Many remakes, even good ones, remove or weaken the meaning or subtext of the originals. The classic example is Zack Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (by this same production company, Strike Entertainment), which is a fun action movie version of Romero’s masterpiece, but doesn’t have much time for the questions about our voluntary enslavement to consumerism and materialism. How do we keep our humanity in the face of this apocalypse? Did we have it in the first place? Who gives a shit. Zombies!
Another one is LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. A surprisingly good remake, in many ways more artful than the original, but with its last act tweaks and audience-pleasing ending it completely ditches the thing that makes Wes Craven’s version worth stomaching: its angry illustration of the dehumanizing effect that revenge has on those who commit it. According to the last scene of the remake fuck all that, sadistic revenge is funny and cool.
ROBOCOP 2014’s goals and tone are very different from Mr. Verhoeven’s 1987 classic, but it’s the rare remake that’s arguably even more directly political than the movie it’s based on. Most would say, and I agree, that Verhoeven’s (or really Neumeier and Miner’s) message about privatization and corporate greed is more powerful because of its hilarious bluntness. It was the sarcastic cop movie that Lee Iacoca and Ronald Reagan’s America was asking for, a movie where amoral corporate assholes run the police force for profit, turn a dead body into a cyborg cop, then unleash him to do high caliber battle with savage DEATH WISH style supercreeps and get mixed up in a feud within the company, reconnect with his old self and turn on them.
Brazilian director Jose Padilha, who already explored the militarization and corruption of embattled police forces in ELITE SQUAD and ELITE SQUAD 2, has taken a really different approach, but instead of repeating the same points he’s applying the RoboCop story to very contemporary concerns, not the least of which is our current policy of terrorizing other countries with drones.
In the opening, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), a Bill O’Reilly-esque TV loudmouth, praises the efforts of American combat robots in pacifying Tehran. We watch a live demonstration of humanoid droids (humadroids?) backed by ED-209s scanning terrified Iranians for weapons and gunning down rebels trying to protest their imperialistic presence. Novak not only has no problem seeing civilians treated this way, he’s demanding that we change the law to allow it on our own soil!
The biggest premise that’s new to this version is that Americans don’t like the idea of unfeeling machines patrolling the streets, so OmniCorp (the company that makes the robots, eventually revealed to be a division of, not a renaming of, Omni Consumer Products) wants to “put a man in a machine” to try to change public opinion. The implication is hard to miss: we’re okay with machines patrolling people’s neighborhoods as long as it’s not us, it’s some other nationality, far away. If it’s us it’s gotta be a cool TV ready hero with a great backstory and everything, then maybe we’ll consider it.
The movie ends on Novak blustering about American exceptionalism, the most heavy-handed and on-the-nose part, but it’s kinda thrilling to see coming from a foreign director in what everybody assumed was gonna be disposable commercial crap. It forces us to think about the real world implications, it won’t let us off easy, the opposite of that LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT ending that had people leaving the theater with smiles on their faces.
Of course most of the movie isn’t about what our government/companies do to people in other countries, but what we are willing to let them do to us. Novak is our pundits and politicians who overwhelmingly supported the USA PATRIOT Act, who are more worried about Edward Snowden being a traitor or a douche than about the troubling programs he exposed, who never hesitate to give up any freedom (other than guns) because… what was that Benjamin Franklin quote? Something about “you gotta sacrifice liberty for security and you don’t deserve liberty neither”? Something like that.
Verhoeven’s villains couldn’t possibly be bigger assholes, that’s part of the joy of the movie. There’s the larger than life criminal evil of Clarence Boddicker, the mega-Ellis macho cokehead yuppie douchiness of Bob Morton, and the board room Machiavelianism of Dick Jones. I like that Padilha goes in the other direction. Admittedly his crime lord character Vallon (Patrick Garrow, one episode of Total Recall 2070) should be more memorable, but I like that OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) clearly doesn’t know he’s the bad guy. He’s a genius with great vision for business and technology, but unfortunately little regard for the greater good. There is nothing ideological or even power hungry about his push for robot Big Brother. It’s just that he’s invested so much in this technology. If you build it you better use it. If it becomes legal he makes alot of money, if it stays illegal he goes out of business. That’s all it’s about to him.
Sellars isn’t traditionally evil, but the motherfucker’s ignoring the huge consequences of his actions. That’s one thing that’s powerful about this one. This is how bad shit really happens most of the time. It’s not some madman’s master plan, it’s a mix of some good intentions, some greed, some negligence, some short-sightedness.
He’s the kind of bigwig our culture gets behind now. Not a guy that chews people’s asses out in the board room like Dick Jones, but a thoughtful guy with actual insights, one who strokes his chin and thinks about the problem and produces pearls of wisdom. Sellars even says “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” a Steve Jobs quote that was very accurate in the case of the iPad, not as much in the case of Sellars’s “tactical” black RoboCop suit that kinda looks like a human Knight Rider. (Although I’m fine with it, I think we all prefer the one that looks more like the real RoboCop, and the movie even acknowledges this by putting him back in silver at the end. It sounds like there’s not gonna be a sequel, but if there was I think the black suit would be left behind as the symbol of his corporate past.)
I think it’s also meaningful that they didn’t do anything like the original’s bitter inter-company rivalry between Morton and Jones, each vying for their robot program to succeed so they can move up in the company. Cut throat competition within the business world was a popular ’80s theme that was imitated in the TV RoboCops and that I’m sure is still relevant in other eras. But in this OmniCorp everybody seems to get along. As far as we know they don’t hate each other, and they don’t back stab each other, they work together to achieve the company’s goals. It’s just that some of those goals are bad for the world. That’s an important point. They don’t have to be assholes to be dangerous.
The same is true of RoboCop himself. His abilities are enhanced for modern technology. When he looks out into a crowd his facial recognition software runs everyone he sees through every police database. He has constant access to every police file, every security camera, both live and recorded. He can monitor heart and breathing rates and interpret body language like an instant lie detector test or to predict an attack. He cross-references open cases with everything on file, immediately coming up with a long list of new suspects and leads. He’s like a one man Big Brother. Like Nascimento in ELITE SQUAD 2, he’s suddenly armed with all these new law enforcement tools and they’re intoxicating. Their advantages take precedence over their ethical implications, and it’s exciting to watch him zipping around the city on his RoboCycle (you gotta call it that since it’s designed to match him) going after murderers. You can see the appeal of a RoboCop.
(Also, he would make a good boyfriend for Samantha from HER.)
But if a computer program is running a war, whether on crime or otherwise, how will it ever end? The people accept RoboCop because he has a conscience, but OmniCorp has to squeeze that out of him because it slows him down. So ultimately he’s being run from a distance, by a series of protocols, by people who are in the shadows, unaccountable, just like Americans flying drones over Pakistan. Robots keep the casualties down, but only on the side that has robots.
Well, unless the robots are fighting RoboCop. Filmatistically, Padilha’s action scenes are similar to what he did in the ELITE SQUADs: lots of handheld, war journalism style, but mostly clear, largely due to a reasonable amount of time between cuts. A standout action scene is a shootout that takes place in the dark, cutting between heat vision and Robo’s glowing red visor slit. He looks kinda Daft Punk in that scene.
I really like Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy, who in this version is pushing against corrupt colleagues to bust this guy Vallon. Instead of Anne Lewis his partner is Jack Lewis, played by Michael K. Williams (ha ha motherfuckers, you gotta choose between Robo having a female partner and your worship of Omar from The Wire). In the process he gets blown to bits and is chosen as the ideal candidate for this prototype robot officer. Or protobofficer.
A huge reversal from the original: he’s not a robot who starts to remember his life and becomes more human, he’s a man who realizes he’s a robot. He remembers who he is, he just wakes up with a horrible injury. He’s like a soldier who has to get used to a prosthetic limb, except it’s for his whole body.
I think there’s an important story beat missing here, which is the moment when Murphy figures out he’s not just a guy recovering from horrible injuries, he’s also a test case for a new law enforcement program. It seemed to me like they never dealt with his understanding or feelings about that. It’s like he automatically knew it and didn’t have any hesitation.
But then they start the drills and the tests. He has an enjoyable feud with Jackie Earle Haley as Randy Couture as special forces badass Mattox, who prefers training robots without human brains. He’s a dick, but with a legitimate point of view. He’s opinionated about his area of expertise, based on vast experience. Again, not evil.
As soon as Murphy’s ready he tries to reconnect with his family. Can he be a husband and father again? Not according to Omni, who realize they have to decrease his emotions to increase his performance in the field.
His wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan) know he’s alive, but he’s kept from them, and they try to get him back. Two particularly powerful moments are the fear on his son’s face when he first sees his RoboDad, and the disappointment when he ignores him backstage at the public unveiling. Since the story is switched around, instead of wearing the helmet and then uncovering his face at the end, he begins by showing his face but lowers his visor more and more as the machine takes over.
So this ROBOCOP is about technology’s effect on foreign policy, law enforcement, civil rights, and family. But it’s also about corporate endeavors in general, creating and selling a new corporate product. And ROBOCOP 2014 itself is a new corporate product. So whether it was intentional or not it has kind of a meta type quality to it.
I think Padilha is kind of like Gary Oldman’s Dr. Dennett Norton, a well-meaning man trying to do the right thing within a system that’s all about making money. He has the endless financial, technological and staffing resources of the company, and that helps him to make progress that he couldn’t make even in his previous well-funded operation. But he also has to face an arbitrary deadline, the input of focus groups and the veto power of the money men above him.
I don’t know if/how much Padilha had to compromise what he was trying to do. It seems to me like he got his movie through the system (sounds like it in this interesting /Film interview too. And here’s one from The Verge where he talks passionately about the issues he raised in the movie). Dr. Norton has a harder time. He’s mostly a good guy, but he’s pressured into a major moral lapse that I don’t think he’ll forgive himself for.
Over the end credits Padilha plays “I Fought the Law” by The Clash. What does this mean? Who fought the law?
I don’t think it’s RoboCop. The status of his career isn’t 100% clear in the end. He’s still with the police and Dr. Norton, but does he fully control himself? What is he allowed to do? Are we okay with him still being on the streets? Whatever it is it doesn’t seem like he fought the law and the law won, so I won’t take it that way.
Could it be Padilha admitting defeat? He tried to get a pure movie through the Hollywood system but he just made a consumer product? I don’t think so, I think he won that one, so I can’t see it that way either. So I guess you have to take it literally. It’s the point of view of the criminals (or dirty cops) who lose to RoboCop in the end. They fought the law and RoboCop won.
Of course the song is also a cover done in a very different style from the original, and beloved in its own right. In fact, the previous hit version, by the Bobby Fuller Four, was one of many covers. The original version was recorded by The Crickets, but never received any airplay. So really nobody knows the original version, and at least the last few generations definitely know the Clash version better than the earlier ones, and might not even know it’s a cover. The exact thing we don’t want to happen with ROBOCOP.
It didn’t even occur to me until well after the movie that maybe one compromise Padilha had to make was the usual one of making this PG-13 when the original famously pushed the limits of the R-rating. After I saw some of you complaining about it I realized that yeah, this is one of those stories that could be improved with some extreme violence. I can’t argue with that. This Robo going really overboard would amplify the movie’s points and could also make some of it seem darkly humorous like Verhoeven’s.
But I think why it didn’t cross my mind is that these movies aren’t about exactly the same things. Verhoeven was, in part, making fun of American attitudes about violence. He wanted his RoboCop to cross the line and see if we still cheered for him (and we fell for it). Padilha’s point is more about subjugation. The main thing we hate about drones both in reality and in the movie is the cases where something goes wrong and it kills a bunch of innocent people. But what if the system could be improved and these types of errors could be avoided? Then would we be okay with it? I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody wants to be those people in the movie being scanned by robots every day. I am not satisfied with “I’m a non-threat so I have nothing to worry about.” The issue is the system itself, not whether or not the bugs can be worked out.
And incidentally the scene where we find out exactly how much of Murphy’s body is left inside that thing is as upsetting as any of Verhoeven’s visceral violence ever was. I’ve never seen anything that made me picture so vividly what it would be like to be that utterly helpless. Forget paralyzed… he’s bodiless from the lungs out. Even at the end of the movie, after he’s won, he must be fucked, right? ‘Cause how can he avoid being compromised when he needs their multi-billion dollar machines just to live? Without them he’s just a severed head hanging on a rack.
* * *
It’s clear from reading all the comments on my various RoboCop History Week posts that praising this remake around here is like shitting on a flag. But it’s also clear from sampling each of those shows that this is the first of the numerous ROBOCOP followups that treats the idea with the respect it deserves. It finds intelligent things to do with the heart and soul of RoboCop instead of just shoddily mimicking the shiny titanium alloy surface. It looks forward instead of backward, applying RoboCop to the world of 2014 instead of trying to rehash what was already said perfectly about the world of a quarter century ago.
A few years back the rebootquel RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES came out, was surprisingly enjoyable, and was really well received because of it. Fun movie, but to me it has alot more you have to forgive than this ROBOCOP does. RISE has plenty of the ol’ technical wizardry to add, but less to say than the original APES movies, all of which were political allegories for their eras. While Padilha extends the issues and implications of ROBOCOP into 21st century technological and political reality, RISE as far as I can tell just gives a modern look to the age old superstitious tale of Those Stupid Fucking Scientists, Who Do They Think They Are, God?
Are people easier on it because it’s not named after a specific APES episode, or because APES is even older than ROBOCOP so they don’t have the same attachment to it? Or are they just racist against apes so they don’t give a shit about protecting the original? You’re all a bunch of anti-simites, aren’t you?
I understand the line in the sand that people have drawn against this remake, but I think it’s misguided. It looks like the movie’s not gonna do so hot, but unfortunately the message Hollywood gets won’t be “stop remaking movies people love.” It will be “Why did we listen to that smartypants Brazilian guy who told us ROBOCOP was about making the public comfortable with drone warfare? Next time we’ll just get some TV director and tell him what the movie’s about.” In the long run I think it will have a pretty good reputation as one of the better and riskier remakes, and oh well, they never made good sequels to the orginal, maybe we don’t want to risk the same thing happening with this one.
I’ve seen most of the online critics go from pre-release scoffing and hardline opposition to reluctantly admitting that this ROBOCOP isn’t bad. I’ll take it further. I seem to like it better than anybody, I believe it’s actually good. I liked it. YOU HEAR ME? I FUCKING LIKED IT. AND I’D DO IT AGAIN.
ROBOCOP is the best ROBOCOP since ROBOCOP.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.