What the RoboCop remake gets right

Feature Ryan Lambie 10 Feb 2014 - 06:05

We delve into the RoboCop remake to provide a spoiler-filled look at how it compares to the original, and what it gets right...

NB: this article contains spoilers.

The problem with most modern movie remakes, perhaps, is that they're a compromise where commerce frequently trounces art. With brand-aware studios keen to revive old names and properties for the sake of profit, it becomes the job of a new generation of filmmakers to rework an existing idea for a contemporary and often suspicious audience.

When it came to bringing back RoboCop, the level of internet cynicism was understandable: how could you possibly equal - let alone improve on - one of the most respected genre films of the 1980s?

Director Jose Padilha's RoboCop remake doesn't have the unfettered, angry edge of his Brazilian Elite Squad movies, but that's understandable given that he's made a $130m mainstream action drama rather than a $6m independent drama thriller. What RoboCop does have, however, is a real sense of mischief and intelligence about it; the satire isn't a cutting as it was in Ed Neumeier's 1987 screenplay, and the violence is less savage than Paul Verhoeven's, but there's still pathos, relevance and black humour lying beneath the glossy user interface.

"What kind of suit is this?"

The core story is essentially the same: this time, it's Joel Kinnaman playing Alex Murphy, the Detroit cop who's taken in by the Omni Corporation (now simply called OmniCorp) and turned into RoboCop - an armoured law enforcer that could make the company billions. The reasons for RoboCop's creation, however, are very different from the 1987 film.

In the original, the Omni Corporation (or OCP) plans to replace the overwhelmed flesh-and-blood cops of Detroit with robots - their aim being to bulldoze the crime-ridden city and replace it with a new one, controlled and policed by the corporation alone. RoboCop 2014 is set against a very different near-future backdrop: OmniCorp is already a full-blown military contractor by the year 2028, and the US army uses its hulking robot products (which look like pumped-up ED-209s from the first film) to patrol its warzones in the Middle-East.

Having made billions from its droids and drones, OCP plans to expand its operation to its home shores - but there's one small problem. The US government, thanks to something called the Dreyfus Act, has outlawed the use of robots on American soil. But OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) has a plan: create a man-machine hybrid which, through the endorsement of the pro-robot media (in particular Samuel L Jackson's TV host Pat Novak), will convince voters and politicians to allow OCP to bring mechanised law enforcers to American streets.

It's a well-handled set-up, rooting the RoboCop story in recent conflicts and contemporary fears about the use of drone aircraft, both overseas and in our own countries. The creation of RoboCop also reflects the industrial landscape of the present: in the first film, Robo was made as a rival project to ED-209, an embarrassingly lumbering, inefficient monstrosity that had a habit of shooting hapless business executives. ED-209 was but one of the film's pointed references to the American car industry that was already in decline by the 1980s due to competition from overseas.

When later discussing 1987‘s RoboCop, its star Peter Weller said that he knew as soon as he met Paul Verhoeven that the resulting film would be something special - that it not only tapped into the 80s zeitgeist, but also captured something timeless rather than ephemeral.

Although by no means a superior film to the first RoboCop, Jose Padilha’s remake just about manages to do the same thing: it extrapolates what we see in the present day to create an exaggerated science fiction future. It’s worth noting that, just as the gigantic Taiwanese company Foxconn is responsible for making our iPads and PS4s in the present, so a similar Eastern industrial firm creates a robot army on OmniCorp’s behalf in the future.

One of the most effective moments in the remake comes when Alex Murphy wakes up, now effectively welded into his robot life support, and tries to escape from OmniCorp’s clutches. It’s only when he breaks out of the building’s confines that he realises that he isn’t in Detroit, as he and the audience might have assumed - he’s in a factory located somewhere in rural Asia. This time, RoboCop's been outsourced.

The Brazilian connection

What’s impressive is that, in the framework of an expensive Hollywood studio film, Padilha manages to craft a film remarkably close to Elite Squad and its sequel. The Elite Squad movies, set in Rio de Janeiro, show the brutal training of ordinary cops, who are then despatched to the favelas of Rio to serve as Judge Dredd-style law enforcers. Among the almost medieval poverty of the slums, life is cheap and summary executions are common.

The parallels between the dehumanising process of making a man into a soldier in Elite Squad and the transformation of a man into a machine in RoboCop are plain to see. The new version of Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a tough yet ordinary Detroit cop, whose entanglement with corrupt colleagues and a gang of gunrunners (led by Patrick Garrow's somewhat anonymous villain Antoine Vallon) leads to his severe injury from a car bomb. With his charred remains swept up by OmniCorp, Murphy is turned into RoboCop - and in the place of the training the cops in Elite Squad faced, Murphy is effectively dehumanised by the software that augments his damaged brain.

Padilha also portrayed a dystopian city where corrupt police, politicians and the media control everything in a kind of power triangle. All of this makes it into RoboCop intact, and one wonders just how nervous its financers were about the remake's edgier content - this is, after all, a film where political opinion has effectively been annexed by corporations and television.

Commendably, Padilha’s RoboCop captures some of the social commentary that enriched Verhoeven’s film, but doesn’t try to ape the Dutch director’s style. Samuel L Jackson’s raving, opinionated Pat Novak may not be quite as an effective substitute for Casey Wong and the various adverts that appeared in the 1987 film - and if anything, his character’s less subtle than the wryly funny private healthcare commercials and news reports were - but he establishes the tone of a world where a cynical media colludes with big business to sway public opinion.

"Let's go with black"

The movie also reintroduces the ED-209 in a compelling fashion. Just as they were in the 80s original, Padilha’s beefed-up, tank-like robots are both amusing and menacing. The sight of these new EDs, clomping through the streets of a Middle Eastern city, clumsily attempting to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals at the end of a gun is superbly realised. “Peace be upon you", the EDs bark, shortly before they slaughter a few dozen insurgents intent on getting a moment on TV. It's a line that is both chilling and dripping with dark humour.

With its machines and state control, RoboCop presents a world where everyone appears to be trapped in one way or another. Just as Murphy’s kept on life support inside his suit, so the poorer nations are essentially conquered (or as Novak puts it, "pacified") by OmniCorp’s drones. The populace in the west is kept pacified by the media, while even well-meaning geniuses like Gary Oldman’s Dr Norton are a slave to their corporate contracts.

One of the themes in RoboCop is "the illusion of freewill" - a phrase dropped in by Dr Norton during the film. Murphy thinks he’s a man, but he’s an unwitting slave to the software that augments what’s left of his biological brain. So if OmniCorp is the equivalent of a Microsoft or Apple who’ve long since moved into the private military sphere of business, Murphy is part iPad or Google Glass. He’s both a human and a sleek, seductive device ("We're going to give Americans a product they can love", says Michael Keaton's OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars).

So while RoboCop isn't necessarily anti-technology, it does appear to be a meditation, in part, on just how attached we’ve become to the devices and apps we use every day, and in turn how reliant we are on the corporations which provide them. We get to use Google search for free, but in turn, the company stores the data from our searches. Are we giving up our freedom unwittingly in favour of faster and better technology? Are we becoming a prisoner of our own smart phones and tablets?

Dead or alive, you're coming with me

It's hardly surprising that the reviews of RoboCop have been divided to say the least. The very notion of a new RoboCop is a difficult one to accept, and it's equally tricky to sit with the remake without mentally comparing every character and story beat to those in the 1987 version. But despite the assertions of some critics, we'd humbly argue that RoboCop 2014 isn't just another bland remake along the lines of Total Recall (a comparison that has come up repeatedly in RoboCop's reviews).

RoboCop is by no means without its problems - not least a third act which feels oddly rushed, as though something's either been removed or hurriedly reshot - but neither is it without merit, as some have suggested. Like RoboCop himself, the remake may have been conceived by its studio executives for a cold and cynical purposes (it was originally commissioned as a 3D film in the wake of Avatar), but we get no sense that Jose Padilha has approached the project with the same mindset.

At no point does Padilha's film take the obvious or easy route. His film favours political commentary and drama over relentless action, exploring issues of fascism and technological control. There are existential meditations along the lines of Verhoeven's original, where a man undergoes the Kafka-like horror of waking up inside a body he doesn't recognise. Although derided by one or two outlets, we'd argue that the scene where the full extent of Murphy's injuries are revealed by Dr Norton is a powerful moment, and thanks to some superb performances from both Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman, it becomes an emotional scene rather than one about flashy special effects.

Where RoboCop 2014 really succeeds, though, is in its attempt to distinguish itself from the classic original rather than upstage it. Rather than try to recreate the first film's unique brand of mordant, bloody humour, the remake seeks to create its own wryly ambiguous tone that is easily overlooked or misunderstood.

Indeed, Jose Padilha's style of directing has landed him in hot water before. The Elite Squad films were wrongly castigated by some critics for their perceived fascism - the assumption being that by showing their events from the point of view of a ruthless special operations cop, the films were somehow condoning their violent actions. But Padilha is no more on the side of fascism than Martin Scorsese is on the side of the white collar crooks in The Wolf Of Wall Street; Padilha uses these characters to highlight a real-world injustice - namely, injustice on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

Padilha takes a similar approach to RoboCop, applying his own interests to a science fiction film that pitches rich philosophical and political themes at a broad audience. The result is an uncommonly thought-provoking genre movie that, although flawed, succeeds in being so much more than a production-line copy of the classic original.

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