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It doesn’t feature iPhones, Twitter or an Internet, and yet Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop remains perhaps the most prescient sci-fi effort of the past 30 years—a work from 1987 whose continuing relevance is matched by the fact that no one would dare make it today. Or, at least, remake it properly, since, minor virtues aside, José Padilha’s do-over completely misses the point of its predecessor, largely forgoing Verhoeven’s stinging social satire and proving clueless to the fact that it’s partaking in the very things the original sarcastically critiqued.
That just furthers the impression that there are few films less in need of an upgrade than Verhoeven’s classic, an exciting and hilariously deviant bit of R-rated futuristic spoofery that’s still vital today thanks to its blistering social commentary and astute analysis of its own superhero genre.
Screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s story is, on the face of it, pure near-future pulp. A cop named Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is transferred to the heart of crumbling inner-city Detroit, where he’s viciously killed by a band of thugs. Left for dead, his body is then transformed by multinational conglomerate Omni Consumer Products (OCP)—which wants to clean up the streets via militaristic robots so it can then rebuild the metropolis—into a crime-fighting cyborg. The fact that former automotive mecca Detroit would seek salvation from a part-man, part-machine hero is merely one of the sharp aspects of this allegorical saga, which also proves a shrewd hybrid of Christ and Frankenstein-monster myths, with Murphy undergoing multiple passions—his initial death at the hands of crime boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), a police firing-squad assault, a final impalement—as he’s transformed into a lumbering, emotionless outcast who must slowly (re)discover his humanity.
Verhoeven programs this odyssey of death, resurrection, and self-actualization with more pertinent satire than you'll find in 10 modern sci-fi blockbusters, or Padilha’s reboot. OCP’s desire to put law enforcement robots on the street is a ruthless attempt at privatizing the public sector. This takeover of the Detroit police force results in ominous priority shifts, with bottom-line-driven corporate concerns trumping any notions of civic law enforcement duty. It’s a development made even more ominous by the fact that reigning OCP senior president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) seeks to use Detroit as a proving ground for hardware that he can then sell to the army. Jones outright admits that he doesn’t care whether any of his ’bots actually work properly or not, and, in a hilarious scene of corporate callousness that finds his mecha-beast ED-209 homicidally malfunction during a boardroom exercise, it turns out that they most certainly do not. For this government-contracted corporation, all that matters is profit.
That a bankrupt, crime-infested Detroit would turn to multinationals for support is just one of the plot points from Verhoeven’s original that’s aged exceedingly well. The director peppers his action with cutaways to blithering-idiot TV news reports in which anchors gleefully report on events that amplify the overriding atmosphere of warfare as entertainment. Such a notion is additionally underscored by commercials that skewer the commercialization of violence (“NUKEM,” a Battleship-style game) and healthcare (designer artificial hearts for sale), as well as mock super-size materialism (a luxury care dubbed the “6000 SUX”). And then there’s the recurring sight of a dim-bulb boob-tube program involving a balding, cackling man sandwiched between bimbos while uttering his catchphrase, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”
Mass entertainment as brutal and sexualized: RoboCop foresees the escalation of these trends even as it indulges in them. At every turn, Verhoeven dials both the sadism and lasciviousness up to 11, so that his story’s ivory tower and street-corner criminals are equally sadistic and perverted—Boddicker maims with a smile and a profane quip (“Bitches, leave”); Jones’s rival for OCP supremacy, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), is an ambitious punk who snorts coke out of whores’ cleavage—and his hero, RoboCop, is a fascistic mecha-Dirty Harry. Though Robocop’s tale is one of reclaimed agency in which the cyborg rediscovers his manly identity, a process epitomized by his initial consumption and climactic target-practice destruction of baby food, what doesn’t change is his willingness to coldly gun down those he deems guilty.
All that's paired with incessant phallic imagery, especially from Jesse D. Goins’ aptly named baddie, Joe Cox, whose every scene involves his penis or his crotch-protruding firearm. Such dirty-minded ultra-violence leaves RoboCop as a borderline-hysterical stew of American excessiveness run amok, one that ironically condemns the superhero sagas it mimics. Even its hero’s catchphrases (“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” “Your move, creep”) and gun-twirling flourishes modeled after a caricature of a sci-fi-Western kids show give the character a tongue-in-cheek Eastwood-ian flare, as well as subtly equate him with the “I’d buy that for a dollar” TV clown. Verhoeven’s film delivers its do-gooder goods with such exaggerated glee that it functions as an amped-up parody of comic-book movies, plumbing the deviant sex-and-bloodshed fantasies they sell in a manner far more akin to Alan Moore’s meta-opus Watchmen than Richard Donner’s earnest Superman.
That angle continues to make RoboCop a piercingly relevant and refreshing antidote to modern superhero spectacles that aggressively peddle both sanitized sex (look, but don’t touch, Scarlett Johansson’s latex-suited Black Widow) and bloodless mass destruction and loss of life (the latest: Man of Steel, Pacific Rim).
The ultimate failing of Padilha’s update is that, regardless of its feeble attempts at military-industrial complex commentary, it imitates such contemporary films by providing PG-13-sterile sex and murder via a traditionally structured superhero narrative, thereby failing to grasp the entire self-referential thrust of its precursor. Whereas the new remake sells macho-vigilante sadism with a straight face, Verhoeven’s gem peddles carnal carnage with a prankster’s grin—a distinction that, 27 years later, makes the original RoboCop worth far more than a dollar, even one of those buys-more 1987 ones.
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