The unexplored potential of the RoboCop universe

What can we expect from the RoboCop remake's plot? Scott looks at some of the franchise’s storytelling possibilities…

With candid shots from the set of the new RoboCop movie now appearing on the web, we’re getting our first glimpse of what the long-in-gestation reboot might offer. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until August next year to see it in full, but the concept raises a few questions that weren’t really addressed in the first three films, and perhaps might be second time around.

At the end of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece, evil corporate executive Dick Jones had fallen several hundred storeys to his death, Officer Lewis was down but not out, and Murphy had just about come to terms with his new cyborg status. However, like many modern sci-fi films, the long-term implications of the plot go way beyond what was actually seen in the original or any of the sub-standard sequels.

If RoboCop represents the future of law enforcement, then how exactly will that future unfold? If one prototype was such an effective deterrent against crime, then many would serve a modern city environment even better; a dedicated unit of RoboCops, perhaps.

Seriously injured – although not as badly as Officer Murphy was at the start of RoboCop – Anne Lewis could easily have also been rebuilt up by OCP, proving that the technology could be applied to any wounded and willing member of Detroit’s finest, man or woman.

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The reboot will also have to consider technology that wasn’t around in the halcyon days of the late 80s. No doubt the RoboCop of today will have instant wireless access to a vast police and government database, eliminating the need for that lethal-looking data ‘spike’ that also doubled as an effective way to dispatch Clarence Boddicker. Orbiting satellites could provide constant information updates, combined with citywide CCTV access. Suddenly, the comic book-style, retro original looks even darker, with a passing resemblance to a more Orwellian future.

Chances are there would indeed be more than one machine patrolling the streets before long, which raises the issues of Robo-recruitment. Would the police department have to wait until an officer was near-fatally wounded before wheeling his or her hospital bed down to the Security Concepts lab at OCP? Or would they attempt to persuade healthy cops to undergo the rather drastic procedure? Bob Morton gets around this in the first movie by “restructuring the police department and placing prime candidates according to risk factor” which is of course the reason why poor Alex Murphy gets transferred from Metro South. But as crime is reduced, surely the number of officers injured will also reduce.

One potential solution is to offer seriously wounded soldiers the chance to volunteer. Anyone unfortunate enough to have been caught by the blast of an IED in any of the world’s trouble spots could be offered the chance to still be a helpful member of society by undergoing a Robo-rebuild.

Different types of Robo-reformation could yield different designs: urban pacification, riot suppression, heavy armour, tactical and so on. How about partial reconstruction, which might offer the best of both worlds? With cybernetic science as advanced as it is, could a unit that still looked human – with only minor, internal advancements – be used for dangerous undercover operations? There’s an opportunity here for an update of the Six Million Dollar Man, perhaps.

Why limit the technology to police officers? There are many dangerous professions in the world. OCP could easily produce a line of RoboFiremen, RoboBombDisposal or even RoboMachineWorkers.

When considering alternative applications, it’s necessary to also consider the potential misuse of Robo technology. We saw in the sequels that it’s possible to tamper with core programming, and in fact Dick Jones made his contribution at the very beginning. OCP is after all a powerful corporation, and it’s not immune to the occasional lapse in ethics based purely on self-interest. Imagine a whole police force suddenly turning on the public at the flick of a switch, something we saw in I, Robot. We even witnessed in Robocop 2 would might happen if a crime boss were to undergo full body prosthesis.

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How would programming be supervised or standardised? This is not some new home computer OS we’re talking about here, this is a trusted member of society that we rely on, that’s also carrying a gun. Asimov’s three laws don’t really apply to everyday law enforcement. Are the three prime directives and “a lifetime of on-the-street law enforcement programming” enough, and will they be interpreted correctly in every situation?

Illegally obtained knowledge of RoboCop’s operating systems could lead to the technology falling into the wrong hands. Large criminal organisations might attempt to enhance their own numbers with cybernetic units or even hack into police units. Armed robbery, hijacking, arson, kidnapping and terrorism would all be significantly easier if performed by a robust, reinforced RoboCriminal. They would more than likely also make up the first line of defense against the police units: RoboWar spills out onto the streets. The race would be on to capture and backwards engineer a police unit.

The use of some “major firepower” was needed in the original to bring Murphy to his knees, and military weaponry might not be as accessible to all of RoboCop’s adversaries. Inventive criminals might consider attacking his electronics with microwave radiation, a gamma ray burst or even an electro-magnetic pulse. Radar guns, like those used by surreptitiously parked police cars, and even microwave ovens could be the basis of a new range of improvised anti-electronic weapons built to disable RoboCop units.

Bob Morton gave us RoboCop, and at the same time, may have inadvertently also given us a whole new set of technological and sociological issues to deal with, changing the playing field for both good and bad guys.

The reboot has some promising names currently attached to it, including Edward Neumeier – screenwriter of the original – Gary Oldman as Bob Morton, Michael Keaton and Samuel L Jackson. We’ll just have to wait and see how director José Padilha interprets the story. 

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