered an artistic success, however, it has a little more to prove:

• Is there a pressing reason for it to be made, or is it just a money grab?

• Does it bring something new to the table, or is it just a modern rehash of the original work?

• Does it stand on its own as a film, or does it require the original to make sense?

The 2014 version of RoboCop actually does better than might be expected on those points. It stands on its own rather well; if you’re familiar with the original, there are nice little elements sprinkled in for you, but it’s not a requirement. And, with the age of drone strikes and more and more automated weapons becoming available, the role of the human in military situations is a question on people’s minds now; that situation didn’t really exist for the original 1987 film.

The danger for a reboot of a well-known film, however, is the comparisons that will inevitably be drawn between it and the original. This is where the 2014 film falls a little short. There’s something about the 1987 film that has withstood the test of time. Unlike some other films of that era, if you discount some of the hairstyles, the film doesn’t really seem 27 years old. I don’t know if the 2014 film is going to have the same longevity.

The film stars Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop who runs afoul of the wrong gangster and winds up very nearly dead as a result. OmniCorp, a multinational corporation specializing in urban pacification robots and weaponry, has been looking for a way to branch out into peacekeeping on United States soil, something hindered by the fact that there’s a law stating that automated policing is illegal in the U.S. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) has figured out how to do an end-run around the law by putting a man in the robot to ease his way into the lucrative U.S. marketplace, and, since Murphy is in need of a new prosthetic everything, sees his chance with the Detroit officer.

One of the things the 1987 film had going for it was the social satire that dripped from it, showing its exaggerated version of the near future. Its hyperviolent view of Detroit and projection of rampant materialism was as gleeful as it was disturbingly accurate (really, compare the 6000 SUX and it’s 8.2 MPG to the Hummer H2). This film doesn’t really go in for that kind of satire; instead of humor, it goes for a more realistic worldview. The muckraking of Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) seems over the top, but it’s a logical extension of FOX News, CNN or MSNBC programming.

Also, if this film is trying to say that taking humanity out of the equation of urban warfare/extreme policing is wrong, it doesn’t really accomplish that. In the scenarios shown (including the urban pacification of Tehran, which we apparently have gone all “Operation Freedom Storm” on at some point), the robotic technology actually works pretty well. Suicide bombers don’t take anyone’s lives except their own, and the corruption of human police officers proves to be a real issue. They’ve even got the ED-209 issues from the original films ironed out. If it wasn’t for some corporate greed, it’s not really a bad system as presented here.

One of the improvements the new film has is the sympathetic character of Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), the main architect of the next cybernetic technology. Oldman gives the movie a moral center on the corporate end, which grounds the movie, keeping OmniCorp from just being completely cartoon-evil.

It also raises some interesting questions when it’s found that the cybernetic systems are confused by the changing brain chemistry brought on by highly emotional states. In the original film, there was a question of if there was anything human left of Murphy; this film asks the question of if a human and a machine work together, and if so, which one is (or should be) dominant.

So, does the film work? Yes. It’s an entertaining idea, the effects are outstanding (a scene where the RoboCop armor is pulled away to reveal what’s left of Murphy’s humanity is at once horrific and fascinating), and it has something to say on the question of the role of humanity and free will in an increasingly computerized society. I’m glad I saw it. However, I don’t think people are still going to be talking about it 27 years from now.

Thoughts on RoboCop

• It bugged me in the trailers, and it still bugged me in the film — Murphy kept his right hand. While that’s probably good from a “still want to feel human” standpoint, from an “armored machine of justice,” it could be a drawback. If I were a bad guy with any wherewithal, I’d be aiming for that hand or his lower jaw (which is also exposed). I’m not saying they should have lopped it off, but still — give the guy a glove or gauntlet or something.

• I’ve gone on record on my own podcast (http://toweroftechnobabble.com/?p=4314) that I pretty much swore off of films because of bad experiences with rude audiences. I figured that RoboCop would be loud enough, though, that if, for instance, someone behind me sounded like they were using nasal spray throughout the entire film, it wouldn’t be a problem. I was almost right.

• Also, guy who sat behind me, we all caught the “I’d buy that for a dollar” line that was in the original film, but thanks for pointing it out loudly, in case we missed it.

• The guy playing Mattox is Jackie Earle Haley, the same guy who played, among other roles, Rorschach in Watchmen. Maybe it’s just me, but I can never place him until the credits roll, probably because he reminds me of the grown up version of Danny Bonaduce, only with talent.

(This review first appeared at http://moviemeltdown.bravesites.com/entries/general/RoboCop)