Posted on Friday, July 19th, 2013 by Russ Fischer
Our first real look at José Padilha‘s remake of RoboCop in motion features Samuel L. Jackson as a loud, opinionated television personality, on a stage emblazoned with American flags. This guy Pat Novak, whom Jackson describes as “Rush Sharpton,” is talking about the use of drones in military service oversees. Indeed, in news footage of an operation in Tehran, we see ED-209 ‘bots patrolling war-torn streets, with smaller 208s backing them up.
Pat Novak hopes that these drones, which don’t get angry, can be used to patrol American neighborhoods. But because drones can’t be accountable for decision-making, there’s legislation against using them on US soil. Enter OCP, which finds a way to bring a human consciousness into a drone, and in so doing creates the ability to make money by selling super-expensive human/drone hybrids. Enter RoboCop.
Already, you can tell that this is a very different film from Paul Verhoven’s weird, raw satire released in 1987. Director José Padilha took the stage after that footage to discuss his new movie, including some talk about the future threat of drones and robotics technology used in war and law enforcement, as he described a remake that may have much less to do with the original than we had expected.
The biggest change in RoboCop could be to the main character, Alex Murphy.
While Peter Weller’s original depiction was of a cop noted in the books as killed in the line of duty, this incarnation, played by Joel Kinnaman, doesn’t die at all. This Murphy is critically wounded through what seems like a car bomb. (That, by the way, is something shown in the early cut of the trailer also premiered at the panel today. While I’m told the trailer won’t go online soon, I expect what we do see eventually will be very similar, and so I’m treating the footage in that as non-spoiler stuff.)
The wounded Murphy, with the cooperation of his wife (Abbie Cornish), provides the raw material for the human side of this potentially lucrative hybrid that OCP has cooked up. And there are some interesting twists. In addition to multiple versions of his mechanical body, Murphy has to share a head with an AI that takes over during combat. Which is to say, the human brain becomes a “passenger” during combat as the AI takes control. As you might expect knowing the general plot path of the original, we’re likely to see a point where Murphy’s consciousness doesn’t roll over for the AI.
The company OCP is run by Raymond Sellars, played by Michael Keaton. The actor said “I find this guy basically really mentally healthy, whether you agree with him or not.” Keaton explained that Sellars understands the moral questions that underlie ideas such as using drones and robotics as machines of warfare or law enforcement, but simplifies everything to a pragmatic black and white situation. He thinks what he’s doing is the right choice to make the world a better place.
So there’s a pretty good situation set up: a bit of dark, angry satire about drones being used in “Operation Freedom Tehran,” seen in part through a news story which also depicts locals working in “collaboration” with OCP robots. Collaboration there really meaning powerless coercion. There are digs at the media, through Jackson’s character, who has a very exaggerated personality.
And there’s a real paranoia about how technology and weapons could converge. There’s the explanation that “machines feel no anger or fatigue, which makes them ideal for law enforcement.” But Keaton’s character is asked in a hearing, “if one killed a child, what would it feel?” Nothing, he says. Which isn’t really the right answer — should something that kills in a way that seems intelligent be able to feel remorse? Or as the director said, “never fear the gun, fear the guy holding the gun. Having said that, and looking at what human beings have done with guns, perhaps we should be afraid of technology in the future.”
Padilha says he “didn’t try to redo the same RoboCop, because it was perfect the way it was.” He wanted to modernize the basic concept, and says “the use of drones and robots in war is going to become a big issue. That’s why we tackled this.” He went on to say “our movie is about something. It’s fun, but it talks about the near future.”
In short, the footage is slick and sometimes flashy, and I don’t quite know how all the elements — particularly the influence of Murphy’s family — are going to fit together. But it’s clear this isn’t an imitation of Paul Verhoeven’s film. I don’t know if it will stand on it’s own, but I’m more intrigued than before at the thought of this new telling. The focus on drones and the evolution of intelligent weaponry is provocative, and what we saw today suggests that there is more than simple lip service given to those ideas, at the same time as Padilha has put together enough action to connect the dots of deeper ideas.
RoboCop opens on February 7 2014.