Among the many behind-the-scenes stills from the 1987 RoboCop production, there’s a picture of director Paul Verhoeven standing in front of the full-scale prop of ED-209. He’s attempting to get across to his cast the menace of this static object – an object that, in the finished movie, will be a machine-gunning, growling robot on the rampage. To do this, Verhoeven’s flailing his arms and baring his teeth. His long hair’s almost standing on end, like a cat in a temper.
This image, more than any other, sums up the febrile, manic energy this maverick filmmaker brought to RoboCop. It’s a true masterpiece of 80s movie theater, and every scene comes loaded with an almost palpable intensity. So when it was announced that a remake was on the way, it’s understandable that a certain amount of scepticism surrounded the news. How could it possibly match the black humor, pathos and wit of the original?
We’ve still a fair while to wait until we can properly answer that question, because the finished movie’s not out until February 2014. But in the meantime, along came the first trailer, which gives us the first few clues as to the tone and direction the reboot will take. So let’s delve in and take a closer look…
The trailer’s opening scenes establish a similar scenario to the original RoboCop: a future city beset by crime, where ordinary flesh-and-blood cops are losing the battle against heavily-armed gangs. If the directing presence of Jose Padilha can be felt anywhere – with its grit coming at least vaguely close to his terrific Elite Squad movies – it’s here. The streets are in disarray, and patrolled by a range of familiar-looking law-enforcing robots.
If we’re interpreting this shot and a few others in the trailer correctly, the scientists at Omni have been working on a few iterations of law enforcing robot. One of them’s the ED-209 series, while another appears to be a range of flying, heavily-armed drones – which we’ll get to later. Then there are the pair of specimens pictured above – one the kind of half man, half machine prototype Alex Murphy’s about to become at any moment, the other a skinnier, all machine droid like the Cylon Centurions in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.
In other parts of the trailer, we see lots of these skinny RoboCops wandering around streets and empty buildings, and the Alex Murphy RoboCop is shown firing away at them at one point – so like the 1987 movie, this Murphy will also end up in a fight against the corporation that made him.
“We need to give Americans something they can rally behind. We’re going to put a man inside a machine.”
Here’s the first shot of Michael Keaton, playing Omni Corp CEO Raymond Sellars. The pal who has the idea of making a man into a robot law enforcer, he casts a sinister air over the trailer, even if we don’t actually seem him doing anything overtly evil. It’s worth noting the Francis Bacon paintings hanging in his office, though – a pointed reference, perhaps, to the movie’s themes of what it means to be a human. Certainly, Bacon’s work was full of human-like figures twisted in agony – something Murphy’s about to experience within the next few seconds…
One of the major ways the remake departs from the original is in the fate of Joel Kinnaman’s protagonist. In this movie, Murphy’s blown to smithereens by a car bomb outside his house rather than brutally shot to death by a gang. Given that RoboCop 2014 will almost certainly be a PG-13, this accounts for Murphy’s limb loss and subsequent transformation into a machine, while at the same time side-stepping the horrifying violence of the first movie.
Murphy doesn’t die this time, either, which removes the original’s death and resurrection imagery, and also leaves us in the odd position where Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) knows all about her husband’s transformation. This, and a later shot where a robo-suited Kinnaman is seen chatting in a living room with his son, leaves us wondering whether we’ll see RoboCop clanking around his house on his days off, doing the washing up and telling his son to get out of bed because his breakfast’s ready.
In all seriousness, though, we do wonder whether having Murphy’s family be a more frequent presence in the movie is a bit of a mistake. The original movie wisely sidestepped the potentially daft scenes of drama between a guy in a clanking robot suit and his wife who’d thought him dead, and instead, played up Murphy’s sense of loss as he realised the life he once had was gone for good.
However the family drama side of things plays out – and it could be brilliant, in fairness, if it’s written and staged carefully – the net result is the same: Murphy’s shattered body is encased in metal, and he wakes up as the latest, shiniest product in OCP’s robot portfolio. It’s here that the trailer hints at a new and potentially interesting usage of RoboCop’s old ‘Prime Directives’ programming.
“When the machine fights,” says Gary Oldman’s scientist, “the system releases signals into Alex’s brain making him think he’s in control, but he’s not. It’s the illusion of free will.”
It goes without saying that RoboCop soon figures out a way of circumventing the computer-controlled part of himself – the question is, how does he do it, and what causes him to turn against his creators in the first place?
The robo suit
You probably already noticed the scene captured above, where we see a brief cameo from a suit design that’s much closer to the one Rob Bottin designed back in the 80s. The one Joel Kinnaman ends up wearing, however, is much sleeker and less bulky – closer, you might say, to Tony Stark’s armoured suit – and by the time Raymond Sellars says, “Make him more tactical; let’s go black”, he looks even further removed from his hulking, imposing roots.
Also, didn’t the new RoboCop’s designers miss a trick by not making able to change colour? He could have been silver in standby mode, black in combat mode, and maybe camo for jungle encounters, and perhaps even paisley for 60s-themed discos.
To be fair, we’d expected this new iteration to be a more fleet-footed kind of robot, since modern audiences probably wouldn’t have been convinced by the plodding, John Wayne-like RoboCop of the first movie. The designers haven’t thrown everything out, either, with Robo still keeping a gun stored in his thigh – and in an added nod to fans, he even finds time to utter the familiar line, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
We’ll have to wait for the finished movie before we can be sure how well the new suit design works in context, but Joel Kinnaman certainly seems to pull off the physical aspect of the role well – some parts of the trailer look a lot like last year’s Dredd, which is by no means a bad thing.
Two Eds are better than one
Here’s another reference back to the 80s: a freshly redesigned ED-209. And thanks to the wonders of computer technology, this movie can afford to have an entire army of the things stalking the city. Do they talk? Do they give someone “20 seconds to comply?” There’s no clue in this first trailer, but for now, we’re quite pleased with the sympathetic updating of the classic robot once brought to life by animator Phil Tippett.
Who’s Thomas King?
In the shot above, we get a glimpse of RoboCop’s new-fangled facial recognition technology – so no more trudging around police archives with his data spike out – but we also spot a pal named Thomas King. This reminded us of something: we don’t see very many villains in this trailer. Sure, we have Michael Keaton’s character handling the evil corporation side of things, but what about the thugs, once embodied so well by Kurtwood Smith and his friends in the first movie? Is Thomas King one of them?
We’re guessing that the character played by Jackie Earle Haley – pictured above – is another. Haley’s cast in the role of someone called Maddox according to IMDb. Is he next year’s equivalent of Clarence Boddicker?
Picking through the reactions to the trailer on Twitter and Facebook, one of the most common complaints is that it all looks a bit too much like a toy commercial – a trap that RoboCop 3 sadly fell into 20 years ago. When RoboCop turns up on his matching motorbike, it’s certainly easy to see what the detractors mean – the design does look like something that will be lining shelves in Toys R Us before 2014’s over.
On the other hand, even the 18-rated RoboCop appealed to kids back in the 80s. Many viewers were too young to see the original movie when it came out in 1987 (in the UK, it was one of those illicit pleasures you discovered on VHS around a mate’s house), and we promptly went out and bought the videogame tie-ins for computers and consoles, put a few coins in the Data East arcade machine, and maybe bought the line of RoboCop toys that came out a few years later.
The new RoboCop maybe more openly courting a broad audience, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t also be full of its own complex themes and thought-provoking ideas. Which brings us onto…
Where’s the dark humor?
If there’s one thing apparently missing in the trailer, it’s any hint of the dark satire of the original. But then again, take another look at the trailer for the 1987 movie: there’s no Bixby Snyder, no bloodshed in the boardroom, no sardonic TV ads or preening news anchors. But take a look again at the trailer for the first movie. It avoids all the deeper ideas and humor of the finished movie, and concentrates instead on lots of explosions and violence – all cut to the theme tune to The Terminator, something Orion Pictures obviously had lying around at the time.
Similarly, the trailer for RoboCop 2014 has been cut together in the now standard blockbuster style, replete with whooshes and parps and meaningful sound bites – it’s a corporate product, something that would have been approved by outgoing Omni CEO Dick Jones.
But there are odd hints, here and there, of dark humor and even a suggestion of Verhoeven’s harshness. That shot of a terribly wounded Murphy lying stricken on a bed isn’t pulling any punches, and there are clues towards the end of the trailer that RoboCop gets almost as battered as the one played by Peter Weller a quarter of a century ago. As for humor, there’s Michael Keaton’s quirky corporate weasel, who should be good value, and what about Samuel L Jackson in his curious wig? We’re intrigued to see how he fits into the story.
There’s still a chance, then, that the spikier edges of Paul Verhoeven’s movie will also be present in Jose Padilha’s finished movie.