Published on February 18th, 2014 | by Ian Goodwillie0
As consumers of film, we live in the era of the gritty reboot and updated remakes. Star Trek. Batman. James Bond. Dredd. Some have turned out well, salvaging franchises from obscurity. But for every success story, there’s a Total Recall starring Colin Farrell that makes you sad inside when you watch it and long for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And now, there’s RoboCop.
The 1980s classic film is about Officer Alex Murphy, a cop in a futuristic version of Detroit on the verge of total collapse. Well, not so futuristic these days. The city has cut a deal with a large corporation named Omni Consumer Products that would allow them to run the underfunded and outgunned police force. As part of a project to create a new and better police force, Murphy is transferred to a rougher precinct with the goal of killing him. They need fresh meat for their project. Murphy is supposedly killed in the line of duty but his remains are used to create the core of the cyborg officer known as RoboCop. He goes on to rediscover his life, chase his killers, and face down his creators at OCP.
Story-wise, RoboCop 2014 maintains much of the same story. In this film, Murphy is still targeted by criminals and ends up as the meat in the metal RoboCop sandwich, becoming the metal hero of a beat down Detroit. But it also makes several updates.
First, is the angle of the transfer in the 1987 film. Murphy ends up partnered with Officer Anne Lewis. They ride together for about 20 minutes before Murphy is killed. This isn’t an issue in and of itself except for the fact that Lewis is one of the catalysts for Murphy’s pre-cyborg memories to return when they see each other again. She’s also concerned about him as if they’ve been partners for years. Those 20 minutes they spent together must have been really impactful on both of them. The 2014 version of this improves on this by giving Murphy a partner he’s actually known for years, which is key to the updated story.
There’s also the issue of Murphy’s family, specifically his wife and son who have a negligible role in the 1987 film. Believing him dead, they simply leave Detroit. His memories of them play a bigger role than they themselves do. The new film improves on that by bringing his family into the mix as Murphy is never believed to be dead. Instead, his wife has to make the choice to put her mortally wounded husband in the program or not. And the exploration of a family trying to come to grips with their modified family unit adds key element to this new iteration.
Where the new story falls down is Detroit itself. The 1987 film paints a picture of a Detroit so post-apocalyptic that it’s about one step away from Mad Max tearing through it. The version of Detroit in the 2014 film might actually look a bit nicer than modern day Detroit. We’re constantly told there are crime problems in this version of Detroit but we never see them. It’s hard to understand why the city would work with OCP on the RoboCop initiative. But this also feeds into other aspects of the movie.
Paul Verhoeven’s original film may sometimes be remembered as a pulpy 80s action film, but it was also a subversive exploration of the dangers of corporations and governments colluding, an issue that was becoming prevalent in the mid-1980s under Ronald Reagan. The era of ‘trickle down economics’ and an evacuating manufacturing industry that was heading for cheaper labour has been brutal on the Detroit of RoboCop 1987. Crass media and escalating violence have created a culture of fear that exists to create more fear which lets companies like OCP thrive and profit to the detriment of the civilian population.
RoboCop 2014 is set in an era when this partnership between government and corporations is done, and the population is dealing with the consequences. Some in the government are fighting back against it but are targeted by those same corporations and biased media. It brings in the USA’s involvement in foreign concerns, which is not appreciated by many in the affected areas, and how that translates into big business at home. And it even examines the impact of the 24-hour news cycle on modern politics, specifically how it can be used to bias and misinform the population. Samuel L. Jackson is brilliant as an alarmist, biased news host pushing the agenda of OCP on the population against all reason and without any accountability. Part of the reason Detroit thinks they have crime problems is because Jackson’s character tells them to think that way.
Of particular relevance is the fight in the movie against the Dreyfus Act that prevents the robotic technology used in foreign wars to be used on American soil to fight crime. It is more than a little reminiscent of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the gun lobby’s fight against it.
Where the 1987 and 2014 versions of RoboCop connect is over their discussion of free will. Where does the man end and the machine begin? In both movies, Murphy struggles against his programming to do his job and find justice. The 2014 version delves a bit deeper by having OCP continuing to mess with his head, even while in the field.
RoboCop 2014 succeeds in maintaining the socio-political relevance of its predecessor while providing a deeper story with lots of action and even has a few improvements. Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley, and Joel Kinnaman all turn in great performances, particularly Haley, who has a severe hate on for RoboCop. RoboCop 1987 is perfect for its era and RoboCop 2014 is perfect for this one.
Now, they just need to figure out how to partner Joel Kinnaman’s RoboCop with Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd and we’ll be set.