Some films are sacred. Ghostbusters and Point Break are among the late-80s and early-90s classics that sparked howls of outrage at the very idea of remaking them, as if glossier effects are the worst crime that could be visited on a filmgoer. The 2014 reboot of the techno-thriller Robocop fell victim to just such a backlash, but that’s hardly fair for a film that is smarter and angrier than your average blockbuster – perhaps even smarter than the original.
The remake can’t match the balls-to-the-wall video nasty intensity of Paul Verhoeven’s violently comic (and comically violent) 1987 original. But the remake hardly ruins your childhood: dismal 90s sequels and bizarre kids TV reboots bowdlerised the robo-concept years ago. And the 2014 version, directed by the Elite Squad and Narcos director José Padilha, is actually a perfectly serviceable 21st-century sci-fi action flick.
Aside from the po-faced backstory involving Joel Kinnaman, one of Hollywood’s more inexplicable leading men, the cast is pretty decent, featuring Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and Samuel L Jackson well into their rent-a-gravitas phases. The film has a handful of great moments, including a stylish night vision shootout and a jaw-droppingly icky body-horror reveal that the man inside the robosuit is actually just a hand, a face and a jar of squelchy pink bits.
But the best thing about the film is its streak of caustic anger. Verhoeven’s Robocop was packed with lurid in-your-face satire, but the remake is more insidious. After the killing of George Floyd and the convulsion of Black Lives Matter protests, there’s a chilling irony to Samuel L Jackson unblinkingly asking, “What if I told you neighbourhoods could be made safe without risking the lives of a single law enforcement officer?” Since the era of Trump and fake news, this Fox News-esque mouthpiece and his dogwhistle euphemisms no longer look like an absurd exaggeration as he willingly undermines democratic institutions to bolster his unfeeling rhetoric.
But as the film’s title suggests, technology is Robocop’s main target. Pointedly, Robocop’s exaggeratedly oversized pistol is still on his hip, but his principal weapon is instant access to a biometric database cross-referenced with CCTV and phone networks. Surveillance is bought off the shelf, and software rewires our emotional responses without us even realising.
The remake’s satire is less showy, then, but that’s because this stuff isn’t funny. Contemporary Robocop’s dehumanising technology isn’t a blackly comic projection of where we might end up if we aren’t careful, it’s an icily enraged critique of what’s happening right now. “It’s great to see American machines helping to promote peace and freedom abroad,” Jackson’s rightwing pundit crows, as towering robotic tanks frogmarch Iranian citizens from their homes to frisk them on the street and unmanned aerial vehicles swarm overhead. “Locals have clearly embraced these routine scans,” a reporter chirps, right before those same locals embrace a rather less routine response.
Under robotic gunsights, peace and freedom means the stability to outsource the western world’s dirty work. This is for-profit imperialism. Perhaps the film’s most striking image is when Murphy comes online for the first time, busts through a wall and finds himself in a vast chip factory full of identical colour-coded workers, each of them every bit as dehumanised as Robocop himself. Twenty-first century Robocop is literally made in China.
On one side of the wall subsistence farmers toil in rice fields, on the other they build smartphones for Foxconn. Gunboat diplomacy replaced by drone strike economics. Soldier drones oversee worker drones, the mechanical and the menial, deployed and employed by an unholy alliance of disaster capitalists, oblivious technologists and nationalist demagogues. The original Robocop joked about buying that for a dollar; the remake coldly points out that dollars buy countries.
In her memoir Minor Feeling: An Asian American Reckoning, poet Cathy Park Hong discusses Blade Runner 2049’s depiction of Ryan Gosling’s Aryan replicant as an orphan dismantling electronic components, just like the very real children scavenging toxic e-waste in India and China today. “Whites fear that all the sins they committed against black and brown people will come back to them tenfold,” writes Hong, “so they fantasize their own fall as a preventative measure to ensure that the white race will never fall.”
It’s tough to disentangle any remake from its original, especially as singular a cinematic experience as Verhoeven’s cybercop classic. But it’s possible to appreciate Rebootcop on its own merits without denigrating the original. And hey, at least it’s better than the Total Recall remake.
Robocop is available to rent digitally in the US and on Amazon Prime in the UK