images: property of Orion Pictures Corp., MGM, & Columbia Pictures
Clearly, the new film will be different in many ways (true fans: moaning and sighing), but maybe... just maybe, we’ll find some joy if the glossy redesigns give way to themes that are familiar yet updated for today’s audience. We all want to love it, but in order for that to happen, the filmmakers will have needed to adhere to at least some of the following “Essential Elements of Robocop.”
To clarify, I’m leaving out the obvious core mechanics and going for themes/motifs/style. The reader should assume that I think it is important that the main character be a police officer, probably named Murphy... who gets nearly killed… is made mostly into a robot (you get the picture).
The tribulations of the 1980’s most definitely made their mark on the original Robocop (1987). The film’s near-future Detroit captures what was true at the time for many major U.S. cities: spiking crime rates, a booming drug trade, rampant growth of gangs and their turf wars, and the proliferation of guns on the street. And all this social degradation came during a booming economic period for the upper echelons of corporate America. The best-crafted dystopian futures are those that spring from a seed that is very relatable and familiar to the audience, allowing them to connect the dots from the issues of today, straight to the exponentially worse scenario that will soon exist without a change of course. So, what did Americans fear in the 80’s? Bloodthirsty gangs peddling drugs and murdering everyone in their way, trampling over a police force ill-equipped to keep up with the mounting surge of crime. Robocop (‘87) nailed it.
In order to successfully achieve this particular “essential element”, the new film does not need to recapture something from the original. Instead, it needs to tap into today’s social plagues, amp them up, and present them to us in a hyperbolized form that makes us pause and think, “hmm, are we really headed for this? If so, YIKES.”
What might work well for the 2014 Robocop’s future? That’s easy. Just ponder society’s fears a bit. The drug war and violent crime in the U.S. have been on a steady decline (except for Detroit sadly), and our fears have a much more global focus now: terrorism, unstable dictators around the globe, the U.S. losing its seat of power, intrusion into our private lives by the government, powerful corporate influence in government, and the ever-strong military industrial complex (specifically drones). Smash all this together, and Samuel L. Jackson’s monologue from the trailer seems to be hitting the mark. But there is one more factor to consider.
It will be a missed opportunity if the 2014 Robocop only goes as far as to present a really cool and nicely rendered vision of the future without edging into dystopian territory by including a really messed up government, power structure, or populace. Here’s hoping we get to see people at their worst!
OK, let’s be honest, we don’t really get to know Murphy very well in the original film. Characterization was not the focus of the movie. But what did work well were those flashback vignettes into his former life. All we need to believe about Murphy is that the emotional connection to his past which brings about the resurfacing of his humanity is realistic and sufficient enough to do so. The loss of loved ones (in this case because you’re technically dead and your wife and kid moved on with their lives in another geographic region) is a great way to pull that off, and it dispenses with the messy baggage of those lingering relationships that could get in the way of him becoming all the Robocop he can be.
Another great thing about the flashbacks in the original film is that they come back to Murphy in first person point-of-view. THANK YOU, Paul Verhoeven, for making recalled memories seem like memories instead of watching your own life unfold on a TV screen. Even though the snippets of recollection are brief, you feel the verisimilitude because of the POV and the commonplace and loving interactions displayed. Simple. Efficient. Effective. Robocop is then freed up to go shoot more people, but this time with more feeling.
It is clear from the trailer for the new film that there will be a lot more familial interaction. This might make us care more about Murphy as a well-rounded character, but do we really want to?
Once Robocop, always Robocop. There should be just enough Murphy in there for us to imagine a vestige of human spirit, but there should be no threat of him needing to take vacation days to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with the fam.
Robocop (‘87) hurls satirical jabs and condemning uppercuts aimed directly at corporate America. The film’s outlandish TV commercials make mockeries of the healthcare and automotive industries with the “Yamaha replacement heart” and the hot new muscle car, the “6000 SUX,” which is billed with, “Bigger is better: an American tradition” and only gets 8.2 miles per gallon (and this was way before the SUV boom of the late 90’s and early 00’s).
Of course, the primary “corporate evil” is embodied by Omni Consumer Products (OCP), which is what you’d get if Buy N Large (from WALL-E), Lockheed Martin, and Halliburton had some kind of maniac offspring. OCP executives put profits before human life (especially when their military robot ED-209 accidentally guns down a board member on its trial run), have each other killed when jockeying for position on the corporate ladder, and are even in league with the drug kingpins ruining the city. You know, the basic corporate stuff. OCP cares so little for actual law and order (they only see $$ when developing Robocop) that when the failing Detroit has to outsource the operations of the police force to them, the officers are so mistreated that they go on strike.
Basically, the script beats the audience over the head with the “corporations are bad” theme, but in a fun way. It is likely that the 2014 Robocop will also hit this tone but may mix in the “corporations are entangled in the government forming Big Brother” theme too. This wouldn’t be bad, but I just hope a more global focus doesn’t detract from hammering home the message of the original since it is a major piece of the film’s identity, and the phenomenon of the mega-corporation has only grown since 1987 making it even more relevant.
This will be short and sweet. It is ALL about the suit. The armor (or body?, not sure what to call it) is iconic. The design (by Rob Bottin) was badass in 1987, and it is still badass today. That suit had heft, it had a perfect blend of human and tank, it had some amazing colors, sound effects, and moving parts. (Can you tell I like it?) See the links at the bottom of the article for an eloquent rant about the suit by Comicbookgirl19 and her subsequent cosplay as Robocop.
Clearly, the suit will be updated for this film (momentary gag reflex). Wait, I can force myself to look at this through the eyes of an impressionable young viewer unfamiliar with the original. And from that angle, as long as the redesigned suit makes adolescent kids “play Robocop” by walking around with awkward robot moves and voice, pulling fake guns out of their legs, the movie might get a pass (socially unacceptable and regressive, I know). The suit has to inspire, like nothing we’ve seen before. Oh wait, this is a remake; that might not be possible.
The trailer prominently features the new “more tactical” look of the black armor, but you do also see a silver suit that is very reminiscent of the original. It is not clear if Robo starts out in silver and stays in black for the remainder of the film, which seems to be what they suggest. I’m holding out hope that he ends the film in the silver suit after regaining some of his Murphy-ness, ensuring a happy ending for many fans.
I’ll apologize for this section right now. I do believe the glorification of violence in our society is a major problem. But if you’re gonna do it, do it right.
And in this case, doing it right means doing it big, bold, and bloody, right up to the line of comedy and farce without crossing it. Robocop (‘87) toed that line beautifully, with scenes that varied from the gut-wrenching slow-mo death of Murphy, to the bizarre melting thug doused with toxic waste, to the satisfying data-spike kill of Clarence Boddicker. The filmmakers’ intent of whimsical violence was best captured when the malfunctioning ED-209 kills the OCP Board member, with about 50 squibs going off, and afterwards, the CEO drops the deadpan line, “Dick, I’m very disappointed.” The level of gore and gun violence in the original cut got slapped with an X rating (before NC-17 existed). The filmmakers toned down the violence to please the MPAA, quite possibly taking the film’s violence further from over-the-top farce into a muddier, more serious place.
The ultraviolence in the original was the icing on the 2-layer cake, making each layer even more effective, with the first layer being the dystopian future where no one cares that there is too much violence, and the second being the characterization of the callous corporate powermongers.
Clearly, the 2014 film is PG-13 (hmmm, anyone smell corporate powermongers valuing money over art?), so the violence will be toned down. I just don’t see the new film capturing this part of the essence of the original. And maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Times have changed since ‘87; entertainment has changed; gun violence in the U.S. has changed, moving from gangs to our schools. The general public and the creators in Hollywood are more sensitive to the issues at play. It will feel less like Robocop without the ridiculous use of squibs (if you think this is just a Harry Potter term, look it up), but if it is cool enough, we may not notice.
One of the endearing, and enduring, traits of Robocop is that he is so freakin’ tough, and he usually takes a major beating, always coming back for more. Whether it is hails of gunfire or getting tossed around by ED-209, Robo tends to just stand there and take it, fighting back of course, but not making quick moves of self-preservation. This is what you might expect of a tank-like robot cop without fear or the sensation of pain. The abuse he takes ends up building empathy in the viewer because we naturally feel for anyone getting totally walloped and because we wince whenever that beautiful suit gets scratched, like a ding on our car door.
Robo’s ability to take physical punishment is also a device to show what sets him apart from the human police officers, reminding us of his difference and his strength as a heroic figure. The new film seems to be going for a more nimble movement style that would lend itself to the hero being more able to dodge or take cover. If they’ve decided to fully replace the tank approach with a ninja approach, for instance, the character will feel much less like the Robocop we know and love. The design already looks a bit too much like the ninja from Metal Gear Solid.
One of the great aspects of the original film is that Robocop has so many enemies to fight. He takes on a drug kingpin and his gang, ED-209, and the prime evil-doer in OCP, Dick Jones, but the film never feels unwieldy and avoids the “too many villains” pitfall because they are so seamlessly intertwined. Dick Jones is pulling the strings of the drug trade and the development of ED-209, and he sets up the secret “Directive 4” in Robo’s programming to act as a firewall, protecting himself from being taken down by our cybernetic hero. So, it makes perfect sense that Dick is the final baddie to be wiped out. And since the ultimate villain is the main power player in OCP, we get the filmmakers’ message loud and clear that unchecked corporate greed and power are the true forces of darkness to be blown to smithereens.
By having Robo take on the seat of power, he becomes a hero of the people, standing up to the all-powerful pseudo-governmental corporation. People love a champion with perfect aim and near invulnerability, as long as it stays on their side. Murphy confronting his makers also harkens to one of the greatest horror motifs of all time: Frankenstein’s monster. In both stories, the creators attempt a level of grandeur beyond what is socially and morally acceptable and must suffer the consequences.
If the new film doesn’t keep the focus on the sins of the creators, it could easily turn into a mundane story about cleaning up the horrific crime in a future Detroit or facing impossible odds against a small army of purely robotic military machines (e.g. a bunch of rogue ED-209s running rampant). While this might be visually exciting, it would miss the mark of what Robocop should be about and would end up seeming like another Iron Man plot.
So until February 12th, I’ll be crossing my fingers that human nature is the main foe in the film, and not a gaggle of high-tech drones or heavily-armed crooks (though I hope we see those too).
I do encourage anyone who hasn’t seen the original film to see it. I’m not alone as one who praises it as a unique vision well-executed for the screen. And you might want to check out Robocop 2 (if only for more satirical TV spots), but you really don’t need to see the third one, ever, or the TV series that came after.
If you liked this article and you want even more, here are some links to great commentary and fun stuff on the topic:
(if you watch all of these, they’re best in the order listed)
Comicbookgirl19’s Robocop Rant
Comicbookgirl19’s super sweet Robocop cosplay
Comicbookgirl19’s Shot-for-shot scene from the 1987 Robocop
Screenjunkies’ hilarious screaming rant “How to Fix Robocop”
I'd love to know what you think of this list of Essential Elements, or about your hopes and fears about the remake, in the comments below.