Didn’t see the new Robocop movie because you thought it would be horrible? A cheap knockoff full of action scenes and no substance? Well, you weren’t alone — I hardly heard a word about it after it came out, and that often means people just didn’t see it. But if you liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you gotta see the 2014 Robocop! It came out just two months before Captain America, but I think it’s an important part of the same conversation.
For starters, it’s not some crappy remake for the sake of doing a remake. It’s an update — it’s taking the same concepts and checking in to see how society is now. The original was a sledgehammer of social commentary, so that’s an entirely appropriate way to update it. They made it about drones, surveillance, the limits of the law and how much influence corporations should have. They did it clearly, but not in such a way that the movie isn’t fun or a good story. That’s the main point of comparison to Captain America. They also update the mass media aspects of the original, with Samuel L. Jackson chewing the scenery brilliantly as futuristic talk show host Pat Novak. I complain all the time about the distracting use of holographic special effects in Iron Man, but their use here was totally the right way to do it!
Beyond that, I like a story to really take advantage of its setting and premise. I felt like Robocop was able to use its cyborg lead to talk about disabilities in a fundamental way. The movie is asking the question, “With nothing left but (most of) his head sitting inside a robot suit, is Alex Murphy still human?” and the answer is yes, of course he is. It’s just adaptive technology. It doesn’t make his life worth any less or mean he should be treated differently. When they start taking away his agency, his free will and right to make decisions about how he lives his life, that’s when they infringe on his humanity, and that’s a horror.
You could easily say “Oh dear, they take away his emotions and his family!” and that’s true, but it’s not key. It’s the fact that they treat him as a possession, as something less than human because of the equipment he uses. For me, the essential moral of the story is that human rights are non-negotiable, and the specific example they use is people with disabilities. It’s sad that we’re still talking about basic human rights, but that’s still where we are with all the kinds of representation. Of course, the other half of representation is trying to create a faithful, realistic character, so I should mention that I’m speaking as a person without any notable disabilities and there may well be other things that should’ve been included or removed that I just didn’t know about. Some people have said Murphy should’ve taken more time to get used to his equipment, for instance.
The original movie was driven by slimey yuppy businessmen who wouldn’t have been out of place in American Psycho, but in the new Robocop, the protagonist is Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a scientist who creates sophisticated prosthetics and helps his patients learn to use them. Meaning, he’s not even just doing it For Science, he sits with his patients and works with them so they can use their prosthetics. He cares about the people and the end result of adaptive technology, and it’s his presence that makes the link with disabilities explicit (although it certainly could have been more so).
And yes… Norton is the real protagonist, the stealth protagonist in the shadow of Robocop himself. Dr. Norton is the one who changes, and the one who makes choices. He receives his call to action, he tries to solve things but makes a bad decision, eventually hits the bottom and the moment he has to make a defining choice for good or evil, and he makes it, saving the day. Robocop himself is a metaphor, whose actions are consequences of Dr. Norton’s choices. It’s a clever choice that makes the story more immediate, and I think it helped highlight the movie’s themes: The importance of individuals and human choices. It doesn’t infringe on Murphy’s significance, but since the whole story is about infringing on Murphy’s agency, I think it’s cool that another individual with agency is doing it and understands the impact of what he’s doing. Norton is important to really make that theme whole.
Speaking of individualism, there could be a really interesting study here between the 1987 conception of individualism and corporatism and today’s, if someone cares to make it. In the original, no one gave any thought at all to consent or humanity — Alex Murphy is just biological parts they incorporate into the cyborg cop. When he’s not in use, he’s just supposed to sit in a chair. The turning point of the movie is when he decides to take control of himself and stand up to the crooked corporations that run the world. In the new one, they have to have consent from the beginning, hence the character of Murphy’s wife Clara playing a bigger role. They have to give the appearance of Robocop still being a person in a suit — after all, that’s the whole point of not using a drone. When they take away his free will, they have to keep it a secret. They’re both cautionary tales warning against the same thing, but I think the new movie rests on a whole different set of assumptions there.
The female partner, Anne Lewis, is gone from the original, folded into the character of Clara Murphy, and the leads are overwhelmingly male. So, that’s kind of odd, since they had Lewis and all her coolness in the older version. However, the update does have female characters in many speaking parts that are entirely dissimilar to each other, so I like that, and it’s another way it’s similar to The Winter Soldier (although it totally would’ve been even better with an updated Lewis as a corollary to Black Widow — or an updated Lewis as Robocop!) The new Robocop is actually much less bloody and gruesome too, for what it’s worth. We see Alex Murphy as just a head and lungs with his brain exposed during the medical procedures, but he’s injured in a single quick explosion, not dismemberment and torture by gun, and the gun deaths are your more typical “single shot” stuff than people getting torn apart by bullets. The crimes he stops aren’t shown in the same way either.
Robocop is the best kind of remake… Not a remake at all, but a reimagining. It takes a well-known movie, analyzes the concept and themes, and uses those ideas to tell a new story. It doesn’t just repeat old words like a broken record, lessening the original — it continues the conversation started in 1987. Check it out!