It’s been about quarter of a century since the original RoboCop. The 1980s were still in swing. Big glasses. Big hair. Bigger glasses. Big shoulder pads. Big casual misogyny. It was also an age that we still associate with corporate greed: the Futurama episode ‘Future Stock’ depicts 1980s guy as the sleazy Gordon Gecko-lite, too busy smooth talking his way on to corporate boards to bother curing his degenerative disease. The original RoboCop satirises its own era by projecting it into a technologically advanced age. What would happen if the corporate greed of the 1980s had access to futuristic technology? The answer: ruthless executives (who are more concerned about a presentation ‘glitch’ stalling profits than the colleague killed in the aforementioned glitch) start to build new homes for the wealthy elite on the ashes of the old society. Importantly in this film, they adopt the mantle of state violence in order to create this new world. Where they view the poverty and crime as dystopian, they exclude themselves from being part of that dystopia.
Many reboots and remakes slavishly try to recreate the original. Famously, the 1998 remake of Psycho copied the original shot-for-shot, only in colour. Adaptions fall into a similar hazard: the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy movie clearly lacked the wit and insight of the original versions, simply because the jokes were nearly two decades out of date.
This version of RoboCop avoids all the usual problems. Instead of looking at a futuristic 1980s, this RoboCop takes the original message and updates it for a new audience.
The film begins with the vocal warm ups of the modern journalist: an opinionated ideologue who occupies a colourful void. Surrounded by infographics, data, and live feeds to the ‘action’, Samuel L. Jackson gives us an early glimpse of the technologically-enhanced human that is going to occupy our attention for the better part of two hours. Is the journalist actually in control of the news, or does the machine around him think on his behalf? By showing us the vocal warm ups, the cameras, and the control panels, we see the journalist himself as merely the fleshy part of a giant technological creature.
More importantly, Jackson’s character shows us that the science fiction element of the film is only there to show reality in its extreme. His impassioned rant is similar to the Shakespearean prologues: the cinema screen is the window into this hypothetical world which reminds us sharply of our own world and yet, at the same time, is a caricature of it.
Thus we get quickly to ‘Operation Freedom Tehran’ where U.S. controlled robots scan Iranian women and children to make sure they are not threats to the peace. The embedded journalists are there to capture the ‘reality’ of the peacekeeping activities, but this means little more than perceiving the intervention through the filter of U.S. global policing. Journalists note how eager the locals are to assist with the intervention, peacefully acquiescing to being scanned by a heavily armed battle robot, ED-209.
Although the American public appears to be at peace with the idea of its military forces policing other countries, it seems less comfortable with the idea of its domestic police utilising this military technology. Omnicorp is the company behind the ED-209 technology. It’s also the company behind medical technology: robotic prosthetics to help the disabled. This gets us to the heart of the film: how will Omnicorp endear its robotic peacekeepers to a domestic audience?
The answer comes in the form of Alex Murphy. In the original film, Murphy is played as some n00b hotshot who is really kind of a prick. This time around, Murphy is given more depth. Despite the corruption rife at his police station, he’s an intelligent and dedicated officer of almost unquestionable moral character. The film spends time getting us to know Murphy the human prior to his first death: betrayed by fellow police officers, his car explodes while his family looks on.
Omnicorp sees this as an opportunity. One of their doctors (played surprisingly well by Gary Oldman) presents Murphy’s widow with some hope: using Omnicorp’s technology, they can revive him. Omnicorp – whose CEO is played perfectly by Michael Keaton – is less concerned with reuniting the young family, and more concerned with giving his robot militia a relatable, human angle.
Thus, there are questions about how comfortable we should be, as a society, with military technology being used for medical interventions. The same technology that’s being used in Operation Freedom Tehran is being used to give hands to a concert guitarist. Similarly, military technology used to suppress terrorist networks in the Middle East is being used to punish drug smugglers in the U.S. Omnicorp’s moral ambiguity reflects a modern reality: a company that runs prisons in one country, serves children’s meals in the next. A company that develops high tech weapons also develops drought- and pest-resistant crops. In Australia, the same company that was caught loading up prisoners with sausages was also the same company that was supposed to be looking after our asylum seekers.
Instead of resorting to the buffoonery of the original RoboCop, (‘Ha! When the executive shakes the robot hand, he gets hurt! LOLOLOLOL!’) this new version makes the buffoonery more subtle. When Murphy tries to solve his own murder, Omnicorp’s spin doctor chides himself for not thinking of it as a publicity stunt first. When Murphy is first awoken as the RoboCop, he freaks out and tries to run away; a number of robots nearby could have stopped him but don’t – they identify him as ‘Property of Omnicorp’. And when they’re looking for candidates to become RoboCop, the company executives focus less on the practical aspects (such as whether a person has issues controlling their anger) and more on the optics (dismissing one person because he’s too fat, and taking a shining to the aforementioned rage machine because he ‘oozes masculinity’).
At the same time, there are enough moments of obvious hilarity to keep even the dullest audience member clued in. The use of The Wizard of Oz’s ‘If I Only Had a Heart’ was a highlight, as was Samuel L. Jackson’s unhinged rant about whistleblowers (‘The fact that he’s not in jail is just horseshit’).
It’s philosophically interesting. There are interesting explorations of medical consent and professional coercion. There’s a quick shout out to questions about Murphy’s free will (the computer interface is designed to make Murphy feel like he’s making decisions, even when he’s not). There are confronting questions about the use of psychotropic drugs to modify and control behaviour. Where the original movie had Murphy struggling to become more human, thus Murphy struggles to retain his as Omnicorp insists on stripping more and more of his humanity away. And then there are all the obvious questions about State violence: do we want police officers to be concerned with nothing more than the efficient enforcement of the law?
And it marries this intelligence with everything you’d want from a dumb action flick: beautiful action scenes in a variety of styles, culminating in an epic battle with the ED-209s. And Abbie Cornish as the long-suffering police officer’s spouse does a splendid job of returning the drama to the human element at the core of the machine.
This is a wonderful film; so much so that I don’t understand the wave of negative reviews. Cretinous halfwits like Chris Jager would hate it because it doesn’t provide the nostalgia fix that NerdBros would want. If the core idea weren’t so similar to RoboCop, you could easily repackage this film as an original franchise. To an extent, I understand the complaint lodged by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian that the film erases the poverty from the original film (that we still have in modern Detroit). The modern RoboCop might as well be set in Nolan’s Gotham or on Lucas’ Coruscant: generic city that also has crime.
But it’s a beautiful satire and it sits well alongside Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, the remake of which will not nearly be as good.