Twenty-seven years ago, director Paul Verhoeven and company gave us the original Robocop, which gained cult status as an action movie with a sardonic wit and a lot of things to say about privatization, consumerism, and the human condition.
Now, nearly three decades later, we have a remake directed by José Padilha, and the new Robocop has some (sometimes seemingly unintentionally) interesting things to say about our culture today and what it means to be human.
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Note: Plot points from a 27-year-old movie are discussed, as are some details of the new movie. We don't give away the ending, but there are details here that some may consider "spoilers." You have been warned.
Early on, the two movies explore similar themes. Both are heavily informed by the zeitgeists of Republican administrations (Reagan and Bush, respectively). Both are concerned with privatization (of the Detroit Police Department in the original; the armed forces in the remake). And both like to poke fun at the media. However, the two Robocops start to feel very different once the guns start blazing.
The body count is higher in the new film, and the violence has a different tone. Flashy explosions have replaced the grisly sequences of bullets rending flesh that caused trouble for the original film when lowering its rating from X to R. The effect is that the violence is less personal, provokes a less visceral response from the viewer, and has fewer consequences.
Robocop was always part cop, part vigilante, but now he's mostly the latter. For all of the reboot's criticism of the previous administration, it seems to agree with the fundamental assumption of the Bush Doctrine: that aggression disguised as a "pre-emptive" attack is the best (and only) self-defense.
In 1987, Robocop never shot first, almost always giving criminals a chance to drop their guns and surrender. In 2014, he pulls the trigger before their weapons are drawn. The Robocop of old stopped himself from killing his murderer, Clarance Boddicker, when he first confronts him at the drug factory (arresting him instead). New Robocop shoots a defenseless, cooperative suspect who has just confessed. What's striking is that this is more or less what we expect from our action heroes now: merciless brutality and a disregard for the rule of law.
It would appear our relationship with technology has changed, too. In the original movie, technology was always fatally flawed -- even the cleverest machines ran into problems they were incapable of solving, like going down a flight of stairs. The only time technology glitches in the remake is when it's attached to humans, because human emotions literally cause machines to malfunction. Humanity, assumed in the original to be superior and essential, is having an identity crises as a result.
Of course, the question of what it means to be human is embedded in the plots of both movies: a cop named Alex Murphy is brutally murdered, but is given new life as a crime-fighting cyborg, complete with a computer-augmented brain which allows others to program his behavior. From there, the movies explore whether or not a man with an artificial body, whose actions are controlled by software and computers, can still be considered human -- and if he is human, what, exactly, makes him so? This is where the movies diverge.
In the original Robocop, it is assumed that Murphy's humanity is gone the moment he was put into the suit, and ultimately it is revealed that it was, in fact, there all along. Now, Murphy slowly has his humanity stripped from him in the form of his body, his free will, and finally his emotions. The question is: How much can be stripped away before he can no longer be considered human?
Now Murphy's humanity eventually expresses itself as desire, which allows him to regain his free will. His desire to solve his own murder is so strong it allows him to override his programing to make it his highest priority. His desire to execute the aforementioned defenseless suspect allows him to do so, even though his software should have stopped him. And in the climax of the movie, he is again able to do something impossible because, essentially, he wants to do it badly enough.
At the center of Verhoeven's version is the belief that humanity is an innate existential awareness, unique to every individual. It is resilient and, while it may not change our external situation, it transcends it. In Padilha's remake, humanity is defined by our ability to want; a kind of superpower that allows us to perform the impossible to get the things we want.
It should be noted here that while the old Robocop's social commentary centered around the rapid, vapid consumerism that is that movie's vision of dystopian America, circa 2014. The new movie takes shots at corporate greed, neoconservative foreign policy and cable news pundits, but, when it comes to consumerism and hyper-capitalism, it is strikingly silent.
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This difference in the messages of the two movies is no small matter. Once, Robocop told us that our humanity existed in spite of a culture that only valued us only for our capacity to desire things. Now, Robocop tells that we are human solely because of our ability to want. That this seems to be a more diminished view of humanity may be a reflection on Robocop, us, or both.
In either case, one thing seems certain: There are some uncomfortable similarities between the 2014 Paul Verhoeven envisioned 27 years ago and the 2014 we live in today.
On the bright side, Verhoeven showed us that even in a world characterized by the phrases, "I'd buy that for a dollar," and, "Thank you for your cooperation," there is plenty of humanity to be found.