What was once derided as a ridiculous, cartoonish concept – even by its own director until his wife told him to not judge a book by its title – the original Robocop has steadily become an apex of spectacle as intelligent, insightful and scathing brilliance. Not to over-hype it, but Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is a masterpiece of pop-punk sledgehammer cinema that rips to the chase & makes myths of everyday nightmares of post-modernity. Back in 1987 it felt far-flung yet aptly present. Revisited now, it represents a shockingly emotional rage with & against the machine, filled with a bizarre sense of post-human humour that understood the zeitgeist of the modern world better than most.
Updated to our present age of drone culture & extreme technological abstraction, José Padiha’s Robocop is as wonderfully suited to the bizarre reality of our future-present as was the original. Having said that, the 2014 update does wobble and fails to reach its full potential. However, it forcefully confronts a complicated future-reality with intelligence and a gusto that is only surprising to those who have not previously experienced this director’s work. Having worked in both documentary and fiction, Padiha is better prepared to deal with the difficult sociopolitical terrain of Robocop than most. Bus 174 launched him to international renown, detailing the appalling media and police response to a hostage situation in his native Brazil, while the Elite Squad films demonstrated an incredibly complex grasp of the conflict between right/force and left/thought in a country devastated by corruption and the so-called ‘war on drugs’. Add to this a documentary on the in-fighting amongst anthropologist in academia and you have exactly the right person to attempt a remake of Robocop.
The gritty reality of life in the slums is masterfully constructed in his previous films, & yet it is a key failing of Robocop that while it may envision the real application of socio-techno theory, it fails to create the world in which to place it. It is a telling that despite being set in Detroit it was not filmed there, thus missing out on the power of place-as-character that gave such weight to the original & to Padhila’s favela set narratives. Padiha’s intelligence has been successfully transported to Hollywood, but his gut instinct & sense of connection has been lost. Displaced in sci-fi, a genre that can all too easily fall into dissociation & objectification, Padhila loses something of his immediacy here.
This may be one of the key failings of Robocop 2014: it over-thinks the concepts with which it engages. For a remake of an infamously blood drenched work of ultraviolence, this Robocop is surprisingly talkie. If anything, it would probably be a stronger film if many of the action set pieces were removed; they feel oddly tacked on and empty. Padhila has proven himself as an action director, something which is not apparent in the majority of these chaotic & confused sequences. Let it be an emotional, character & idea driven piece. The original required violence to thrive, this version does not, which is a commendable achievement; the meat of the film is here dominated by conversation & debate. It cleverly inverses the original film, shifting the focus from being a machine that becomes a man, to that of a man who becomes a machine. In this way it plays more to the oeuvre of Cronenberg than Verhoeven, something which is readily apparent when Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is confronted with his own strange immortality by having all his robotic parts stripped away. No act of violence can compare with the nightmare imagery presented here. It is a sublime & horrific moment of body horror that will be long remembered.
Much like Elysium, which generated a lot of interesting ideas & then narrowed them down to a clean ending, Robocop ultimately fails to accept the difficult & complicated concepts that it briefly engages head-on. The final act throws everything the air & sprints for a neat ending, which is all the more disappointing as it had so far refused many of the clichés & cookie-cutter narrative elements that have transformed Hollywood genre cinema into a bland, watery mess. It does wrap up rather abruptly, with the sense that a few scenes were left on the cutting room floor. Like most big budget Hollywood films of late, Robocop 2014 does not feel like a whole; as if someone other than the scriptwriter & director decided the overarching trajectory of the film. If it had held to the conviction of its complication then we would perhaps have had a film that could stand up to the original. In its best moments it reveals the problematic, totalitarian ideology of the original, & clearly presents the sociocultural shifts since the late 1980s.
While it does not cohere as well as the original, many of the individual scenes stand head & shoulders above it. The re-structuring of the original plot, striking out in many decisively original & zeitgeist appropriate ways, allows for a far more intricate web of possibilities. For example, by not simply forcing Murphy’s family out of the picture, Robocop 2014 allows for a reunion that drives home the strange humanity-gap that the figure of Robocop presents. Despite the presence of Murphy’s humanity, the overpowering disconnection presented by his inhuman body shoves a wedge into his close relationship with his loved ones. In an incredibly powerful scene, we are forced to ask questions of whether or not this can continue, & if not, why? He is still himself, in voice & behaviour, & yet the machine presents a distance.
This echoes an earlier scene in which a musician, his lost hands replaced with robotics, attempts to play the guitar. The emotional intent & requirements of the music unsettles his bio-mechanical synchronicity. We are made to feel the physical presence of emotion along with the power of its absence. In this film it is more than just phantom limb syndrome, the physical presence of the body has an emotional weight which the machine struggles or fails to replicate. The failure of our technological imaginations to grasp the full meaning of loss is presented with a visceral force that requires no physical violence.
Guy Debord, in The Society of the Spectacle, wrote that “for one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings – tangible figments which are the efficient motor of trancelike behaviour” and that it is inevitable that a spectacularised society “should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present-day society’s generalized abstraction”. Robocop is the very definition of spectacularised humanity, which is here made even clearer through the presence of the marketing department of Omnicorp.
This Robocop is built not only upon a web of lies but with the intention to deceive in order to force a political shift in the debate on the deployment of drones on U.S. soil. They intend to manufacture a man who is nothing more than an “efficient motor of trancelike behaviour” with the illusion of his own humanity & free-will. Omnicorp is, in part, selling an image more than a reality. Robocop embodies Debord’s description of the spectacle as “the self-portrait of power in the age of power’s totalitarian rule over the conditions of existence”. However, in an understated yet powerfully suggestive piece of design, this Robocop still has a human hand; he has the ability to touch, to feel, to move beyond the information overload that is his modified optic nervous system. Robocop is here a towering monument to the spectacle, & yet he IS human, he has not yet lost all of his ability to exist outside of the dominant system.
This is a world wherein the human body is precisely protected & yet terrifyingly prone to abstraction. The film even takes time to engage with the dangers of medication as cure; erasing our own humanity for the sake of positive social functionality. Science is never presented as exclusively a boogeyman, but it is always clear that abuse can only lead to inhuman behaviours. Dr Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman) is Robocop’s creator. His role in this creation is far from black & white. It is a testament to the films intelligence that for the majority of its run=time it absolutely refuses the simplicity of good & bad, right & wrong. The chessboard laid before us is populated by dystopias & utopias; no decision guarantees one or the other.
However it ultimately does represent one figure as being far more destructive & insidious than any street criminal: the media. Whereas the original used TV recreations to demonstrate a media turned blithely oblivious to nightmare & degradation, the media is here updated to be actively antagonistic & destructive. Rarely has the power of the media to turn subjectivity into a weapon been so clearly manifested in American cinema. It is a near-Kafkaesque nightmare with no obvious possibility of escape. Padiha’s Robocop exists in a world wherein our favourite pastimes are setting traps for ourselves, traps from which we cannot escape. The undying power of the spectacle is never more obvious than in its ability to present narratives that present an alternative but only increase its domination. It ultimately cannot beat the spectacle at its own game, but José Padiha’s Robocop does a better job than most in engaging with this ideological minefield. I love Robocop 2014 because it thinks with the same brain as the original, & it feels as fully affected by the contemporary world as the original. But its cultural capital has grown far beyond the original, shifting & evolving with a confidence & curiosity that is very much of the 21st century. Despite its flaws it embodies the neo-baroque behemoth of our future-present existence, & underneath it all beats the same angry punk heart, rattling the cages that entrap us all.
By Ben Buckingham
Director: José Padilha
Writer(s): Joshua Zetumer (screenplay)
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Douglas Urbanski, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman
Runtime: 118 minutes
Release date(s): Australia & New Zealand: February 6 2014; USA: February 12 2014