The Spirit of Robocop

Robocop rant logo

As promised, I decided to go back to my (well, let’s be honest here) scolding review of the “Robocop” remake and have a go at it from a completely different angle, hopefully with the aim of defining why it fails miserably on all fronts. As I already mentioned in the previous article, it’s not a perfect film. Hell, it is miles away from being decent in general, but what is the most painful to me as a fan of the original is that it doesn’t really deserve to wear the name “Robocop” at all.

From this point onwards, there might (and probably will) be spoilers for the original “Robocop”, the remake, and possibly the sequels. Consider yourselves warned.

It’s not about how Padilha’s excruciating attempt at modernizing Verhoeven’s workOriginal-Robocop is different from the source material. I don’t really care about the minutia as long as it all makes sense in the end and brings some sort of satisfaction in the process. Now that I’m a couple weeks removed from the screening, I tend to think that within the premise set in the remake one can achieve a lot, as it could be ultimately interesting, but there’s no redeeming quality in how everything was cobbled together, wrapped and delivered unceremoniously to the screen. For example, I could really get behind the idea of Robocop having one organic hand, if there was any point to it. Apart from being able to maybe touch a person and keep Murphy thinking he’s human, there’s no further exploration there and we never see it used in the film. I was maybe quietly hoping for some cool tech to be associated with the fact Robocop has one human hand to work with, like the Judge Dredd’s weapon recognition, or something, but no… But that’s beside the point.

What I’m really struggling with here is the fact that none of the people on this project had any idea whatsoever about what qualities should a “Robocop” film have to still be considered a “Robocop” film and not an “Iron-Man” knock-off, or “The Terminator”, or what-have-you. Especially now, when the studios refuse to take risks and thusly draw happily from the 80’s by remaking and proliferating iconic franchises of the past, it is vital to at least keep the spirit of those new renditions close to the source. Look at the “Die Hard” series: the third one – a Die Hard movie… The fifth one – not at all… The difference being (apart from the man behind the camera) the awareness and respect towards the original and lack thereof, respectively…

From what I read over the last couple of days, most fans of the original when tasked with the question of finding the defining quality of Verhoeven’s “Robocop” would point to the socio-political satire, and it’s not a bad start. However, I think there’s a bit more to be said on the subject, which will make it even more glaringly obvious, why Padilha’s remake is never going to be remembered fondly. Nevertheless, let’s begin with that.

1. The satire.

robocop1987-3-e1362855954499The Verhoeven’s original was undisputedly poking fun at the American way of life. “Robocop” being his Hollywood debut clearly had to have had something to do with how full of stereotypes and caricatures this film was. Coming from a foreign land it was almost natural for him to target the clichés and stereotypically American traits and blow them way out of proportion.  From The ‘Nuk’em’ board game, through to cutting violent news imagery with car commercials – all of it revolting and unrestrained.

I agree the satire could possibly be understood as the most important part of the ‘spirit of Robocop’, and that the remake should at least try to keep that very spirit alive in some way. And, well… I think I have already addressed this issue at length. In short, I think both the director and the studio lack the collective balls to go all out in creating a caricature of the world where the viewer would have to laugh at himself a bit. Is it really impossible to do in the modern age of political correctness and neutered comedy? Or is it a financial risk nobody was willing to take? It personally offends me more to see the entire political caricature of “Robocop” distilled to a set of pseudointellectual interjections that don’t even address anything relevant to the present day, and it’s not as if there was nothing to be making fun of. The American imperialism, the ‘one percent’, the continuing racial disparity… the list goes on… There was so much to talk about. In addition, the original never confined its irony to the news segments and car ads, and the entire running time was sprinkled evenly with the tongue-in-cheek attitude, which is completely absent in the remake. A Robocop film should never take itself seriously. Full stop.

2. The character arc.

You put a man in a futuristic suit of armor and what do you get? Iron-Man.

You put a human tissue over a machine? Well… The Terminator.

Then, how does one make a Robocop? You put a (police)man’s brain into a robot body. True, but not quite. What defines Robocop is his character development. Robocop is a imagesmachine that slowly discovers its sentience and residual humanity. In the most purist sense, a Robocop requires the man-vs-machine struggle to be defined as such. It doesn’t necessarily have to entail the Jesus-esque arc of being ‘crucified’ and resurrected to bring mayhem and demise to all sinners, but it needs some sort of progression. The original Robocop went from a machine to a self-aware hybrid that eventually had to come to terms with being a machine to a great extent. In fact, based on the visuals alone nobody in their right mind would say that Murphy was a man; not with the cold, dead face stretched over the front of his robotic head in the creepiest way possible.

How about the remake? Now, I don’t mind the makers trying to have a fresh perspective on the subject and twisting the idea of Robocop on its head. In actuality, if done right, the notion of Murphy struggling with understanding whether he was still a human had the potential of working out for me. That’s a very interesting question (that the original had also asked) of ‘how many body parts can you subtract from a man before you take away his humanity?’ Here I have to give some credit to the remake in that it actually tried to preserve that spirit and add something new to the discussion. What came out of it is a separate matter and it’s largely due to the combination of shoddy acting and the inability of the screenwriter (Joshua Zetumer) to write the characters properly. This undoubtedly interesting character arc cannot be reduced to practice with stencilled one-dimensional set of pawns instead of fleshed out people. Another thing is that certain goals cannot be achieved within a full-feature framework, so they would have to be either forfeited or (worse yet) broken up into multiple features. You can’t have the cake and eat it too. I guess for the remake to distinguish itself in some way, the film-makers would have to grow a pair and focus more on the interplay between Murphy, his family and the outside world and trim the boring extended action sequences. As a result, the remake is sloppy at best in sketching Murphy’s arc.

3. The violence and the indestructibility of Robocop.

Ah, yes… The action. The third irreplaceable (in my mind) trait of a Robocop movie is the hard-R balls-out gratuitous violence that spans the entirety of the running time of the film. From the ED-209 annihilating a corporate yesman, through Murphy’s death, and all the robocop1way down to the toxic waste scene, Paul Verhoeven made sure the violent imagery would end up imprinted in the viewers’ minds… forever. I realize the studio execs tend to think only in terms of revenue and by increasing the potential target demographic, they believe the film will more likely make bank. Now, that’s something to be investigated on its own, but I somehow believe that “Robocop” needs to be bloody and gritty in order to still be a Robocop film, even though the over-the-top violence of the original could be attributed to Verhoeven’s personal film-making style… and to the 80’s in general…

What does the violence achieve, you might ask? Apart from the entertainment value and the added emphasis on the satire department, it’s all about Robocop’s perceived power. Admittedly, whenever Murphy rocked up on the screen, even though he was slow and clumsy like a slasher villain, you’d know things would get grim real quick. In fact, the body count in the original “Robocop” helped cement the notion that he was what he was – a killing machine. Plus, with the exception of Directive 4, Murphy was nearly invincible, and speaking in physical terms, he was downright indestructible. Impervious to bullets, spears, cannons, cars, trucks, electrocution, and even dismemberment (see the sequels), Robocop was an unstoppable force, which I can’t say about its modern replacement. Almost from the get-go we learn of its vulnerability (sufficiently high calibre weapon does the trick), and he can be simply unplugged. That doesn’t look like a Robocop to me…

There’s no doubt in my mind, Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop” is a genre classic regardless of what some people might think; it is one of a kind. It was a powerful film that holds up to this day, even though the franchise was eventually broken down into small change. While I normally dislike the idea of reheating old classics (and more often than not it just doesn’t work), it is imperative to at least understand the themes and tropes of the original, which I hopefully distilled above. A new “Robocop” didn’t need to be a shot-for-shot remake with modern tech, but at least I’d expect it to be respectful to what I call the spirit of Robocop.

See also:

“Robocop”(2014) – a distasteful sacrilege


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