Robocop vs Robocop: the inevitable comparison

SPOILER ALERT: For those who worry about such things, the following text reveals the endings of both films.

In Living in the End Times, Slavoj Zizek talks about how Hollywood’s latest remakes provide evidence of a “global ideological regression”. The most recent exemplar of this regression is Jose Padilha’s ‘reboot’ of Robocop, which jettisons the original’s satire of consumer capitalism and concerns itself mainly with the encroachment of technology on to the human body and its implications for individual identity. Gone is the arch theology of Paul Verhoeven and his allusions to the Resurrection; instead, Pedilha and debutant screenwriter Joshua Zetumer seem preoccupied with resurrecting pre-Enlightenment ideas surrounding ‘the soul’ and a quaintly liberal notion of the state as an essential defence against the worst excesses of corporations.

Robocop 2014 takes place in a future world in which automated law enforcers are commonplace in overseas war zones, but are banned on US shores amid widespread concern that a machine has no way of assessing the value of a human life. In a bid to swing public opinion in favour of robot police, their manufacturer, OmniCorp, uses a loophole in the law to put a cyborg officer on Detroit’s streets, one that can work with the efficiency of an automaton while maintaining the empathy of a human. Enlisting the help of Dr Norton, a mechanical prosthetics expert who firmly believes that the totality of human existence lies solely in the brain, the company rebuilds the critically injured Murphy with a mechanical body and a microchip. There is one devastating moment in which, in front of a mirror, Murphy is forced to watch as his robotic sections are gradually stripped away to reveal what is left of him: a head, throat, lungs and a curiously detached right hand. The shot is one of the longest in the film, its imagery the most affecting. Can this, Padilha seems to be asking, be all it is to be human, as Dr Norton insists?

It is the only instant when Robocop 2014 really voices any ambivalence over the proliferation of technology, whose efficacy is never in doubt. Indeed, it is the humans who cause all the problems, are fallible, emotional, corrupt. In the original Robocop, the crappiness of the technology created by hubristic corporations (and bought by governments) is a great running joke which remains pertinent today: one need only think of the multitude of government IT contracts which, under the management of private outsourcing companies such as Siemens, have failed to work, gone millions over budget, and been scrapped. The problem in Padilha’s film is not that the machines are prone to malfunction, but that they work too well: the film’s ‘ED-209 moment’ sees one of the droids, while on tour in US-occupied Iran, follow its programming to the letter and blast away a child in possession of a kitchen knife. Indeed, popular faith in the technology is such that Murphy’s partner, Lewis, feels confident enough in the robot’s functionality to stop an ED-209 from firing by stepping unarmed into a hail of its bullets, allowing Murphy to escape.

This utopian attitude to technology represents a break from virtually all future-set films of the 20th century (with the notable exception of the Star Trek series). People have been writing since the 1950s about technology’s potential to liberate us from labour, but this consequence of automation isn’t touched upon by Padilha. In the 1987 Robocop, police feared that OCP’s robots would replace them; the new film’s concern is only with how much more crime could be tackled with a fully automated police force. Neither is there the suggestion – as is made explicit in the earlier film – that OmniCorp is deliberately involved in creating a market for its machines by colluding with cop-killing gangsters to create more crime in the city. If it weren’t for its treatment of Murphy, Padilha’s OmniCorp could be seen as an utterly benign force, desiring only to improve the lives of US citizens through the sale and use of its technology.

With the help of the kindly Dr Norton, Murphy gradually accepts his new form, even enjoying the increased agility and skill it gives him in his laborious training regimes, in which he ducks, weaves and blasts his way through small armies of robots. Sci-fi nerds will love these elongated test sequences and the opportunities for technical exposition they afford. It is the machine part of Murphy, we are told, that is doing all the work, while signals are fed to his brain giving him the sense that he is in control – it is the “illusion of free will”. Murphy is essentially ‘acting out’ what he is programmed to do. There briefly seems some potential here to satirise the notion of ‘free choice’ in contemporary society – perhaps it is we who are the automatons? – but Padilha completely fails to follow it up.

These ‘training’ scenes are shot much like a first-person video game, in which one must blast their way through various practise levels before reaching the game scenario proper. We learn that Murphy’s dopamine levels have to be lowered to almost psychopathic quantities in order to reduce his emotional response and, therefore, his reaction time; however, once he is uploaded with information regarding his own attempted murder, his dopamine manages to restore itself and he sets out to take revenge on those that would have him killed and to restore his relationship with his wife and son.

In an attempt at fidelity to the spirit of the 1987 film – and, perhaps, to try and offset the new film’s conservative moralism – Robocop 2014 is peppered with TV appearances of Samuel L. Jackson as a Fox News-esque, right-wing shock jock, who regularly bemoans the Senate’s reluctance to legalize robot police and who is almost definitely in the pay of OmniCorp. The scenes are actually responsible for the movie’s funniest moment, at the very beginning of the film, when the MGM lion’s familiar roar is replaced with Jackson’s vocal warm-up exercises. It is telling that this is the most subversive gesture in the whole film. Otherwise, these TV sequences are sluggishly paced, their attempts to satirise the media heavy-handed. It is no wonder that the public remain opposed to OmniCorp’s plans if this is the best PR it can manage.

In another hollow echo of Verhoeven’s film, the action is ostensibly set in Detroit, but could in actuality be situated anywhere. There is no hint here of the economic devastation the city has been subject to, or of the original’s anarchic, crime-ridden streets. With the exception of its corrupt police detectives, the Detroit of 2028 seems like a disappointingly pleasant place to live.

It is indicative of how far to the right popular discourse has moved over the past 25 years that, while Robocop could have been considered in 1987 as reactionary and problematic, it now seems like an almost radical critique of neoliberalism – especially when compared with its 2014 reboot. Further evidence of our “ideological regression” is provided by the hero of Robocop 2014: instead of Peter Weller’s naive and (relatively) slight ‘good, honest cop’, Joel Kinnaman plays the new film’s Murphy as a typically hard-ass detective, a braying, well-built jock who enjoys a banter-fuelled bromance with his now male partner, Lewis. Their ‘updated’ police scenes are imbued with a disingenuous grittiness, all moody intensity and shaky handheld camerawork (Homicide first reached TV screens over 20 years ago, by the way), while Murphy’s family scenes are coloured with an unexplored tension between him and his wife which feels more like an effort to meet the genre conventions of TV cop dramas than to provide the characters with depth. The whole thing is scored with the kind of tense, urgent rhythms familiar to anyone who has watched a TV police procedural or the ‘Ten O’clock News’ headlines during the last ten years – no room for Basil Poledouris’ sweeping pathos here.

Murphy’s family is an ever-present in Robocop 2014: it is his wife who signs the release forms, who first casts doubt on the OmniCorp project and who, by speaking out against it, necessitates her own rescue by her husband. The family is present in Verhoeven’s film too, though only as an absence: they appear as a spectre, as cracks in Murphy’s fractured memory as he explores their former home. “I can feel them,” Murphy tells Lewis, “but I can’t remember them.” The grief which hangs over Robocop is not that of a wife grieving over the loss of her husband’s physical powers, but of a man who has lost his former life and, therefore, his identity. His idealized bourgeois existence, with a loving family and a beautiful suburban home, has become available to him only through snatches of semi-fantasised recollection, ungraspable, finite, like the memory of a dream.

There is a relentless individualism in the remake which feels cynically apt for the age. Murphy’s sole concern on returning to duty is to avenge his attempted murder. He is not, like Peter Weller’s Murphy, hamstrung by any sense of duty – we never see him tackle any other crimes. Such is the film’s belief in the strength of the individual that Kinnaman is rarely seen accepting help from anyone. Even in the film’s final showdown between him and Michael Keaton’s OmniCorp boss, he requires no deus ex machina to enable him to bypass the programming that prevents him from attacking a company employee. Instead, he merely overcomes it through sheer force of will, shakily raising his gun and pulling the trigger with his last ounce of strength. Narratively, it’s a cop out; ideologically, it is a continuation of the persistent individualist notion that “anyone can do it” – anyone can get the career they want, the products they dream of, their object of desire, if they only work hard and want it enough – a wretchedly myopic philosophy which refuses to take into account an individual’s social or material privileges, serving to blind people to their socio-political circumstances, convincing them that when they (inevitably) do not get what they want it is their fault. This individualism is expanded into the police workplace, which is characterised by petty rivalries between competing detectives, in contrast with the original’s locker room discussions of industrial action. The return of Murphy as Robocop is not seen as the encroachment of OmniCorp’s interests onto police business, but merely as an individual threat to certain officers’ illicit activities.

Robocop’s conclusion sees Murphy carve out a new identity for himself, reconciling his former, ‘human’ self with his law enforcement programming. In contrast, Robocop 2014’s Murphy only achieves such reconciliation by reconstituting the family unit (albeit under the watchful eye of the military). While some contemporary leftist commentators decried the original film’s ending for essentially letting the corporate system off the hook (Murphy locates his new identity as an agent for what are ultimately OCP’s ends), it is doubtful that they’d consider the new film’s conservative return to the traditional nuclear family – under the surveillance of a state military machine – a desirable alternative.

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