Options for decent movies are few and far between in late-February. The next big crop comes up mid- to late-March, but we’re in the doldrums of movies that came out in December with the Christmas rush, and other Oscar hopefuls that get a late release in hopes of generating some buzz. The “good” sci-fi movies also get saved for the summer blockbuster season, so it’s rare to find a “good” one released in early February. In many ways, this year’s reboot of the RoboCop franchise may not even be that movie, as it’s had a mixed response, critically.
That all said, I should also point out that despite the zeitgeist of the time, I didn’t grow up a fan of RoboCop. It wasn’t exactly a “kid friendly” film, though I’m sure there were many in my elementary school that had seen it. I didn’t get to see it until college, well after I’d been exposed to far, far better special effects. Ketchup-style fake blood and stop-motion robots just didn’t do it for me, though I could at least appreciate that, for 1987, it was probably pretty cool.
The franchise consisted of 3 movies, a TV show, a cartoon, and countless toys. I suspect many fans of the character would have preferred that only the first movie existed, as just about everything after it was generally bad. That first movie, though, was prescient for its time, discussing such themes as militarization of law enforcement, drone warfare overseas, and corporations taking over the government and suppressing The People.
Perhaps 2014 is a really good time for a re-boot.
This new version of RoboCop includes similar characters, but is a pretty different movie, to my mind. This version of Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman, who is largely unknown besides starring in cult-favorite The Killing) is a devoted family man in the near future, and incorruptible cop in Detroit that makes an enemy out of the leader of a local crime ring, who swiftly takes Murphy out with a car bomb. Severely injured, his only hope is to have most of his body replaced by machine parts, “free of charge” by OmniCorp, which is run by Raymond Sellars (played by Michael Keaton).
Sellars is only doing this, though, because he wants his androids on the streets of the US. To replace police officers. His robots are already overseas fighting our wars for us, so “saving the lives of cops” (i.e. bit fat checks from local and state governments…) is his next venture. What he needs, however, is a “human face” on his cold cyborg army, so “upgrading” Murphy is his way of making it happen.
This movie, as compared with the original, focuses far more on the human element. The point at which we cease to be human and start to be machine. Murphy struggles with having control over his own body, as OmniCorp can shut him down remotely at any time. They can control how much personal decision-making can be applied in any given situation (i.e. whether to be more like a human cop, or more like an efficient, cold, robot).
On this front, I think the movie largely succeeds. It is more of a “thinking man’s RoboCop,” which sets it apart from the previous outing. It takes the original source material and updates it for our modern age, complete with a Glen Beck-style news anchor (played by Samuel L. Jackson) asking whether US Senators are “pro-crime” for not subscribing to Sellars’ world-view.
In the end, the acting was fine. The writing was fine. The effects were pretty good, but not spectacular. There were a few pretty obvious moments when we switched from “dude in costume” to “that’s a CGI dude…really obviously…” The original movie had quite a few bloody action scenes, and while this one certainly had its share, they were mostly shootouts, which can get a little boring without some hand-to-hand combat and explosions to back them up.
I thought it was good, but not great. A solid rental, but I’m glad we saw it in the regular theater rather than spending extra for IMAX. Some good ideas, but could have been more.