Director – José Padilha, Screenplay – Joshua Zetumer, Based on the 1987 Film Written by Michael Miner & Edward Neumeier, Producers – Marc Abraham & Eric Newman, Photography – Lula Carvalho, Music – Pedro Bromfman, Visual Effects Supervisor – James E. Price, Visual Effects – Cinesite (Supervisors – Richard Clarke & Simon Stanley-Clamp), Framestore (Supervisor – Rob Duncan), Method Studios (Supervisor – Nordin Rahhali & Bruce Woloshyn) & Mr. X (Supervisor – Aaron Weintraub), Special Effects Supervisor – Bob Hall & Clay Pinney, Production Design – Martin Whist. Production Company – Strike Entertainment
Joel Kinnaman (Detective Alex Murphy/Robocop), Gary Oldman (Dr Dennett Norton), Michael Keaton (Raymond Sellars), Abbie Cornish (Clara Murphy), Samuel L. Jackson (Pat Novak), Jackie Earle Haley (Rich Mattox), Michael K. Williams (Detective Jack Lewis), Jennifer Ehle (Liz Kline), Jay Baruchel (Tom Pope), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Chief Karen Dean), John Paul Ruttan (David Murphy), Patrick Garrow (Antoine Vallon), Aimee Garcia (Jae Kim), Zach Grenier (Senator Hubert Dreyfuss), Douglas Urbanski (Mayor Durant)
The Omnicorp Corporation has had great success introducing robotic units for civilian pacification in international war zones but is facing vehement anti-robot prejudice in Congress over attempts to introduce them for crime prevention in the US. Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars realises that the solution to this would be to place a human being inside the robot. He consults expert Dennett Norton about the possibility of using amputees. In Detroit, police detective Alex Murphy and his partner Jack Lewis are on the trail of illegal arms traffickers but realise the gang is receiving tipoffs from inside the police department. Their attempt to arrest gang head Antoine Vallon is sabotaged, leaving Lewis hospitalised and Murphy blown up with a bomb placed under his car. Omnicorp decide Murphy would be the perfect subject for their Robocop program. He comes around to find that his brain has been placed in an almost completely machine body. In trying to turn Murphy into a fighting machine, Norton find that his emotions and human decisions keep getting in the way and so devises a combination where the computer system takes over from his brain when he goes into combat. However, this causes a seizure as Murphy’s emotions flood the system and so the only solution is suppressing all his emotional reactions. Uploaded with all cctv surveillance data and police computer files, Murphy then has astonishing success in tracking down wanted suspects and making arrests. As Murphy’s emotions still begin to come through, he starts to defy his programming to arrest those who tried to kill him and the Omnicorp execs who now try to silence him because of bad publicity.
RoboCop (1987) is a classic of 1980s science-fiction cinema. In Paul Verhoeven’s hands, the fairly routine theme of a cyborg cop was turned into a biting and sarcastic x-ray of the 1980s. The film was a satire of the burgeoning intrusion of ruthless corporate power into the American way of life. The film was also satirising the heavy militarisation of police forces that came about after Ronald Reagan permitted the sale of surplus military ordinance to urban SWAT teams, while the idea of a private enterprise police force seemed the next logical step beyond the idea of private enterprise prisons that were being introduced in the US around the time.
RoboCop was a huge hit and led to several sequels with the also worthwhile Robocop 2 (1990), a fine expansion of the ideas of the original thanks to a Frank Miller script, and the lame Robocop 3 (1993), as well as a disappointingly poor tv series RoboCop (1994-5), which only lasted 23 episodes; RoboCop: Prime Directives (2000), a six-hour tv mini-series sequel; and several animated tv spinoffs RoboCop (1988-9), which lasted for twelve episodes, and RoboCop: Alpha Commando (1998-9), which lasted for 40 episodes.
Film producers, having excavated almost every horror film of the 1970s and 80s as remakes during the 2000s and 2010s, now seem to be turning their targets towards science-fiction properties of the era with the last couple of years having seen remakes of The Thing (2011) and Total Recall (2012) and reboots of the Planet of the Apes series. The remake of RoboCop was greeted with lack of enthusiasm from every quarter ever since its announcement. Well actually, not quite – around 2010, it was being announced as being from Darren Aronofsky, director of Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014), which would have been fascinating to see. As soon as stills were released, the film was ridiculed for the substitution of Robocop’s iconic steel armour for a sleek black but far more anonymous suit that now makes him look like an armoured ninja.
The film was derided from every quarter – for the trailer’s lack of exciting action scenes; for cutting the original’s ultra-violent R-rating back so that it could get a PG-13 rating in the US (although people making said protests seemed to have forgotten that this also happened with RoboCop 3, not to mention the fact that Robocop was later reissued as a Saturday morning animated series). And then there was the leaking of the fact that director José Padilha had called fellow Brazilian director Fernando Mereilles, saying that he was having the worst experience of his life and that every idea he was putting forward was being cut by the producers, which put the studio into damage control before Padilha ending up issuing statements that some of his ideas were being listened to.
The thorough and utter dullness with which Hollywood has turned classic horror films into lacklustre remakes that almost always miss the impact and rawness of their originals by a mile, plus the abovementioned negative word of mouth, had left one’s enthusiasm for the RoboCop remake dim. I tried to go in with an open mind … and I must say the film ended up pleasantly surprising me. The film has the smarts to hire Brazilian director José Padilha. Padilha is largely an unknown, especially when it comes to genre cinema, and gave all impression that he was being regarded as an ingenue who could be told what to do in return for the break at a mainstream film.
However, look a little more beneath the surface and Jose Padilha seems an intriguing choice. Most of his directorial work in Brazil has been in documentaries, which frequently have a strong social edge. The work(s) that must have no doubt brought Padilha to the attention of the producers was Elite Squad (2007) and its sequel Elite Squad (2010), a brutal and tough depiction of the law enforcement agencies in Rio de Janeiro tackling crime in the favelas, which came with a strong and biting social critique wrapped up in its cop show story, the exact sort of thing you would want for a RoboCop film.
The remake conducts a number of changes over the original. Alex Murphy is promoted from a beat officer to a full detective. His partner Lewis goes from a woman (Nancy Allen) in the original to a guy (Michael K. Williams). The people who kill him have been upped from drug dealers to arms dealers that are, in a needlessly complicated addition that never adds much to the story, in cahoots with corrupt officials in the police department.
The other odd change is that Omnicorp seems a far less evil corporation than Omni Consumer Corporation. They are still a deceitful and manipulative corporation but in the 1987 version, Paul Verhoeven was satirising 1980s corporate thinking – it seemed far more evil when we went from introducing the idea of local police forces as a private enterprise operation to where it naturally extended from that that Murphy’s body could be requisitioned to be transformed into a cyborg because it was corporate property. That aspect has been written out here and we instead get Omnicorp politely asking Murphy’s wife to sign him over to them. What we do get is the more muted satiric notion that the corporation is constantly redesigning Robocop based on market focus studies and abruptly changing their approach every time that something happens before television cameras.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect – and where the remake really started to work for me – is when RoboCop 2014 starts to explore the nature of Murphy’s relationship with the machine. The first RoboCop never dwelt much on this – Murphy is killed, his body requisitioned, he wakes up as Robocop, is sent into action and the human inside eventually emerges. Here the remake expands all of how that happened to essentially become the whole of the film. While the original had Murphy’s adjustment to being inside the Robocop suit over and done with fairly quickly, the remake takes more than an hour of running time before we ever get Murphy on the streets as Robocop.
The remake creates a fascinating political backdrop to the reasons for creating Robocop in the first place – to get around public prejudice against placing robots in law enforcement on US streets – and then deals with the problems of getting the human to respond like a machine in combat situations with the answer being to create a computerised autopilot that takes over to manage his responses. Then comes the ingenious scenes where in order to stop Murphy’s emotions polluting the system, they have to dampen these with drugs, resulting in the familiar robotic Robocop that we all know. There is even a jaw-dropping scene where Gary Oldman opens up Joel Kinnaman’s innards to reveal that he is no more than a head and thorax – part of you keeps thinking of John Jarratt’s ‘head on a stick– line from Wolf Creek (2005).
Even more surprisingly, the film silences all of one’s complaints about a PG-13 RoboCop. What we don’t get is Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent excesses and sadistic despatches (although I would argue that this is an improvement). In its place, José Padilha throws in a massive outlay of firepower. Indeed, while the original RoboCop was relatively light on actual action scenes, Padilha gives some impressive shootouts with Omnicorp’s robotic drones in a warehouse and, borrowed from RoboCop 2, a massive climactic fight-out between Robocop and the Ed-209’s. You can guarantee if RoboCop 2014 had put any of these scenes in its trailer, it would have instantly silenced all objections.
My worst expectation of RoboCop 2014 was that it would have cut the original’s biting satire of 1980s politics and consumerism and reduced the film to an anodyne cyborg superhero film. From the very opening scenes, it is clear that this is not the case and we see that the film has smartly updated RoboCop to era of 2010s politics. Omni Consumer Products (now streamlined to Omnicorp) has become a corporation more like Blackwater or Haliburton and is using robots to conduct warzone pacification in Operation Tehran (clearly implying that we are in a near future where the US has followed through on its chest-beating threats to invade Iran), spouting all the cliches regarding spreading peace and democracy. This is a surprisingly political and on-the-ball RoboCop – at one point, Samuel L. Jackson refers to the robots employed in Iran as ‘drones’, bringing in clear association with Obama’s deplorable practice of remote control assassinations in the Middle East. Where RoboCop 1987 peppered the story with satirical commercials, the remake now gives us Samuel L. Jackson as a tv host modelled on somebody like Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and the channel’s blatant insertion of biased opinion into so-called news reporting.
Even more potent is the film’s tackling the mass surveillance society. Robocop has now gained the ability to download all police files into his head and cross-connect them to all the current and backdated cctv footage anywhere in the city. (You keep wondering why, aside from plot point, it suddenly takes Robocop to be able to do all of this. It does seem ever so improbable that the much smaller processor that would be attached to one man’s brain can cross-connect current and historical id footage all over the city when surely a police mainframe would have vastly more computing power to do so). What this does give us though is a Robocop that seems to have fully embraced the era of mass surveillance – the world of face recognition software, instant scanning of vehicle registrations, the population’s surveillance by near-ubiquitous security cameras and the accessing of the metadata of phone records. While in the real world, the vast collection of such information by the NSA and other US law enforcement agencies has provoked outrage about oppressive intrusion into privacy, here we seem to have a new superhero that triumphantly employs this in routine law enforcement.
While most audiences are likely to cheer along Robocop as he makes arrests and breaks corporate corruption, the unspoken implications – that such a world would be an almost totalitarian society – goes largely unaddressed by the film. Paul Verhoeven was satirising the law enforcement society that Robocop was upholding, seeing it a blunt instrument that dispensed justice brutally and without too much consideration for collateral damage. That biting edge seems to have disappeared here. Unlike the black sarcasm that drove the 1987 film, you feel that the 2014 film grasps at a satirical x-ray of US society in the 2010s (and often hits the mark) but leaves you with an uneasy certainty as to whether it is satirising or championing it.
(Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay this site’s Best of 2014 Awards).