Directed by Jose Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinneman, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson
Remakes are always gambles, but the new Robocop gets it right. In order for a remake to be successful, the writer and director have to balance what is essential about the story against the demands of changing times. Whereas the original Robocop was a bloodfest highlighting fears of crumbling urban landscapes and the increasing privatization of public services during the Reagan era, in this update, director Jose Padilha offers us a much more cerebral film which asks questions about the possible roles for machines in our lives as well as the most fundamental question of all, what it means to be human.
The story in the update is fundamentally the same. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinneman) is a good cop on the verge of exposing a criminal kingpin and the corrupt police officers who aide him. The threat, however, proves too much, as Murphy is targeted for assassination before he is able to break the case. Simultaneously, we are privy to the desires of Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) a weapons developer anxious to sell his security robots to a domestic market wary of robotic policing.
When Murphy is severely mangled by the car bomb placed to kill him, Sellars gets permission to employ what remains of Murphy in an experimental project designed to harness the efficiency of robots while maintaining a human face. The project is carried out with the oversight of a morally conflicted scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). Thus, Robocop is born.
Gone from this version are the gruesome scenes of Murphy being ripped to shreds by bullets or anyone being melted by toxic waste. The violence in the film, while somewhat present, has been mostly supplanted with the bloodless gunfights of more mainstream action films. Murphy’s main weapon isn’t even necessarily lethal, but some combination of an advanced pistol and a Taser that serves more to incapacitate than kill.
Also gone from this vision is the dystopic future where crime has overwhelmed police to the point of social collapse. No television show constantly reminds us of the moral decay by uttering ad nauseam its catch phrase, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” Except for the advances in robotics the near future setting is essentially contemporary America. The would-be interest in robot policing is more about efficiency than desperate necessity. The question driving the new film is whether robots should be preferred to their flawed human counterparts, or, on the other hand, if there is something uniquely human that is necessary for successful police work.
The question is an interesting one. The movie begins with a news cast from the recently “liberated” Tehran where robots now take the place of American combat troops. The robots are ruthlessly efficient, able to scan every pedestrian for threats, check retinal and fingerprint scans against existing databases and absorb casualties that would have been suffered by human beings. More than this, we are told that the robots never act out of anger, aren’t prejudiced, and act on threats without hesitation. While all of that sounds good, we are reminded at a Senate hearing how terrifying that might actually be.
Standing in the way of Sellars’ domestic profits is Senator Hubert Dreyfus’ (Zach Greiner). As the author of the law forbidding the use of robots on U.S. soil, Senator Dreyfus asks Sellars during a Senate hearing what a robot would feel if it accidentally killed a child. When Sellars finally admits that the robot would feel nothing, we see the coldness of a world governed by entities lacking the human touch.
For those who don’t know, the character of Senator Hubert Dreyfus shares his name with the Berkeley philosophy professor whose 1972 book, What Computers [Still] Can’t Do, remains as a prescient critique of the possibility of Artificial Intelligence. Dreyfus’s critique, informed by his study of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, centers around the idea that computers, no matter their reasoning capacity, will always lack the lived experience of human beings because a human being is not merely a reasoning machine, but an embodied consciousness that thinks, feels, and is aware of its own limitations and pending death.
Of course I can’t do justice to Professor Dreyfus here, but suffice it to say that the film takes up his position, critiquing Dr. Norton’s insistence that the human brain is essentially a data processing device. When Murphy as Robocop fails his initial tests, Dr. Norton endeavors to “fix” him by removing the human element from his decision making.
Of course, we already see a critique of this sentiment earlier in the film when a double amputee musician fails in his attempt to play the guitar with his new robotic hands. Dr. Norton tells him to relax, that his emotions are clouding the signals his brains sends to the robotic hands. He replies by saying, “But I need my emotion to play.”
It is no accident then that aside from his face, the only skin left exposed after Murphy’s conversion is his human right hand, demonstrating the metaphorical possibility for just such a human touch. We are told in one scene that something beyond chemistry and physics is overriding the system software installed in Murphy’s digitized brain. “Like what? A soul?” one of the scientists asks derisively.
Call it a soul if you like, but this question is ultimately what remains from the original: whether Murphy’s humanity will be able to reassert itself over the computer programing designed to manipulate his actions. This question has only grown more critical in the years between the original and the remake, and the centrality of this question comes through in the remake in a much more refined and concentrated way.
Of course, the question is not at all handled scientifically. Those who think the workings of the human mind can ultimately be explained via fMRI scans tracing the firing of neurons will likely not appreciate the “ghost in the machine” element of the film. Rather than seeing the film as making some kind of metaphysical claim, however, I think it posits simply that human thought is more than the sum of neural connections and can never be modeled in a machine nor ultimately controlled by one. In the film this isn’t expressed so much as a claim to be verified, but a hope to be devoutly wished.
Robocop is an enjoyable action film that’s a bit more intellectual than is typical of the genre. Of course the philosopher Dreyfus would likely cringe at some of the more fast and loose projections about the understanding of consciousness, but most of us aren’t philosophers. Like its predecessor there is some nice social commentary, especially concerning the role of the news media and the role of privatization in the maintaining of public services, but I will leave that to others to focus on. Furthermore, fans of the brutality of the original will be disappointed, but that’s not a bad thing. All in all, it’s a good flicker and a fun way to spend a few hours in the midst of a cold winter.