In theaters—RoboCop, a great update to the sci-fi classic

RoboCop and OldmanReview by C.J. Bunce

If you’re a fan of the 1987 Paul Verhoeven science fiction classic RoboCop starring Peter Weller, you might have decided to avoid the reboot showing in theaters this month.  But if you skip the new RoboCop, you’ll be missing out on a great sci-fi vision realized with a stellar cast and cutting edge special effects.  Where recent remakes of classic sci-fi movies didn’t equal the original, as with Tron: Legacy, or completely missed the mark, as with Total Recall or Man of Steel, RoboCop manages to meet or exceed the original in almost every way.

Fundamentally, the original RoboCop is lauded for its social commentary on media, capitalism, and authoritarianism.  The new film hits all of these areas head-on in light of the changing realities of the 21st century.  This begins with a failed, televised peacekeeping mission in Tehran with the giant EV-109 robots (similar to the two-legged walkers in the original film)–predecessors to both the robot/android cops, and later to the man-in-the-machine RoboCop, played by relative newcomer Joel Kinnaman.  Timely elements help bring the storyline into the 21st century, like Detroit’s closed circuit surveillance grid, which makes the RoboCop effective, and parallels the current real-world controversy surrounding drones for spying.

Robocop tehran

The supporting characters are pulled from the headlines, too.  Michael Keaton’s leader of Omnicorp is the typical entrepreneurial Wall Street “big corporation” CEO you’d expect, and Samuel L. Jackson’s talking head Pat Novak might as well have been an impersonation of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (with some Stephen Colbert dramatics thrown in).

Where Peter Weller’s RoboCop was all machine with little soul, Joel Kinnaman’s version gets to flesh-out (literally) the physical and emotional journey from man to cyborg, in a way touched on in Jake Gyllenhaal’s equally riveting Source Code, but not otherwise fully explored on film before now.  If rumors become reality of Leonardo DiCaprio playing a big-screen version of Bionic Man’s Steve Austin, it will be difficult for audiences to avoid comparisons with this RoboCop, as the stories of both Alex Murphy and Steve Austin have many mirrored origin story scenes that unfold over the course of the film.  This includes a nice performance by Gary Oldman in a superb take on The Six Million Dollar Man’s Dr. Rudy Wells.

Joel Kinnaman;Gary Oldman

The story of Alex Murphy is revealed in a very methodical manner.  Instead of skipping ahead to the man as robot cop (as was done in the original film), the pace eases the viewer into the reality of the hysteria of a society that might let this type of invasive intersection of science and crime prevention be possible.  Although the villains of the original may have been better realized, and were certainly more vile, we get similarly smarmy roles with a trainer of robot cops played by Watchmen’s Jackie Earle Haley and Sorceror’s Apprentice’s Jay Baruchel as a young say-anything/do-anything marketing guy.  Of course, nothing compares to Kurtwood Smith’s vile baddie in the original movie.

Baruchel and Keaton RoboCop

From the first phrases of the goose-bump inducing Basil Poledouris original RoboCop theme, you also know this movie isn’t the typical remake.  Director José Padilha pulls only those bits and pieces from the original that further his new story.  Along with heroic musical queues, he gives Kinnaman and Haley the best lines in the film, which will be familiar to fans of the original.  And if you ask how the RoboCop story can be told as PG-13 when the original received an R rating for its excessive violence, it’s easy to see how standards have changed, as this film is every bit as violent as the original.  In fact, the graphic scenes of Alex Murphy, post-explosion, and without the suit, are simply jaw-dropping, and give the film plenty of gravitas.

RoboCop and Haley

We also get the watching pleasure of seeing one Batman, Michael Keaton, face off with a later Commissioner Gordon, Gary Oldman–the self-proclaimed highest grossing film actor of all time.  Keaton pulls out all his classic facial contortions and tics that we haven’t seen from him in decades, and Oldman gets to portray another frustrated good guy.  A supporting cast made of other great actors helps to create something more than your typical action movie, with Jennifer Ehle as a corporate advisor to Keaton’s character and Without a Trace’s Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the Detroit chief of police.  And action fans will get a good dose of shoot ’em up scenes on a mega scale.  Fans of first person shooter video games will feel right at home as RoboCop is tested against his android counterparts by Jackie Earle Haley’s army of robots.  If there isn’t a video game for this new RoboCop out yet, then it’s certain to be in the works.


The underlying “beware of dabbling in science” theme begs comparisons to Jurassic Park.  The all-star cast raises this movie to the level of that blockbuster, too, where supporting actors have essential roles in the story, and are played by the best Hollywood has to offer.  They all elevate Kinnaman’s performance as the film’s lead, and it is easy to see that he could springboard ahead as Jeff Goldblum did with The Fly and Jurassic Park.  Both actors have similar acting styles.  And then there is the new RoboCop suit, an essential element of this type of film–we get to see two versions, one in silver and one in black–both very cool, and Kinnaman nails that robot walk.

RoboCop is not to be missed on the big screen for sci-fi fans. It is in theaters now.

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