The 1980s were a time of excesses. While Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was a reflection, not the cause, one line summed up the corporate mentality; “[G]reed, for a lack of a better word, is good.”* Or, as Newhart‘s Larry, Darryl, and Darryl put it, “Anything for a buck.” Conservative governments in the US, the UK, and Canada embarked on deregulating and privatizing anything possible, regardless of the impact. During this time, the archetypical Cyberpunk novel, William Gibson’s Neuromancer was published, followed two years later by Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired, both taking a hard look at the rise of corporate power and what it meant to the workers and the outsiders.
As the decade began to wrap up in 1987, the movie Robocop hit theatres. The film was billed as a science-fiction action movie, set in the near future. Detroit was bankrupt and was being bought out by Omni Consumer Products. The Detroit Police Department had been privatized, bought by OCP who turned the department into a profit centre through underfunding. OCP has a project in the works to replace the officers in the field with robots; in fact, there are two competing projects. The first is a fully automated law enforcement unit, the ED-209. The second is Robocop. However, the Robocop project requires a human base to be augmented.
Enter Alex Murphy, police officer, family man. Murphy worked on the police as a patrol officer on the dangerous streets of Old Detroit. How dangerous were the streets? Body armour was part of the patrol uniform. Murphy and his new partner, Anne Lewis, respond to a call that led to the chase of Clarence Boddicker, the leader of a criminal gang handling a bit of everything, including cocaine dealing. Murphy and Lewis separated, giving Boddicker the opportunity to kill Murphy brutally.
Lewis discovers Murphy, barely alive. OCP takes over Murphy’s trip to the hospital, leading to Alex being declared dead and a clause in his work contract getting invoked. Bob Morton then takes possession of Murphy, wanting to use him for the Robocop project. The ED-209, championed by OCP VP Dick Jones, had a setback during initial testing, leading to the shooting death of an intern after the prototype failed to recognize the intern had dropped his gun. Morton reveals the new Alex Murphy, Robocop.
Robocop, along with being a violent science-fiction action movie, was a satire of the politics and culture of the 80s. Underfunded police forces, privatization, high level corporate drug use, corporate politics, dangerous streets, anything and everything that hit the news, TV series, or feature films. Yet, today, Detroit is bankrupt and the average police officer on patrol is wearing body armour. While it wasn’t meant to be predictive, Robocop foresaw the rise of corporate power and the militarization of police services.
With the risk aversion in Hollywood studios and the appetite of foreign markets for known franchises, it was almost inevitable that Robocop was remade for 2014. With the original movie having had two sequels, a TV series, a video game, a pinball game, and even a cartoon**, the character of Robocop is a known figure. Over-the-top action transcends language. Robocop was ideal for a remake.
The new Robocop saw a few changes right away, mainly because of cultural and political changes during the intervening twenty-seven years. While Detroit wasn’t mentioned as being bankrupt nor being owned by OCP***, the city was still a dangerous place to live. Murphy became a detective instead of patrolman, as did his partner, Jack Murphy.
The movie begins with The Novak Element, a cable news program with high tech flash that wouldn’t be out of place on Fox or CNN. Pat Novak, played by Samuel L. Jackson, goes on a rant on how drones, being used for peacekeeping in American-occupied Tehran, can’t be used for law enforcement thanks to a popular law passed by Congress. Omnicorp, a division of OCP, is seeing hundreds of millions in unrealized sales, and a plan gets hatched to turn popular opinion against the Act. Raymond Sellars, CEO of Omnicorp, finds a loophole that lets him get his wedge; drones aren’t allowed, but a machine with a man inside isn’t covered. All he needs is a suitable candidate.
Meanwhile, Detectives Alex Murphy and Jack Lewis have been on the trail of Antoine Vallon, gang leader with fingers in a number of rackets, including selling guns from the Detroit Police Department’s evidence lockers. Hampering the investigation is the possibility that Vallon has several police detectives on his payroll. Murphy and Lewis arrange a meeting with Vallon, but have their covers blown. Lewis is shot and wounded during the firefight while Vallon escapes. Vallon later arranges for a bomb to be placed in Murphy’s car. The explosion all but kills Alex.
Alex’s wife, Clara, is approached by Omnicorp to keep him alive. There’s not much after the blast and the fourth-degree burns, but Omnicorp and its division Omni Life have made strides with cybernetic technology. Murphy is rebuilt, augmented, and turned into Robocop. The movie takes the time to cover Murphy’s transformation from barely-living to cyborg law enforcement officer. The conflict between Murphy and Omnicorp also grows; to the corporation, Murphy is product.
The original Robocop was known for its satire and for being over-the-top violent, almost getting an X-rating from the violence. At the same time, the movie had its moments of humour, despite the grimness of the setting. In the new version, the satire is still around, but it hits closer to home. Drone use by law enforcement is a hot issue, and today’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles aren’t the combat model EM-208 and ED-209 robots of the movie, just remotely piloted aircraft missiles. Likewise, corporate influence on government is a concern; Omnicorp’s manipulation of public opinion and rules-lawyering is a little too close for comfort. Whether that’s a plus or a minus is up to the individual viewer; satire is a way to get a message across but does need a deft hand.
One big difference between the two movies is the level of violence. As mentioned above, the original movie was violent and brutal, setting a mark for other movies of what could and couldn’t be done and still stay R-rated. The remake, however, went for a PG-13 rating. PG-13 hits the sweet spot for blockbusters; it allows younger audiences in to watch the movie while signalling that it isn’t sanitized. An R-movie prevents viewers under seventeen in, losing a major market. To get a PG-13 rating, though, the level of violence had to be toned down. Robocop’s primary pistol is a variable-setting taser instead of a beefed-up machine pistol. The amount of blood and gore shown is minimal; there is no one getting doused in toxic waste then splattered across the the front of a step van like in the original. To make up, the fighting became more personal. Murphy isn’t showing off his shooting skills; he’s hunting down his own killers, defending himself, or fighting the combat drones.
As its own movie, the Robocop remake holds up well. It’s a science-fiction action movie that reflects its time. As a remake, that reflection creates a few problems. It’s not the almost cartoonishly violent movie that the original was. Nor does it take the theme of what it means to be human. Instead, the remake looks at the human spirit, what keeps a man going despite everything that has happened to him. It also looks at the degree of leniency that corporations enjoy today, something the original just scratched the surface of. The remake is Robocop, but it’s the Robocop of the new millenium, not of the 80s.
Next week, a look at methdology used when writing Lost in Translation.
* It was lost on people championing the line that the character who said it, Gordon Gekko, was indicted in the film for insider trading.
** The 80s were known for seeing R-rated movies getting cartoons. See also, Rambo.
*** A deleted scene from the remake does have the CEO of Omnicorp making an offer to the mayor of Detroit to buy the police department.