RoboCop

February 22, 2014
Joel Kinnaman in 'RoboCop' 2014
Joel Kinnaman in 'RoboCop' 2014

RoboCop redux generates seriously diminished expectations. How could one expect anything but a travesty of Paul Verhoeven’s original RoboCop of 1987? The big budget remake of Verhoeven’s Total Recall was possibly the most execrable Hollywood production of 2012, so one could only brace for the worst.

It is with relief and surprise that I can report the new RoboCop confounds these portents of doom. The appeal of the original film resided in its unique combination of action, black comedy and big ideas. It was also a sci-fi western, with a cyborg taking on the role of the lone avenger. The reboot, by Brazilian director, José Padilha, shows an acute understanding of its predecessor, while catering to the need to update the story for the digital age.

Never-ending advances in computer technology have given directors the lazy option of updating a classic film by simply adding more sophisticated graphics and special effects. The sweeping panoramas, laser beam shoot-outs and things exploding are usually included at the expense of such trifling features as plot, characterisation and dialogue.

Padilha has not succumbed entirely to the CGI virus. Although the special effects are predictably spectacular, and the motorbike looks like it was stolen from the set of the last Batman movie, this RoboCop allows ample scope for satire and social critique. Remarkably, the new incarnation is less gorey and sadistic than the original. Where Verhoeven’s hero was literally shot to pieces by psychopathic hoodlums today’s version is dispatched by a car bomb.

The close affinities between big business and crime are given the same attention in the remake but now there is a discreet distance between the two parties. In Padilha’s world, OmniCorp jostles for political advantage, supported by the pronouncements of right-wing TV pundits who agitate on behalf of law and order.

This vision of the future may already be found on Foxtel, and indeed, on local talk-back radio. In the film, the media demagogue, Pat Novak, is played by Samuel L. Jackson, who keeps a straight face as he praises the new robot peace-keepers being used in Iran and celebrates America’s global supremacy.

The only commercial hiccup is that robots have no emotions and therefore no capacity for compromise or compassion. This is fine for foreign missions, but to sell its technology to the United States, OmniCorp knows it must find a way of giving a human face to a machine. The solution, pioneered by hardheaded CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and technical genius, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), is to get a critically injured policeman and put him inside a mechanical body – saving his life and creating a new weapon against crime.

Detroit cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), is given this dubious honour after barely surving an assassination attempt by a gang of crooks. Verhoeven’s hero came back from the dead, like Jesus, but the new version clings to the tiniest spark of life. The only salvageable bits of Alex are the heart, lungs, brain, and a bit of one arm.

This is a difficult arrangement for Alex’s wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), who is given a new prominence in the remake. It is nightmarish for Alex, who returns to the world of the living in full consciousness of his new cyborg identity. In the Verhoeven film Alex only began to recover his humanity after a series of jolts to his memory. The new Alex has his dopamine levels rejigged to tone down his empathies and improve his responses as a crime-fighting machine.

This adds a level of human drama to a story that is cartoonish by its very nature. The film sacrifices some of the riotous comedy of the original, but invites a closer focus on the philosophical underpinnings of the story. These are the same issues raised by the tale of Frankenstein: the ethical limits of science and the dangers of playing God, along with the more profound question of what it means to be human.

The new RoboCop raises equally compelling questions about the evolving relationships between government, big business and the media. Like all good science fiction it is only a slight exaggeration of the world we already inhabit. The Americans are already unleashing drones on their enemies, albeit in the form of planes not monster robots. The call for law and order is already impinging on privacy and personal freedom. It’s ironic that it takes first a Dutchman and then a Brazilian to create an American action film that portrays the home of the brave and land of the free as a menace to civilisation.

RoboCop
USA, rated M
117 mins
Directed by José Padilha; screenplay by Edward Neumeier, Nick Schenk, James Vanderbilt, Michael Miner, Joshua Zeturner; starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Samuel L. Jackson

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22 February, 2014.