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When is José Padilha’s RoboCop?

Samuel L Jackson’s Pat Novak is Bill O’Reilly; Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellars is Steve Jobs; American drones are flying over Middle Eastern countries that they occupy; but the currently decaying Detroit landscape looks pristine. José Padilha’s RoboCop (2014) has been meddled into a strange nexus of science fiction cinema.


It’s extremely difficult to take a beloved cult property like Paul Verhoeven’s original RoboCop (1987), especially one that steadily declined with terribly sanitised sequels and re-appropriate for a new audience in the newly saturated ‘super’ cinematic terrain. Writer Joshua Zetumer (adapting from based the 1987 screenplay by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner) sees the American public fiercely opposing unmanned drones on home soil to replace the flawed human police force, despite their success abroad. Sellars (Keaton) and his lead scientist on the bio-tech Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) are trying to find a way for a human enhanced by robotics to be palatable to the public. All the while Joel Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy and his partner Michael K. Williams’ Jack Lewis get too close to a Detroit crime syndicate and they send a message in the form of a car bomb. Suddenly Norton and Sellars have their perfect candidate.

Let’s talk Jackson’s O’Reilly clone Pat Novak, which is both progressive and subversive. The ‘conservative commentator’ in American media has become such a staple of socio-political debate in the age of the 24 hour news cycle that it’s begun to conform to certain generic tropes. They’re usually the bastion for whiteness, christian-ness and backwardness to say the least and yet they’re wily in how they navigate their perspectives. Jackon’s Novak adheres to these kinds of tropes except for one key thing, he’s african american. By his very characterisation it subverts the archetype and dictates that the mob consuming the media need their information. Jackson’s performance is impeccable. There’s a fabulous bravado and theatricality in the way he stages his ‘dialogue’ on topics, which is to say that he completely skews them to validate his perspective.

Keaton’s Raymond Sellars as Jobs takes what has become the most recognisable kind of ‘tech-executive’ and taken it down to a much sinister place. Keaton’s Sellars isn’t the visionary that’s doing things to make the world a better place for the world’s sake, he’s lining his pockets with exorbitant Government contracts and using cutthroat marketing teams to manipulate the public’s perception for as much time as it requires to get his drones on domestic soil. In fact there are more than just inferences that the greater the failure of the integration of his technology with a human specimen, in the field, the greater chance that they’ll resort to his current drones. In the current political environment of the U.S.A and the barrage of claims of corporate interference it feels like something that’s happening now, on a smaller scale. The most tantalising, conspiracy theorist salivating element of the piece is behind closed doors genetic enhancement. Oldman’s Dr. Norton then gets to blur the line between man and technology. As Murphy first occupies the suit it’s clear that his very human reflexes and reactions cannot compete with the artificial intelligence and programming of the drones. It’s in the graphic reality of what’s left of Murphy and what’s enhanced or totally robotic that poses some of those great philosophical questions about states of being, when you’re faced with almost total technological integration. Padilha gets to take RoboCop to horrifying places when he reveals to Murphy what remains of his physical being. Other than a face and a central nervous system, he has no body. Furthermore once you realise that his cognitive computing power cannot handle the machine (his robobody) that he’s driving, Norton amps up his performance. Even the remaining piece of his humanity has been enhanced to cope. This is the future we’re only beginning to dabble with, and it’s both terrifying and exciting.

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However once we get to the landscape and what the characters as manifestations of ‘relatable’ we watch the time get completely muddled.

The only prescient comparison that I think needs to be made to Verhoeven’s original is how both films project the city of Detroit. For Verhoeven, the future Detroit that was a cesspool of crime and decay; which however unfortunate the facts are, seems to have been realised in contemporary Detroit. Yet in Padilha’s Detroit, despite exposition to the contrary, the city is clean, slick and to a certain extent the places most riddled with crime (warehouses, alley ways etc) are glossy. The Detroit of the original Robocop is as essential to the character as Gotham is to Batman. It radically changes your perspective of the city, despite watching the number of criminals tallying up in Murphy/RoboCop’s visual layout. What we know to be true of modern day husk Detroit didn’t ring true in the film. If you were to compare how Jim Jarmusch’s honest portrayal of Detroit in Only Lover’s Left Alive you’d be right to question they’re even set in the same place. One can only imagine that present day Detroit could have augmented the necessity for a Robocop. The politics of film financing and responsibilities to the economic commitment to the city seem to have overridden what was so essential to the original film.

The central relationship of Padilha’s RoboCop strikes one as totally contrived. Kinnaman’s Alex and Abbie Cornish’s Clara have a spark of chemistry but other than reenforcing the corporate greed as she’s kept from the reality of what remains of her husband. However, his family life, especially breaking the reality to his son seems so inconsequential to his struggle. He’s enhanced bio matter directing a robotic super-suit. Even being able to process what ‘you’ are to yourself seems to be an unfathomable mountain to climb and it’s paid the most nominal lip service. It seems so safe to have another white nuclear family as the centre of the story. It just barely makes sense for his candidature that he be the ideal family man but the safe, ‘model’ suburbia that he’s living in is not in the same world as the Detroit that’s so affected by crime that they’d resort to drones policing the city. It almost seems like in an alternative universe Murphy didn’t have to have a wife, instead he and Williams Jack’s plutonic relationship could have been enough to give the character a connection to his previous life.

One can only assert that that intervention from those writing the cheques have muddled the intent of Padilha’s vision; resulting in this temporally confused final film. Padilha, like Murphy couldn’t handle the his expensive toy without their enhancements.


Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

Directed by: José Padilha
Written by: Joshua Zetumer (based on the 1987 screenplay by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner)
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Joel Kinnaman … Alex Murphy / RoboCop
Gary Oldman … Dr. Dennett Norton
Michael Keaton … Raymond Sellars
Abbie Cornish … Clara Murphy
Jackie Earle Haley … Rick Mattox
Michael K. Williams … Jack Lewis
Jennifer Ehle … Liz Kline
Jay Baruchel … Tom Pope
Marianne Jean-Baptiste … Chief Karen Dean
Samuel L. Jackson … Pat Novak

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