For many, myself included, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is something of a sacred text in the world of 80s action and intelligent science-fiction cinema. It’s one of those films I saw way too young, and as a result, the violence had a stronger impact on me than almost any other film I remember watching. The scene in which a malfunctioning ED-209 tears into junior executive Kinney (Kevin Page) almost made 11-year-old me vomit, while Kurtwood Smith’s crime lord Clarence Boddicker displayed a level of gleeful sadism I’d never encountered before.
Years and countless rewatches later, RoboCop is still incredibly violent, not to mention prescient in its moral dilemmas and voyeuristic media, but it revealed itself to be incredibly funny and satirical in a way I hadn’t quite picked up on at first. Renegade Dutchman Paul Verhoeven created a unique cocktail of humour, violence, spec-tech fiction and high caliber action, showcasing state-of-the-art special effects against a backdrop of brutalist/industrial urban decay (that strangely foreshadows Tim Burton’s Batman). RoboCop was a cinematic enigma, which a couple of poor sequels and an aborted TV show successfully proved could not be repeated.
Understandably, the prospect of a remake, at a time when nothing seems sacred or untouchable any more, was met with emotions ranging from hesitation to skepticism, to outright rage. Many people still struggle with the notion that “remake” does not mean “replace” and that nothing, short of Verhoeven going all George Lucas on his earlier triumphs, will ever change the fact that RoboCop exists and is brilliant. That said, many of the themes in the film are still relevant, but have evolved, progressed and been further exacerbated in the 25-odd years since that film came out, and there is a valid argument for addressing them again. The RoboCop character remains an excellent tool with which to do that – in much the same way Mary Shelley used Frankenstein to speculate on the repercussions of science eclipsing religion in a faith-based society.
In this new iteration, the USA hasn’t privatised the police force, but weapons developer Omnicorp is looking to bring its successful fleet of surveillance drones and peace-keeping robots home from patroling the suburbs of Tehran to make the streets of America safe. Legislation is in place preventing them from doing so, but were CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) to give the public a hero they could get behind, Omnicorp could move in.
Enter Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), recently blown to smithereens in a car bomb by a gangster he was investigating. By striking a deal with prosthetics specialist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Sellars brings the world’s first cyborg law enforcer to market, much to the emotional dismay of Murphy’s wife and son. Media scrutiny comes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s political commentator Pat Novak, whose TV talk show skews the facts however necessary to fuel his anti-government, pro-military agenda, and a volatile stage is set for Murphy’s return to active duty.
Brazilian director Jose Padilha, whose keen eye for politically-laced action is evident in both his Elite Squad films, keeps the major themes of the original front and centre, but also explores other areas that were largely ignored by Verhoeven. Specifically, Padilha replaces Miguel Ferrer’s sleazy, ambitious executive Bob Morton with Gary Oldman’s far more sympathetic, ethically challenged Dennett Norton. Persuaded by the promise of unlimited funds to explore new technologies and help the injured back on their (robotic) feet, Norton’s goals are far more worthy, even if his Faustian pact with Sellars proves less than honourable.
The other notable difference, also for the better, is the decision to keep Murphy’s family in the picture. In Verhoeven’s film, his wife and son are seen only briefly – and in flashback – leaving Murphy with only his cop partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) as a reminder of who he once was. Here, Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son David stand by their man, demanding answers, transparency and that this machine retains its dying embers of humanity, despite what Omnicorp might wish in order to sell their product to the robot-fearing public.
For the most part, the results are successful. The new RoboCop design may have whispers of Christian Bale’s bat suit to it but feels more authentic and tangible than Peter Weller’s silver get-up from 1987. There are some nice gags at the expense of China, a strong supporting cast around relative newcomer, Swede Joel Kinnaman, and a grounded tone to the film that helps sell the more sci-fi heavy elements of the plot with incredible ease.
There is no denying that this RoboCop is more polished and palatable than its predecessor. The film is almost entirely bloodless, especially when compared to its splatterfest namesake. In addition, the overhanging air of sleaze in Verhoeven’s version is absent, as is the sadistic nature of the villainy at play. Here, the bad guys are corporate criminals motivated by greed, money and power rather than psychotic sociopaths driven by a malevolent desire to create mischief and mayhem.
What is most appreciated in Jose Padilha’s film is that it never feels obsessed with paying fan service to its predecessor. While there are of course moments that evoke the earlier film – it is a remake after all – RoboCop never feels bound by any obligation to replay iconic scenes or regurgitate classic lines of dialogue. Instead, it feels like an honest attempt to bring the same ideas and questions into the 21st Century and address them from a new perspective. Padilha’s film will never overshadow or replace Verhoeven’s masterpiece, but it more than justifies its existence as a natural continuation of the same debate.