For all the largely justified despondency generated by the endless cycle of unwanted sequels and unnecessary remakes, few have generated as much vitriol as the announcement that Paul Verhoeven’s violent depiction of the future police force of Detroit was to be brought into the 21st century, the majority of the unreasoned commentary regarding the original as a sacred cow which it would be heresy to update, ignoring that the story of Alex Murphy, a police officer grievously injured in the line of duty and reborn as RoboCop, is itself a story of reinvention.
While Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay sticks closely to the outline of Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s original, it is in the details where the changes have been made, developing the narrative and changing the tone, and therein lies the strength. Recognising that it would be foolish to attempt a slavish remake, this is in fact a unique film with a distinct voice all its own which cannot be compared directly with Verhoeven’s 1987 version.
Though an established director in his homeland of the Netherlands, RoboCop was only Verhoeven’s second film to be made in English, and similarly, while he has experience helming both documentaries and features in his native Brazil, this new vision of RoboCop is the first film of José Padilha to be filmed principally in English, and it is certainly a point of interest that while both versions tackle different aspects of the failings of and the increasing disillusionment in the supposed supremacy of American capitalism, neither director grew up within the borders of that country.
Set again within the industrial heart of Detroit, Padilha boldly chooses to wrong foot audience expectation even before the studio logo has faded, the roar of the MGM lion subverted as the film segues into the first of many tirades courtesy of Pat Novak, host of the extreme right wing television show The Novak Element. Featuring a satellite link to Tehran to demonstrate “American machines promoting peace abroad,” when a suicide bomb attack is foiled by the presence of a squad of ED-209 robots live on camera, Novak demands to know why the same enforcement is prohibited on the streets of America.
The reason is the Dreyfuss Act, and Raymond Sellars, CEO of OmniCorp, creator of the ED-209s, is determined to find a way to circumvent the legislation, allowing his company to tap into the vast revenue stream of homeland police enforcement. With automated drones forbidden, Sellars issues a demand that his researchers create a product which can put an acceptable face on robotics to allay the fears of congress and be sold to the public, to put a man in the machine .
That man is Alex Murphy, critically injured by a car bomb, his wife Clara signing the consent forms for his transformation into a state of the art cyborg on the assurance that it is the only way he can survive. After a difficult transition, Murphy is unveiled at a press conference where, uploaded with a full database of unsolved crimes and pending warrants, he makes an arrest on camera within sixty seconds. The marketing victory is won; the public love RoboCop, but as Murphy resumes his duties, a one man army against organised crime, both Sellars and Murphy’s own colleagues become concerned as he begins investigating the circumstances of his own attempted murder.
With production values vastly superior to Verhoeven’s beloved but primitive classic, this isn’t a criticism but an acknowledgement of the limitations of the time that was produced which have since been sidestepped by the advent of digital effects techniques and the significantly increased budget; $13 million in 1987 would equate to $27 million today, while the remake actually cost another $100 million on top of that.
Similarly, the strictly linear plot has been given greater depth, recognising the increased sophistication expected by audiences, and it is in this genuine effort to expand the characters and their relationships that the film proves that it is not a cheap effort to cash in on brand recognition. Unlike in 1987, where Murphy’s family were only seen in flashback as his fragmented memories returned, here Clara and their son David are present as part of his life, struggling to cope and to reconnect with what remains of the Alex they knew.
Joel Kinnaman is granted more emotional latitude than Peter Weller was given, and his pain, anger, confusion and determination carry the film. Other key roles are filled by Michael Keaton as Sellars, Gary Oldman as Dennett Norton, the physician who developed the cybernetic prostheses on the strict agreement they not be used for military applications, Jackie Earle Haley as military tactician Rick Mattox, Abbie Cornish as Clara and Samuel L Jackson as Novak, and the irony of using a black man to voice the right wing agenda, selling fear to pass legislation which will permit the militarisation of the streets, is not lost.
Where Verhoeven’s style embraced outrageous satire, Padilha’s is a more sombre affair, and that key difference should not be taken in any way to be synonymous with inferior. In the original, the black hats were unambiguous in their moustache twirling villainy, but here few characters are so monochromatically drawn. As entertaining as they were for their time, gone are the pantomime antics of Clarence Boddicker and his gang, their vile acts graphically displayed to justify their equally grotesque ends. With the exception of one scene where Keaton forgets he is no longer playing Beetlejuice, the film is played unflinchingly straight, never winking at the camera even when favourite lines are delivered in unexpected new contexts.
Whereas the vigour of the original left it open to ridicule, by denying the easy laugh this restraint actually strengthens the film, drawing attention to the questions it asks about the commercialisation of law enforcement, the price of business where profit is placed about people, the ethics of big businesses who source labour in the far east to reduce costs and increase deniability, the drumbeating of the media pontificators who shout loudest then deny their opposition a voice, presenting biased opinion as unquestionable truth.
This is not to say that the film is without humour, only that it comes from the unexpected source of the soundtrack, Murphy’s training being soundtracked first by the Tin Man’s If I Only Had a Heart<
/em> from The Wizard of Oz then the incongruous yodelling of Hocus Pocus by Focus, to say nothing of the unexpected sight of the profanity of Samuel L Jackson, of all performers, being curtailed by the restrictions of the 12A certificate the film carries.
A principal cause of concern among fans of the gore splattered original was the studio’s decision that the remake should be accessible to a wider audience, yet where Verhoeven relished the bloody results, paying strict attention to the wording of the guidelines means Padilha is not forced to downplay the gunfire and destruction by deftly avoiding the key triggers in the aftermath which draw censorious attention.
Regrettably, the other notable absences beyond multiple dismembered limbs are the unacceptable omissions from the top billed crew; Basil Poledouris is not listed alongside Pedro Bromfman for his RoboCop theme, nor is Rob Bottin credited for the design of the original costume, though both contributions are featured prominently throughout the film and they deserve recognition equal to their modern counterparts.
RoboCop is now on general release and in IMAX
For our overview of the career of Paul Verhoeven, including RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, follow the link