You’ve got to be brave to remake RoboCop, or perhaps just cynical. Despite its bargain-bin title, Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original has a fearsome fanbase. The tale of a good cop robbed of his identity (and limbs) by an oppressive capitalist system might have shell-ridden corpses and gangsters melted by toxic waste, but it also had a brain and a heart.
There’s an important reversal at the heart of RoboCop v2.0: in the original, protagonist Alex Murphy was stripped of his emotions and plugged into a machine to improve otherwise buggy technology – to iron out the glitches that get junior executives shot to pieces. In the remake, his role is to reassure an American public that isn’t mad about the idea of emotionless machines enforcing law on its streets. In the age of Siri, it’s a neat observation.
The remake isn’t a satire – and that’ll lose it a lot of fans – but it is a thoughtful film nonetheless. Drones can kill with greater accuracy and less loss of life than a deployment of ground troops: sophisticated policing can tell us where to place officers to best tackle and prevent crime. Reintroducing the human element – routing kill orders through a human brain and a human trigger finger, putting officers back on the beat – reassures us, but it also, according to cold logic, makes us less safe. The value of an Alex, the film says, is to retain our autonomy, to maintain the imperfections that make us more than machines.
This is certainly a less cruel film than original (though with that goes the wit). It sees hope in science’s ability to help America’s ‘Wounded Warriors’, but is concerned with the potential of such procedures to dehumanise their subjects. RoboCop 2014 has greater sympathy for its characters than RoboCop 1987: Gary Oldman as RoboCop’s conflicted creator, and Michael Keaton as the project’s image-minded financier, create characters, rather than caricatures, for this more nuanced world.
If RoboCop had tried to be the same as the original it would have failed – worse, it would have been pointless. It’s never going to earn itself the same reputation as Verhoeven’s film, but the smartest move it makes is to try and say something different. Its production may have been motivated by profit potential, but there’s a human intellect inside the shiny corporate shell of RoboCop.
RoboCop is in UK cinemas now