In light of the original 1987 Robocop’s predictions about Detroit’s financial collapse, mechanical drones, and lawless corporatism all coming true, a lot of critics have asked whether a 2014 remake is necessary. This strikes me as a false argument. We don’t need any piece of entertainment any more than we need a critique of it. The question lies in whether we can use José Padilha’s take on the material, and, in light of our recent issues with income inequality, the U.S. deployment of mechanical drones, and multinationals forming their own brand of government, I’d say the timing is just right.
Americans have proven bafflingly apathetic about their military drones striking civilians in the Middle East, so it makes sense for the new Robocop to ask, how would you feel if those killing machines operated in your backyard? The analogy is cemented from the onset with news footage of Omnicorp’s cybernetic grunts “pacifying” an Iranian village. Padilha plays fair, indicating that the androids are at least programmed to minimise collateral damage, but their poor judgment and oppressive nature do more to escalate the conflict than any terrorist camp ever could.
All this is presented in the context of a hilariously biased news show hosted by Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson). Liberals will recognise in the character a fair bit of Bill O’Reilly. Conservatives may view him instead as an MSNBC commentator. It doesn’t matter because, according to Robocop, both sides work for the same corporate overlord. His name is Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), and, as CEO of Omnicorp, he means to squash any legislation that threatens his production of domestic law enforcement drones.
Everything to come out of Novak’s mouth serves this agenda, and Jackson does a great job keeping a straight face as his rhetoric grows more and more ludicrous. I laughed out loud when he cut off a guest’s feed mid argument and practically bust a gut at the line, “Why is America so robophobic?” Purists will disagree, but I dig the idea of substituting the original Robocop’s absurdist TV spots with these recurring editorials. After all, in the age of DVRs and Internet ad-blockers, haven’t pundits replaced commercials as our primary source of misinformation?
You see, instead of trying to reproduce iconic moments from the first Robocop, Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have put genuine thought into finding fresh angles through which to expand the myth. For instance, Paul Verhoeven’s classic depicted a world where human life is but a commodity. The remake explains how we might get there, presenting Robocop as a marketing ploy to appease the masses: “What’s that? The American public is afraid of our killer robots? Then we’ll put a dying police officer’s noggin in the circuitry so as to give consumers a hero or, better yet, a martyr…”
This makes Alex Murphy’s (Joel Kinnaman) transformation from man to machine particularly important, and, sure enough, the new Robocop devotes over three quarters of its runtime to his gut-wrenching psychological journey. In this respect, the film reminds me of Batman Begins (2005), what with all the pathos and Gary Oldman essentially playing Robocop’s creator as Commissioner Gordon with a lab coat. By the time our hero got around to investigating his own murder, I’d completely forgotten he was working on a case involving stolen firearms and police corruption.
That’s because the essence of Robocop lies in the morbid details of its satire, not its plot. Consider the way our hero’s loss of humanity echoes our own. First, Omnicorp isolates the man from his wife (Abbie Cornish) and child (John Paul Ruttan), locking him up under inhuman conditions like an Apple factory worker. Then, in an effort to improve his productivity, Norton bypasses Murphy’s human nature so that he thinks he’s making decisions while on autopilot. “A machine that thinks it’s Murphy,” exclaims Sellars. The word “consumer” also comes to mind, and I haven’t even got to the part when they pump his system full of psychiatric drugs after flooding his brain with confusing Internet data.
I find myself rather fond of the idea of wheeling out the Robocop franchise every couple of decades to dissect our societal ills. It’s why I cringe whenever critics argue that Padilha’s remake can bring nothing new to the table or, worse, that it’s doomed to failure by simple virtue of being rated PG-13. Admittedly, this new movie feels, at times, a bit too slick and subtle for its own good, but is excessive gore really all we’ve retained from Verhoeven’s masterpiece? We’ve already failed to prevent one futuristic dystopia. Let’s make sure we heed the warnings this time around.