Let's get this right out in the open: the original 1987 movie "RoboCop" was not art. The Paul Verhoeven picture had a creative and appealing story, and it was fun, but its Academy Award nominations were for editing-related categories. The José Padilha remake, out this week, may be flashier and offer more star power, but it's still really a fun romp.
If you're not familiar with the story, "RoboCop" addresses the question of using robotic law enforcement in American cities. When the original was made, it offered an allegory of machine labor replacing people's jobs, using the excuse of a safer alternative to putting human law enforcement officers in harm's way in a run-down and crime-ridden Detroit.
The remake comes on the scene at a time when the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, is justified exactly that way: why risk American soldiers on the ground or pilots in the sky unnecessarily when an unmanned robot or drone can perform reconaissance, or even strikes? As "RoboCop" opens, a political TV personality, played with scenery-chewing glee by Samuel L. Jackson, asks his audience why American law enforcement robots are now in use throughout the world, except here at home.
As with the original movie, the development of robotic police enforcers is of course motivated by corporate greed, even if the corporate honchos offer loftier explanations such as improving security for residents, or keeping police officers safer. An attack on an honest, hard-working, family man of a Detroit police officer, Alex Murphy, is just an opportunity for the robotics experts to try out their new idea for combining robot tech with human approachability and empathy. The monolithic evil corporation is represented by Michael Keaton as the profit-driven honcho, and a somewhat unhinged Gary Oldman as the scientist who, until now, has been using robot parts as advanced prosthetics to help injured people regain somewhat normal lives. Oldman's character is insistent that his work should never have combat applications, but of course he's swayed by the promise of vast additional funding for his research to help people.
Unexpectedly, this year's "RoboCop" is less futuristic than the original. In a world with cars that are just about ready to drive themselves, never mind the aforementioned military drones, robotic enforcers just don't seem that far out there. Perhaps intentionally, then, the movie's producers haven't tried too hard to make it look like the story's set too far ahead. (2028 may sound like the far future, but it's really just over a decade away. Yikes.) Here in the 2010s, phones have been getting bigger again rather than smaller, so the anonymous phones in "RoboCop" (they resisted the temptation to put Nokia phones in the characters' hands) look plausible. Even the Ford Taurus police cars, one of many homages to the original movie sprinkled throughout the new one, look a little futuristic but not too much so.
This year's "RoboCop" stands well on its own, full of those homages as it may be. Music from the original score is used in a few sequences. Michael Keaton's character looks over a robo-suit design that's just the 1987 movie's suit before deciding he wants something "more tactical," perhaps black. And Jackie Earle Haley's throwaway line, "I wouldn't buy that for a dollar," recalls the repeated line, "I'd buy that for a dollar," seen on TVs in the background in the original movie, but it also helps to highlight the fact that this film's at once a little more realistic and a whole lot less campy.
Much more futuristic is "Almost Human," a series doing well on FOX that partners a skeptical Karl Urban with a modem of police robot that acts much more human than the models in common use. Of course, that's more a sci-fi police procedural than an attempt to delve too deeply into allegory, but some of the same themes are there, such as efficiency paired with human judgement, and reducing risk for human law enforcement officers.
The dystopian Detroit of the 1987 movie was somewhat prescient; we've watched the industrial Michigan city file for bankruptcy protection, making it a bit of a shame that the Detroit shown in the movie, to the extent it's recognizably Detroit, is a digital overlay on the movie's real filming locations, mostly in and around Toronto and in Vancouver. Even that, though, recalls the original movie, in which Chicago and Dallas largely stood in for Detroit.
Perhaps the people in "RoboCop" are more interesting than the settings. Re-watching the 1987 movie not long ago made me marvel at the number of cast members, young and relatively unknown at the time, who'd gone on to much bigger things: Miguel Ferrer, Paul McCrane, and Ray Wise come to mind, as well as, of course, star Peter Weller, who was in the early days of a prolific career.
This time, the movie's full of already-familiar faces, including Aimee Garcia and Abbie Cornish, as well as the already-mentioned Jackson, Keaton, Oldman, and Haley. Joel Kinnaman as the title character is perhaps the least-known actor in a major role here. The Swedish-born actor, known for "The Killing," does well, but, like Peter Weller, may have been cast as much for his height and his slender frame, which let him fit in the robo-suit, as for his acting.
In theatres now, José Padilha's "RoboCop" is a few minutes longer, more serious, has higher production values, and offers a stronger cast than the original. It's a fun, fast-paced, satisfying popcorn flick. But is it art? No way. It's a guilty pleasure, and that's just as it should be.