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By Patrick Kirkland · February 15, 2014
The year is 2028, and the world’s leader in robot technology, OmniCorp, is hell-bent on making gang-ridden Detroit safe by creating the ultimate cop: half man, half-machine.
Much has been said about the remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 action flick, and the Rotten Tomatoes consensus being “while it’s far better than it could have been, [the remake] fails to offer significant improvement over the original. “
And it’s true. As TheScriptLab’s Brock Wilbur correctly acknowledges in his review, if you’re looking for an old-fashioned action cop movie, you’ll find it here. But whereas the Reagan-era satirical comedy and brutal violence that Verhoeven’s film developed made the original so much fun, it’s stripped away by an updated script with a classical arc, which means the Padilha’s version is not just a reboot, but an entirely different film.
“Maybe what we need here is a fresh perspective.”
The idea to reboot Robocop started with Padilha himself. During a meeting at MGM to discuss his next project, the Elite Squad director saw a poster of the 1987 film on the wall and said, “That’s the movie I want to make.” He pitched his perspective, the film was green-lit, and the rest is history.
That perspective is simple in concept – that the world that takes place in the film was already reality.
“Back in the 80s, the idea of a half-man, half-robot could only take place in the far future. But it’s actually happening now,” says Padilha. “From prosthetics to drones to self-driving cars, this idea is becoming part of everybody’s life.”
Everything from the Wall Street Journal to Grey’s Anatomy backs up Padilha’s argument. Robotic hands are being built for people with lost limbs. An entire character arc of Homeland revolved around an unmanned drone destroying a school.
“It was imperative that the  movie was grounded,” says producer Eric Newman. “It had to feel authentic and believable.”
“We had this idea for a high-powered Taser gun – and it turns out that it’s being developed,” says Production Designer Martin Whist. But this, I believe, is part of the problem. Its truth takes away from the science fiction.
In 1987, the ED-209 was a mean, big, bad machine – and unfortunately for Mr. Kinney, may he rest in pieces – had a few “glitches.” Why? Because the technology was still a work in progress. In 2014, the ED-209 is barely an afterthought. It’s use as the instigator to build Robocop in the first place is simplified to an opening scene in the Middle East that pushes the idea that a “drone can’t reason.” As a way in, it’s interesting. As a predecessor to the ballad of the ED-209 and Mr. Kinney’s chest, it’s disappointing.
The other problem that lies with this perspective is that while it’s fresh for Robocop, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in almost every Nolan film.
The Gray Taurus is swapped for a sleek black bike. The blue-gray suit is briefly seen as a callback to the original, but it’s not long before we switch to a glossy black. And the way Robocop switches back and forth between security cameras in his head still pales in comparison to the security camera network Batman built to find the Joker in The Dark Knight.
“Lose the arm.”
Greed must have been in Hollywood’s drinking water in 1987. It thematically helmed The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon, Space Balls, Wall Street’s “Greed is good,” and finally, Robocop, with the ultimate cock fight between Dick Jones and Bob Morton – greedy businessmen who are out for nothing but profit, no matter the cost.
When Jones’s ED-209 blows Mr. Kinney into an architectural model of Delta City, it’s Morton who steps up and takes control. Diabolical, ruthless Morton. Diabolical, ruthless Jones. Really, there’s a body dripping blood five feet away when two business men are comparing sizes in front of their boss. In this world, there’s good, there’s bad, and then there’s really super-evil.
Even after Murphy is transformed, one of his doctors tells Morton, “We were able to save the left arm,” to which his creator replies, “I thought we agreed on total body prosthesis. Now lose the arm.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Robocop memorably saves a woman from being raped by shooting under her dress into the would-be rapist’s crotch. He’s not just good, but he’s good with a sense of a humor. There is no middle of the road between characters. It’s because of these opposite ends of the spectrum that we know exactly who the bad guys are, and we know exactly how we feel when they ultimately get what’s coming to them.
In contrast, the 2014 film acknowledges that there is a middle of the road. The script is an updated script, where the current classical story involves characters alternating good and bad decisions to help them finally land in the middle. The ultimate baddy, played by Michael Keaton, has not only created OmniCorp, the weapon-building billion dollar company, but he’s also OmniCorp, the company which builds a robotic hand that ultimately allows an injured classical guitarist to play again.
And perhaps this is no more evident than in Robocop himself. Whereas Peter Weller’s character is first a man, then a robot, then a man again, Joel Kinnaman’s version is a first a man, then a man with a robotic body, then a body, then a man again. The present-day character arc is much more in line with the protagonist struggles 2014 audiences are used to following. His family is an integral part of the current story, whereas Murphy’s wife and kid were a distant memory in 1987’s brain. All of these updates to the original script have a direct response to the reaction of the film. Present-day audiences will definitely root for Robocop, but not so much because he’s the good guy in a world full of greed, but because he’s the titular character. And when the final life is taken, you’re left with the question of whether or not the bullet was really necessary, instead of settling for a strongly worded conversation.
“Dick, you’re fired!”
At the very end of the 1987 film, the above lines are delivered, Robocop fires, and (25- year old spoiler alert) the bloody body of Dick Jones falls 80-stories to his death. At which point, corporate-worker bee Jesse Cox stands to his feet and brilliantly flashes a toothy smile and a pointed thumbs up. It’s a funny moment, and it’s one of the last in the film.
Padilha’s version instead plays for emotion – that all important moment where the good guy wins out, the man gets his family and his old life back, and hopefully, everyone can begin to heal… at least until Robocop 2 hits theaters. It’s reminiscent of most current, plot heavy action films. Bruce Wayne finally gets Batman out of his system and can begin to heal as a man. Superman comes to terms – after destroying millions of dollars of infrastructure – with being the Man of Steel and the cost that comes with it. Spiderman understands that he will never have a normal life, because he will always be needed, and begins the process of healing in his new, unified world. Of course, the unspoken issue of Robocop beginning to heal is that his robotic form, as long as its charged, will never die, and he will never be able to experience the sense of touch again, and I’m left to wonder what is the point of holding his wife’s hand again if all she feels is Kevlar and all he feels is pressure.
However, it’s bookended with diatribes from anchor Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), a modern-day 24-hours new style commentator, described by Kinnaman as “Rush Sharpton. He’s very opinionated, very pro-robotics and pro-OmniCorp.” They’re meant to be the comedy relief – the Greek Chorus in the middle of the tragedy –
but the heavy exposition means that the jokes are lost.
My point here is that I’m left at the end of this film to consider Robocop’s healing process, when at the end of the 1987 film, I am to think “The good guy won.” Why? Because of the bullet that goes through the women’s legs and into the would-be rapist’s crotch. Because a boardroom deal is done while Mr. Kinney bleeds all over a modeled version of Delta City. Because the last moments are filled with witty banter, a brilliant thumbs-up, and Murphy’s smile.
“Nice shootin’, son.”
To reiterate Rotten Tomatoes, Padilha’s Robocop is much better than it could have been. In fact, it’s much better than most believed it would be. As Brock Wilbur states in his review, as simply an action flick, it does surprisingly well. But “for all the elements it gets right, it gets enough wrong to render the film meaningless,” which explains it’s 49% rating on the Tomato-meter. Those of us who hold the original Verhoeven satire near and dear may not find enough right with this new film to buy the Blu-Ray, or even recommend it. But one thing about that strikes me: this new film is rated PG-13, not R as the original was.
One may argue that the change is simply a marketing ploy, or that PG-13 films are just as bad as R-rated ones were in the 80s. But the MPAA has a checklist for ratings. Too much gratuitous violence, and it’s an R. Say the F-word and it’s an R. Show nudity and it’s an R. The 1987 version has no nudity, whereas the 1987 version showed a pair of breasts for absolutely no reason. The new film doesn’t have the gratuitous bloodshed that the original had. And the new version has Michael Keaton as the bad guy, whom, try as he might, will always be known as a comedy actor.
This film wasn’t meant for us, the Verhoeven fans. It was meant to be exactly what it is, an updated action flick, with slick guns, fast cars and cool technology. It’s for an audience 13-and up. And why spend time on such a thing as satire when all the targeted audience really wants to see are explosions?