While I’ve read a few science fiction classics, I’ve gravitated toward crime fiction. The same is true for film. Quite often though a work is a beautiful amalgam of the two. Blade Runner, for example, tops my list of all-time favorite movies. I also remember watching RoboCop years ago, and how surprised I was that I liked it. I googled it and found out that not only had that been 27 years ago, but that there had been a RoboCop 2 and a RoboCop 3 and all sorts of Robos. Then, as if I needed further proof that I’ve slept through a decade or two, I discovered there was a big-budget RoboCop released this year. Really? Next you’ll tell me the Republicans have taken the Senate.
I decided to watch the original from 1987 again as well as the most recent remake. I skipped 2 and 3 because reviews, including those from Rotten Tomatoes, suggested the two sequels might not be worth the time.
The 1987 original RoboCop is compelling. It is a bit more cartoon-like (as Seinfield says, “not that there is anything wrong with that”). The lines of good and evil are clearly drawn. The emphasis is on action-adventure. Blood, explosions and chases dominate, yet they’ve made some room for not so subtle satire. The setting is a crime-ridden Detroit, where we see a greedy high-tech security corporation, in collusion with police, politicians, property developers and the media who benefit at the expense of an unaware, easily led public. Why are we calling this fiction?
The original classic, directed by Paul Verhoeven gets extra points for being the original and for its earlier warning about the corruption of the authority we have blissfully allowed. It also pointed to the many issues having to do with high-tech and what it means to be human. Peter Weller is excellent. Because he is the first RoboCop and he did it so well, it makes it difficult for anyone else taking the role. The supporting cast does a great job with dialogue lacking in subtlety. We can thank Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith and Miguel Ferrer for their solid work.
If the 1987 RoboCop told us what was coming, the 2014 version said, “it’s here,” though perhaps not as convincingly as it could. On the other hand, what the story lost in terms of edge and humor, it gained in creating more depth for its characters and the story beneath the action. Because it is a high tech-film, we expect the special effects to be better now. They are. There are also more timely tie-ins. Think NSA spying, the use of drones, the regular and publicly accepted purchase of politicians, not to mention the emergence of partisan media claiming to provide balanced reporting. You know who you are.
The supporting cast is top notch. Michael Keaton doesn’t bother with a cardboard cutout of evil. Instead, as the slippery CEO, Keaton almost convinces me that he means well. Smooth as a Wall Street banker. In director José Padilha’s version, Gary Oldman plays a character not in the original — a doctor who exemplifies the moral dilemma of creating a crime-free city (and make billions for Keaton’s corporation) but also allowing computers to override human judgment and hinting at the slippery slope that implies. Samuel L. Jackson portrays a pro-corporate political commentator with his own show. The Peter Weller role went to Joel Kinnaman, who did a fine job of walking the line between robot and human. His performance was understated as was the movie itself, compared to the original. Both movies are recommended.
Not particularly romantic or especially profound, both Robocops are at least thought provoking and certainly entertaining. For those who like to imbibe while taking in movies at home, beer and popcorn are just fine.