How “RoboCop” Lost Its Political Edge

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In this Era of Remakes, it is rare to find a film whose subject matter actually deserves to be re-examined. Most of the time, movie studios simply take a popular property, cast a couple of young stars in it, and update a few of the details. Robocop could have been the exception to the rule. The 1987 film was a provocative and subversive piece of pop art that criticized corporate culture and predicted the emergence of drones as a law enforcement tool. Fans of the original were appropriately excited to see what Brazilian director Jose Padilha, who previously riffed on the corruption between law enforcement and corporate interest in his two Elite Squad movies, could bring to what should have been a very relevant story.

But times have changed. In the Reagan years, these were subversive ideas, but now drones are a major part of American counterterrorism policy, and the influence of corporate interests on the state has grown ever larger. Further, criticism of these policies can now be found in your local multiplex: Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness reflected our newfound reliance on drones, while everything from The Lone Ranger to White House Down made villains out of greedy, war-mongering capitalists. In 1987, Robocop came off as a big middle finger to Reagan-era conservatives who advocated for higher defense spending and lower corporate taxes; today it seems akin to a cheap marketing ploy. Despite our record-low disapproval of Congress, our pop culture remains obsessed with politics (see Veep, House of Cards, Scandal, and a billion other television shows), and inserting some topical policy discussions into a film is a good way to appear smart and pertinent.

But it doesn’t work in RoboCop. Still, that the film has so little interesting to say in its political content may tell us more about ourselves than it intends to. First, the details: The plot is the same as the last time around. Joel Kinnaman takes over the role of Detective Alex Murphy, a Detroit officer who digs too deep into the corrupt relationship between the police and the criminal underworld and gets nearly killed for his curiosity. After being blown up in an attempted assassination, the opportunistic OmniCorp, led by its corrupt founder (Michael Keaton) and morally ambivalent head scientist (Gary Oldman), turn the half-dead cop into the film’s titular law enforcement machine.

There are ingredients here for a truly provocative film.  The opening scenes, in particular, are captivating; Samuel L. Jackson addresses the camera as a Bill O’Reilly-type political commentator supporting the use of police drones in the U.S. by showing how effective they have been overseas. We see them policing the streets of Tehran (it takes a special suspension of disbelief to accept that Iran would allow American drones on their streets, but I digress), and an efficient action sequence in which four Iranian men blow themselves up on camera in protest.

Back at home, the evil geniuses at OmniCorp see in Murphy’s accident an opportunity to put a human face on their drones. The sequences in which Murphy learns to accept and eventually embrace his new form are probably the best in the film, ably directed by Padilha and well-acted by old pros like Keaton and Oldman. But problems persist: Kinneman never creates much of a character as Murphy, and the political subtext never arrives at anything resembling a point. A film needs to connect either to the audience’s brain or its heart, but RoboCop tries to do both and ends up with neither.

Padilha seems content to simply raise political themes without bothering to explore them or present multiple perspectives. For example: The original film was set in a dystopian Detroit, and the city was always a large part of the film’s character. Just how large? The actual city is unveiling a life-size statue of Robocop later this year. The setting of the film certainly lends itself to comment on the 2008 economic collapse, but the city barely plays a role in the film, and it looks like it was shot in Los Angeles.

Similarly, the issue of drone warfare and the privatization of law enforcement remain worthy of debate, but RoboCop oversimplifies the issue so badly, it might as well have not raised it at all. Omnicorp tries to buy off Congress to get them to overturn their ban on robotic police officers, but Congress, led by a virtuous U.S. Representative named Dreyfus, is resolute. In reality, Omnicorp would likely have a lot more sway with this Congress than the film suggests, and its depiction of government at odds with corporate interests is woefully out of date.

It is all adds up to a significant missed opportunity. The original Robocop was a critical and commercial smash because it effortlessly blended satire and solid Hollywood entertainment, but the remake barely skims the surface of either. As Tom Clift put in in his review, “Ideas about revenge, free will and the nature of the soul are floated, only to be sacrificed to the increasingly run of the mill plot.”

But this deference to the conventions of commercial filmmaking may be even more insidious than that. What do these films – like Robocop but also Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 – actually add to the conversation? Does the espousal of an anti-corporate position in a big Hollywood film even mean anything? My fear is that it does more harm than good. One way to read this current crop of progressive-themed blockbusters is that industry has now fully co-opted the language of modern progressive thought for their own devices.

Another example: The Lego Movie, with its dual commitment to selling toys and criticizing creeping corporatism.These movies convince us that we are engaging with progressive ideas, but, really, they control the discussion and ensure that it never gets too serious. After all, commercial cinema rarely leaves you wanting to go out and make change. Rather, each of these films gives you a happy ending that make sure you’ll leave the theater with a warm, satisfied feeling, rather than a potentially dangerous thought.

  • Kevin Miller

    From where i sit 1987’s ROBOCOP has really benefitted from the last ten years of what feels like a sort of folklore. It’s strange to me because I’m old enough to have read the issue of the New Yorker with Pauline Kael’s review the week it arrived in my dads mailbox. And that was not a kind review. Nothing like what you see on rotten tomatoes today.

    I’m not trying to say this modern ROBOCOP is any good,…. just that it doesn’t surprise me its lame because the first ROBOCOP was never as good as people now think it is.

    • Noah Gittell

      I don’t disagree. It’s a ridiculous movie that is probably overrated, but I also think its politics were ahead of its time. Nobody else was making studio action movies with such a subversive political bent at the time. I wonder if people could even recognize it back then.