Remake tackles drones, media manipulation
The 1987 film RoboCop is a strange piece of subversive 1980s ultra-violence. The 2014 remake isn’t quite as subversive—but it’s also not terrible.
Director Paul Verhoeven’s ‘87 original was the gospel of a 20th-century American Jesus. A cop who died for the sins of his city, rose again and returned to save us from criminals and corrupt businessmen.
That movie captured the fears of a generation beset by urban crime and corporate greed. Jose Padhila’s 2014 reboot addresses an updated set of cultural fears, albeit without the sharp wit of the original.
This new flick opens with TV host Pat Novak—ably played by Samuel L. Jackson—bowing his head and clearing his throat. He runs through a number of verbal exercises before the lights come up. The studio audience murmurs. Novak launches into a flamboyant and angry piece of newstainment.
This is an assertive America in the near future. U.S. forces occupy Tehran and Jackson’s Novak is about to show us just how good robots are at enforcing peace.
Iranian citizens shuffle into the streets. Robots scan them for weapons. Resistance fighters emerge with bombs strapped to their chests. They rush to die on camera. A child holding a knife gets gunned down. Jackson’s Novak cuts the video feed in the interest of national security.
This is the nightmare scenario that the real-world Human Rights Watch “Ban Killer Robots” campaign warns of, manifest in celluloid.
Novak asks the question that echoes through the movie and might as well be directed at us, the viewers. “Why is America so robo-phobic?” How is it that we’re willing to unleash armies of drones on other countries, yet unwilling to have them on our own soil?
The original RoboCop is subtle. This new RoboCop is not. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting and entertaining.
Confronted with an American public opposed to robots patrolling its own streets, the company behind the ’bots—the CEO is played by Michael Keaton—gives people a machine they can root for. A hero. A man inside a mechanical body.
He is Detroit police officer Alex Murphy, played by Joel Kinnaman. Gangsters blew up Murphy in a reprisal attack, sparing only his lungs, face, brain and one of his hands.
Back in the real world, the Department of Defense in November 2012 released a directive concerning robotic weapons. “Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force,” the directive stated.
Human beings, the Pentagon asserted, will always be part of the decision-making process behind killer robots. A person, not a machine, pulls the trigger—albeit remotely.
This new RoboCop is all about our robot anxiety.
There’s a scientist in the movie whose prostheses are perverted into weaponry. There’s a scene shot with a black and white thermal camera—the kind we associate with drone footage. A car bomb tears apart a family. The media, our leaders and our corporate heads exploit a soldier.
Jackson is the best call-back to the original. His parting monologue resonates in a way the rest of the film only aspires to. He moralizes like a Greek Chorus from Hell by way of Fox News. “Has the U.S. Senate become pro-crime?” he asks his audience, his eyes deadly serious.
Honestly, most of the movie is stock PG-13 action fare and it’s much less violent than the original. There’s social commentary, but it doesn’t really bite.
Not that I’m complaining much. Padhila and the other folks behind the new RoboCop obviously love the original. They looked at what’s going on in the world and spun our worries into a fun and reasonably smart little action movie.