'Robocop' revisited

With all the talk of militarized police flying around these days, and the name of Robocop frequently invoked (or his image dragged into Photoshop tomfoolery) in criticism of the police response to the Ferguson riots, this seemed like a good time to catch up with the “Robocop” remake on DVD.  Alas, it proved a significant disappointment, although it made an interesting attempt to incorporate Surveillance State anxiety into the venerable Eighties action film.

The updated look of Robocop and various bits of futuristic hardware is fine, and it was an interesting notion to make him fast instead of the plodding tank he was in the original, but unfortunately those tech upgrades came at the expense of personality.  One innovation in the new Robocop design is that his helmet opens up when he’s not in combat, which gives actor Joel Kinnaman more of his face to use during non-action scenes than Peter Weller had, but Kinnaman was merely serviceable in the part, while Weller worked wonders.  There’s still only one Robocop, and it’s Peter Weller in a knockout.  Likewise, the utterly forgettable villains have nothing on the scenery-chewing buffet provided by the glorious lineup of Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Dan O’Herlihy, and Kurtwood Smith from 1987.  Even the malfunctioning killbot ED-209 is upgraded into a more powerful fighting machine but completely stripped of its personality.

Most grievously, the 2014 version lacks the biting satirical edge and subversive humor that made the original film so memorable.  Paul Verhoeven’s crazy Eighties and Nineties sci-fi films are so mischievous that they tend to subvert themselves.  Is “Starship Troopers” a scathing indictment of authoritarianism, or an endorsement of it?  Is “Robocop” an ahead-of-its-time slam at militarized police and the merger of corporations with government… or is it saying an invincible cop with a license to kill is the only thing that can clean up Detroit, provided the cop is a good man under all the hardware?

The new “Robocop” takes itself far too seriously, having no fun with its futuristic setting beyond extremely annoying interludes with Samuel Jackson bellowing at the audience as some sort of Bill O’Reilly-style talk show host – a far cry from the brutally funny media interludes in Verhoeven’s film.  (The closest thing the 2014 movie gets to a real laugh is when a famous line from one of the original film’s commercials is dropped by one of the weaksauce villains.)  

There’s supposed to be a serious rumination about the Digital Panopticon and drone warfare here, as the new Robocop’s primary ability is not his physical destructive power – he’s formidable, but it’s swiftly established that equally dangerous robots previously existed, and the human thugs have a real chance to take him out during firefights.  Instead, it’s his cybernetic link with cameras and computer databases, his ability to instantly identify criminals just by looking at them, and access a huge amount of surveillance data in real-time.  Upon his debut to the public, Robocop instantly notices that one of the several hundred people in the crowd is a wanted felon and takes the guy down on the spot.

The movie never really knows what to do with this quandary, despite having a number of the characters discuss it at length.  It won’t quite commit to the idea that putting a good man in charge of all that power is the right way to go, the way Verhoeven’s film leaves us comfortable with the idea of Alex Murphy, Army of One, as the best answer to off-the-rails crime.  Oddly enough, the crime problem in the new film isn’t depicted as being all that serious, not the way Verhoeven’s Old Detroit was an crime-riddled hellscape where cops were getting killed left and right.  The big conflict is supposedly the public’s resistance to the idea of robot police, which an ambitious corporate CEO (played by Michael Keaton) decides to address by fusing man and machine.  But is that really enough to make people comfortable with an omniscient police officer who can move like lightning?  Even if they come to see Murphy as a hero, would that really break down their resistance to automated police, or even more super-powered cyborg cops?

The new movie really chickens out by turning Keaton’s character inexplicably evil in the last act, even though he’s previously portrayed as an ambitious magnate with some solid points about the virtues of robotic military and police.  It’s like the writers decided to simply discard Keaton’s viewpoint because they weren’t sure how to resolve it, and it was easier to wrap things up by having him take some hostages so Robocop could shoot him.  A better script might have made the issues of surveillance and automation more intriguing, because frankly some of Robocop’s abilities in those areas are not terribly far-fetched; a police officer wearing some advanced version of Google Glass might be able to do much of what Robocop does in a few years.  

Dystopian science fiction often has trouble resolving the paradox of super law enforcement: if the police had fantastic superhuman abilities and tough rules of engagement (right up to Judge Dredd’s ability to pronounce sentence and execute miscreants on the spot) then wouldn’t there be less of the obvious, venal types of street crime?  The new Robocop seems to agree with that premise, even more than the original film did, because we’re given much feedback about how our hero reduces crime (and inter-departmental corruption) while winning the hearts of the people.  The film can’t quite find a way to make its rumination on the Surveillance State either challenging or satirically entertaining.  

But in a throwaway line of dialogue, it swerves into an issue that would gain resonance much later in the year.  Originally the new Robocop looks much like the old one, with a silvery metal finish, but the Keaton character instructs his designers to “make him look more… tactical,” so he gets painted an ominous shade of black.  There’s quite a bit of controversy over the deliberate decision to make law enforcement officers look more “tactical” these days.


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