Before it becomes mired in pace-deadening, action-movie mechanics, director José Padilha (working from a screenplay by Joshua Zetumer) flirts was some subversive ideas. Omnicorp is successfully using their completely robotic law enforcement agents to keep the peace in Tehran. Their imposing physical presence and fearsome firepower keeps the citizens in line. Living in what amounts to a machine-controlled police state, some citizens have gone rogue. These rebelling “terrorists,” be they adults with guns or children with knives, are seen by the ED-209s and EM-208s as threats to be eliminated. A machine can’t tell the difference between a seriously violent individual and a confused kid, something Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) admits before congress. The machine doesn’t hesitate before blowing a child away.
A human element is deemed necessary if Omnicorp’s robots are to ever be deemed suitable to patrol U.S. cities and neighborhoods. Recently injured detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is the first subject in an experimental program developed by developed by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). Very little of Murphy’s physical being has been salvaged after a suspicious car bombing, but his mind and memories remain intact. He is effectively a brain and a pair of lungs powered by machinery. In a twist that departs sharply from the original, a disturbing body-horror element is a strong part of the new RoboCop (a scene in which Murphy sees for the first time what he looks like outside of the suit is more disturbing than any of the original’s shoot-‘em-up violence).
Dr. Norton, Sellars, military expert Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), and TV newsman Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) all debate the pros and cons of introducing organics into well-oiled machines. Mattox believes the precision of his software-driven robotics cannot possibly be topped. Sellars, of course, is all about enhancing Omnicorp’s profits, with the help of marketing chief Tom Pope (Jay Baruchel, channeling Christian Slater). Dr. Norton begins to question the ethics of the entire program. The cast is overqualified for the material, with Kinnaman coming off best as the sympathetic and unfairly-manipulated Murphy. This RoboCop is a different animal than the original—colder, less fun, and not as smart as it thinks it is—but Kinnaman taps into the same soulfulness that made Peter Weller’s Murphy someone for which we rooted.
Big-budget filmmaking in 2014 should look and sound spectacular on Blu-ray and that is true of RoboCop. Lula Carvalho’s digital cinematography looks sleek and ultra-modern, absolutely stunning to take in. Nuance is never lacking, with every high- and low-tech detail easily discernible. Black levels are solid, while shadows still yield plenty of visual info. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is enveloping, just as we expect of an effects- and action-driven modern production. Every element of the detailed sound design (the ED-209’s thudding footfalls, every robotic twitch of the EM-208) leaps forth in a satisfying way.
Supplements include about a half-hour’s worth of standard-issue, behind-the-scenes featurettes: “The Illusion of Free Will: A New Vision,” “To Serve and Protect: RoboCop’s New Weapons,” “The RoboCop Suit: Form and Function.” The latter is the most extensive, focused on the redesigning of the iconic suit and the challenges inherent in a live actor working in it. “Omnicorp Product Launch” is a series of ten short “commercials” for various pieces of hardware used throughout the film. There are also four minutes of deleted scenes (nothing essential). The package includes a standard DVD and UltraViolet digital copy.
The new RoboCop has this much going for it—it goes out of its way to be something considerably different from its predecessor. It’s an efficient action/sci-fi adventure that will likely be seen as an improvement by anyone who can’t stand the dated effects of the original. But beyond superficial tweaks, it’s also very likely that in another 25 years the 1987 original will still be the one best remembered.