Friday, 14 February 2014

RoboCop: Old VS New

Note: This review and analysis was written in response to Bob "MovieBob" Chipman's review of the recent RoboCop remake. To be blunt, it pissed me right off. Robocop (2014) is hardly a cinematic masterpiece, but it's far from the steaming dump that he makes it out to be. While it's not the first time I've disagreed with one of MovieBob's reviews, he is one of my favored reviewers because his views are often presented in a reasonable tone with sensible observations and evidence for support. In the months leading up to this movie's release, he's made no secret of his distaste for it, owing largely to his love of the original and the concern that a remake would fail to live up to it's legacy. Even small cosmetic changes like the color of RoboCop's armor earned his scorn. So when his review finally drops and he makes the claim that the movie is "devoid of a single redeeming feature", I felt compelled to respond. He's not normally this closed-minded, and I was disappointed that he seemed incapable of addressing the movie on its own without comparison to the original. Thus, I decided to drop to that level and actually take the time to compare the two works.


When you think about RoboCop, what comes to mind? For many, it’s an easy question. Ultra-violence and social commentary wrapped up in a layer of satire. It’s a very 80s movie, full of violent crime and a war on drugs, with an eye on corporate greed and contemporary pop culture. From that perspective, it seems an odd choice to reboot the franchise, since an 80s RoboCop does not fit in the world of 2014. The only way a reboot could work would be to employ a fundamental overhaul to fit the modern climate. And this is where we run into the unwinnable scenario as far as fans of the original film are concerned. If you maintain the themes and commentary of the original, it won’t connect with a new audience because we’re close to thirty years out from the original and societal issues have changed. If you overhaul it, fans will accuse you of being unfaithful to the source material, even going as far as to accuse your work of “artistic vandalism”.
So how different is the original from the reboot? Well, let’s break the two movies down quickly. Spoiler warnings are in effect, sorry.

Robocop (1987)
Alex Murphy is a new transfer to the Detroit Police Department. It’s his first day as a Detroit cop, and he’s partnered with Anne Lewis, a no-nonsense officer who makes her entrance by brutally taking down a violent criminal. Murphy is given some brief characterization through interaction with Lewis, twirling his pistol and talking about his son. This comes to a swift end when, while intercepting a gang of bank robbers, Murphy is violently shot to death. Resurrection comes in the form of OCP, a mega-corporation with designs on taking control of Detroit, tearing down the slums and rebuilding anew as Delta City.
Murphy becomes RoboCop, a combat cyborg controlled by an operating system that utilizes Murphy’s years of experience as an officer. Without fear or hesitation, RoboCop begins to have an enormous impact on the city’s crime, but soon suffers debilitating software glitches as a result of his human emotions and memories concerning his violent death. He tracks down those criminals responsible, ultimately discovering the criminal activities of one of OCP’s senior executives, Dick Jones. Attempting to arrest Jones reveals a hidden directive in his programming which serves to prevent RoboCop from performing his duty.
RoboCop, now considered a threat to public safety, escapes destruction at the hands of OCP and the police with the help of Lewis, whose personal relationship with Murphy inspired RoboCop’s crisis of identity as his human personality conflicts with his programming. RoboCop removes his armored mask, revealing the skin of his human face stapled onto a mechanical skull. A confrontation with the criminals ensues where RoboCop violently dispatches all of them, despite a conflict earlier in the film where his prime directives prohibited excessive force. He then proceeds to publicly confront Jones, despite his programming block. In a stroke of luck, OCP’s chief executive fires Jones, eliminating the block and allowing RoboCop to kill Jones. As the final line of the movie illustrates, RoboCop as a character has now given way to allow Murphy to resurface.

Robocop (2014)
Alex Murphy is a veteran officer with the Detroit Police Department. He and his partner Jack Lewis are investigating a local crime lord who traffics stolen police and military weaponry. Lewis is shot and injured during a bust gone wrong and Murphy is targeted at his home, nearly killed by a car bomb in front of his wife and son. OmniCorp, a corporation specializing in robotics, seeks to influence public opinion on the use of drones by providing a product that would gain public support on the eve of a major Senate vote regarding a ban on stateside drone usage. Murphy’s body, with the consent of his wife, is grafted into the RoboCop suit which sustains his remaining organic parts and enables greater combat capability. Murphy initially refuses the idea and requests to be allowed to die, but insistence from the project’s lead scientist Dr. Norton. Conflicts arise between Murphy’s personality and the suit’s programming, necessitating the use of drugs and augmentation to make Murphy more compatible, suppressing his emotions as a result.
Interaction with his wife and son inspire Murphy to investigate his own murder. His mind begins to adapt to the changes inflicted by Norton, restoring his personality. He tracks down and kills the crime lord responsible, uncovering the corruption of two fellow officers and his own police chief. Murphy is deactivated by OmniCorp on the orders of its CEO, Raymond Sellars. As news of police corruption being exposed by RoboCop becomes public, the Senate vote approves the use of drones. Sellars, fearful of the public discovering his company’s tampering with Murphy’s mind illegally, orders that Murphy be killed. Norton disobeys the order and reactivates Murphy, who pursues Sellars for his crimes with the aid of his partner Lewis and the rest of the Detroit Police. Murphy encounters Sellars, but a programming block prevents him from apprehending or harming specific VIPs, including Sellars. As Sellars threatens to kill Murphy’s family, Murphy mentally overcomes the block and kills Sellars. In the aftermath of the scandal, Norton testifies before the Senate regarding his actions, inspiring a Presidental veto of the drone act. The film closes as Murphy and his family reunite.


My aim is to illustrate just how different the two movies deal with the core concept of rebuilding a man as a machine. To use a simple analogy: The original RoboCop is about Batman. The remake is about Bruce Wayne. Throughout most of the original film, RoboCop is not a character in his own right. He is a conceptual force of justice. The movie is about a machine that learns to be human, but ultimately is not. It may identify as Murphy, but with no family and only one friend (who he’d known for less than a day), there is nothing to ground this character. It’s goals are explicitly outlined to us with three prime directives. Serve the Public Trust, Protect the Innocent, Uphold the Law. These are unbreakable rules of his programming. We don’t root for RoboCop because we want to see his personal victory, we want to see law and order triumph over crime and corruption. He’s a jumbo-sized action figure, complete with pull-string catch phrases. As a work of satire, that’s perfectly acceptable. It’s often necessary to paint with a broad brush when you’re making statements about major topics. When you think about RoboCop, the original film, you don’t just picture the symbolic armor and one-liners. You see the grime and graffiti, the neon dance clubs and mountains of cocaine, the slimy corporate suits and the gunslinging cowboy hero cleaning up the city. The more you focus on the character, the more you blur the world around them.
The rebooted RoboCop is the story of a devoted family man and police officer who suffers a severe injury and struggles to retain his humanity against the ever-increasing influence of his mechanical augmentations. The socio-political atmosphere is less detailed than it was in the original, but that is because the focus is on the character and not the world he inhabits. We're not living in the 80s anymore. Drone warfare is a more relevant social issue than drug trafficking these days, and Murphy's story is informed by that issue, not the other way around. It is made very clear that Murphy is a crucial part of the RoboCop persona, as it is his conscience and humanity that the people rally around, rather than his shiny armor or huge guns. Some may deride the clich├ęd use of the “power of the human soul” as the reason behind Murphy’s programming override, but this only serves to illustrate the difference between the two RoboCops. The original Robo is a machine with human parts. The new Robo is a human with machine parts. Ultimately, the mind controls the body, and Murphy’s ability to morally tell right from wrong was the very reason he was chosen for the project. This work, far more than the original, is informed by concepts of trans-humanism. See Deus Ex, Terminator, I Robot, Almost Human, etc. In the original, it’s never fully determined whether the entity of RoboCop is truly Alex Murphy, or a machine that believes it is Murphy. In this reboot, it’s made clear that Murphy’s brain and heart are in the suit, and it’s the influence of drugs and programming that make him think he’s a machine.


So, the question has been posed as to whether or not Robocop (2014) is a faithful remake of the original. I would have to say no. But in my opinion, it simply functions as the other side of the same coin. It’s not fair to compare the two movies because, with the exception of the core premise, they are completely different movies. Going back to the Batman analogy, there are different ways to interpret the character and they’re all equally valid, if wildly diverse. Is Christian Bale a better Batman than Adam West? It depends on what you want from the character. If you want your RoboCop to be a force of pure justice who mows down gang members with a machine pistol and blows up drug labs, you have a right to that desire. For me, I have a vivid memory of a tearful Joel Kinnaman staring at the scraps of flesh that used to be his body, begging for the right to die.

"'ve lost some weight."
Contrasting that with ED-209’s pig squealing tantrum from the original film, I knew at that moment that this was a very different movie, and a very different RoboCop, and I respect this one far more than the action figure that was the original. But of course, that’s my opinion. I can’t go as far as to say that either movie is superior because they’re playing different games. There’s merit in both works, but only if you accept them as they are, and not in relation to each other.

I will never be able to take this seriously.

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