A Fight For Man, Possible Through Machine
In the new Robocop, Alex Murphy is a strapping, youthful, and over-achieving policeman, hitched with a pretty wife and young son. He’s hot on the trail of some mastermind criminals and potential corruption within the Detroit Police Department. But when a car bomb renders his entire body useless, mysteriously, maybe practically and predictably, his face remains wholly intact. It makes sense. Joel Kinnaman plays the eventual law-enforcing cyborg and has a marketable, handsome face. Peter Weller’s 1987 creation dictated that Murphy’s remaining features simply be pursed lips and a jawline, moving viewers to inhabit a first person, computerized perspective. This time around, Murphy only wears his mug’s shield when he has to.
The rationale behind this could be a thematic one; Murphy is struggling to save his humanity by exposing his last remaining emotive features. It is more likely though that it’s a contract stipulation from Kinnaman’s agent. You pay to see the man, not his brass helmet and computer generated metal extensions. Iron Man had a potentially similar problem, but Tony Stark’s mid-air collisions were more visceral because we became intimate with Robert Downey Jr.’s face commanding the entire screen’s width. His armor’s impact dented the suit while simultaneously making him wince. You could trust his humanity without being too numb to his physical superiority.
This isn’t a personal story of redemption though. Unlike Paul Verhoeven’s original, Alex Murphy is not a messiah rising from the ashes, independent of any communal support. His wife (Abbie Cornish) and son have stuck around and want his reconfigured self back in their lives. He wants them back, too. His metal extremities come courtesy of Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) funded by tech conglomerate OmniCorp and its bathrobed President (Michael Keaton). The public doesn’t trust his robots patrolling the streets, so Murphy becomes the candidate to bring human conscience to the force and legitimacy back to Keaton’s enterprise, receiving help from advisors played frosty by Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and Jackie Earle Haley.
Jose Padhila, who directed this reboot, brought Rio De Janeiro to violent, pulpy life in Elite Squad, but is less concerned with blood here. Based in 2028, his neon, sanitized Detroit is incapable of taking on the city’s socio-political relevance it exhibited in its crime-ridden, almost dystopic late eighties version. Instead, Padhila makes his theme attack the eternal quandary regarding man and machine, black and white ethicality versus conscientious, emotionally connected policemen. “Machines are corruption free,” protests Keaton defending his products. Dr. Norton, as scientist and a robotic physical therapist, explains to one man relearning the guitar with brass fingers that he can’t get too emotional, otherwise the technology malfunctions. Fourteen years from now, the debate continues.
Robocop begins though with the potential for more. We’re introduced to Omnicorp’s international ground drones in Iran, conducting identification scans of a battle zoned town, influencing government and public on the future of overseas missions without the military. The ED-209’s are still around as well, apparently mended from their earlier glitches. Quickly local rebels with dynamite packs begin chaos in the street. This is where the cultural conflict is and where current political war continues. Robocop doesn’t have resonance in the Motor City; he belongs in the ethically tensioned desert landscape, next to Jeremy Renner about to dismantle a landmine.
But remaking a metropolitan futuristic police film bunkered in the sand might have lost the entire warehouse-shooting fun. It would have also lost the silly and satirical news media that Verhoeven used as the indiscriminate staple of his cultural critique. Taking the torch from the dual anchormen, Samuel L. Jackson addresses a 360-degree television camera Wolf Blitzer style, slowly building his partisanship with every episode and quickly molding his stance of American exceptionalism. His ire eventually rears its head to the masses in standard Jackson form, but in the context of his Bill O’Reilly pulpit, he has simply become part of the proselytizing media system. People’s greed, power, and politics become just as programmatic as the machines they make. It’s probably why Padhila zooms out above Detroit’s lit downtown until the streets and buildings turn into an abstraction resembling a computer chip. It’s a great shot. It’s packed with self-reflection and the sense that a nearly pointless remake has cut through the recycled, bankable fog.