Electric Dreams and Cybernetic Wishes… José Padilha’s RoboCop remake
“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me…”
Director José Padilha is relatively unknown by American audiences. The Brazilian filmmaker studied business, politics, and economics in Rio de Janeiro before taking up English literature and international politics at Oxford.
Padilha emerged onto the film scene in 2002 with the documentary Bus 174, but he is best known for his fiction films Elite Squad and its sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (the highest-grossing film in Brazilian history).
The Elite Squad films are action-packed, filled with intense violence, police corruption, and political commentary – which is probably why Padilha was selected to helm MGM and Sony’s RoboCop remake.
Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film about a police officer (Peter Weller) who is brutally murdered and recreated as a powerful cyborg is by far one of my favorite films. RoboCop was incredibly violent (originally Rated X by the MPAA) and stood out from other action movies as it addressed larger issues regarding media, corruption, and privatization with humor and satire.
Initially, when MGM was kicking around the idea of rebooting the RoboCop franchise, director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) was attached – which really excited me. If anyone could pull off the dark, haunted duality of a man turned machine, it would be Aronofsky – but due to budgetary concerns within the studio, the director bowed out.
Padilha’s films have a visceral, street-level quality. Elite Squad feels less like a polished action flick and more like a documentary, so it will be incredibly interesting to see what he does with RoboCop, a film franchise known for its tongue-in-cheek satire and fantastical slant.
Another key player in rebooting RoboCop is screenwriter James Vanderbilt. It should be noted that the first script was written by newcomer Josh Zetumer. Gran Torino scribe Nick Schenk was later brought in for rewrites, but now Variety reports that Sony has hired Vanderbilt (Zodiac) to do a final “polish” on the script.
Vanderbilt is on fire as of late, with upcoming movies such as The Amazing Spider-Man and Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake. His script for David Fincher’s Zodiac was a brilliant piece of writing – an intricate mystery with an emphasis on character, which seems like a perfect fit for the character study of Officer Alex J. Murphy, who becomes RoboCop.
“Let me make something clear to you. He doesn’t have a name. He has a program. He’s product.”
Playing RoboCop in Padilha’s film is Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman, best known for his work as Detective Holder in AMC’s The Killing. In a recent interview with MTV News Kinnaman explained the differences between Verhoeven’s original film and Padilha’s remake:
“RoboCop is going to be a lot more human. The first movie is one of my favorite movies. I love it. Of course, Verhoeven has that very special tone, and it’s not going to have that tone. It’s a re-imagination of it. There’s a lot of stuff from the original. There are some details and throwbacks, but this version is a much better acting piece, for Alex Murphy and especially when he is RoboCop. It’s much more challenging.”
Kinnaman also provided some details on the RoboCop suit:
“It’s not going to be jaw action. They’re still working on the suit and how it’s going to look, but the visor is going to be see-through. You’re going to see his eyes.”
I don’t know how to feel about this. The RoboCop suit as it appears in Verhoeven’s 1987 film is iconic. The beauty of the design is that you can’t see his eyes. The question becomes, how much of RoboCop is human and how much is technology?
The first-person perspective of RoboCop also helped define his character’s presence: the heads-up display, the grids, and scanning tools – it all worked because his eyes were a screen – it made him truly robotic. You couldn’t connect with him because you couldn’t see his eyes, it made you feel for his loss of humanity.
To see RoboCop’s eyes kind of defeats the purpose, at least to me. If this version is a much better “acting piece” then it sounds like RoboCop will have more humanity, dare I say even emotion, behind his eyes – which takes away from the brutal murder of his former self.
Rob Bottin‘s (The Thing) sophisticated design for the RoboCop suit was influenced by Judge Dredd, Japanese comic books, and traditional Samurai armor and remains every bit as iconic as the T-800 exoskeleton from The Terminator. Why mess with a good thing? But then again, that’s always the argument against remakes.
In Verhoeven’s original, there is a beautiful reveal during RoboCop’s skirmish with ED-209. His armor is riddled with bullets, scorched from gunpowder and covered in dust and drywall. There is a crack in his visor, where you can see a human eye underneath, moving frantically. It’s at this moment that you can finally connect with RoboCop, because you look past the technology and see Murphy’s eye. He is no longer a man, husband and father – he is a human turned machine, raging against the machine.
Then there’s the moment where RoboCop, severely damaged after his encounter with ED-209 and OCP’s privatized police force, unscrews and removes his helmet. Peter Weller is simply phenomenal in these scenes, Murphy’s remaining humanity is conveyed with jaw-dropping makeup that fuses his face with electrical components.
It’s sad to hear that this may not be an integral part of Padilha’s film, but hopefully I am overanalyzing Kinnaman’s statements and dreaming up worst case scenarios.
A bit of research via IMDB reveals concept artists Tim Flattery, Eddie Yang, and conceptual designer Ed Natividad‘s involvement in Padilha’s film. These talented artists have worked on films like Real Steel, Iron Man, Tron: Legacy, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers, and Avatar.
If anything, MGM and Sony have done their due diligence in recruiting an impressive roster of artists capable of bringing the new RoboCop to life – these guys are the who’s who of futuristic/robotic design. Hopefully we’ll see some concept art soon and I can breathe a sigh of sweet, cybernetic relief when the suit blows me away.
According to The Tracking Board, Edward Norton, Gael García Bernal, and Rebecca Hall are in talks for the project and producers are looking to bring Sean Penn on board as well.
Norton is in talks to play, strangely enough, the role of Norton, the brilliant mastermind behind bringing RoboCop to life. In the original film, the executive in charge of the RoboCop program was Bob Morton, played by Miguel Ferrer. I’m willing to bet this is a simple miscommunication or reporting error, but then again – we’ve all seen remakes arbitrarily change minor character names to “make it their own.”
Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona) are being looked at for supporting roles. Bernal would be cast as Jack Lewis, Alex’s handsome police partner who eventually begins a relationship with Hall’s character, Clara, Alex’s former wife before his transformation into RoboCop.
So Murphy’s original partner, Anne Lewis, portrayed by Nancy Allen in the 1987 film, is being replaced with a rather stereotypical male sidekick? If that’s the case, I’m extremely disappointed.
Allen’s strong female character was one of great things about Verhoeven’s original film, and it’s sad to see this element of the story being substituted for the old “My best friend died and now I’m going to sleep with his wife” storyline that we’ve seen a thousand times – most recently on AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Apparently the studio wants Penn to take the role of Novack, a right-wing news reporter who sticks to his guns when it comes to his political views. In his interview, Kinnaman also assured us that, while it won’t have Verhoeven’s signature tone, “It’s going to have a political satire to it too.”
I’m guessing Penn’s over-the-top hack journalist will replace the Media Break segments, substituting Casey Wong and Jess Perkins for a Rush Limbaugh-esque political pundit. Think Roger Allam as Lewis Prothero in V For Vendetta.
“Old Detroit has a cancer. That cancer is crime.”
Another key character is the setting: Old Detroit. In the near future, corporate greed and escalating crime rates turns 1987 Detroit, Michigan, into… well… 2012 Detroit, Michigan. What was futuristic 25 years ago is now extremely antiquated, so what happens when you make a cutting-edge, dystopian sci-fi film in 2012?
Will Padilha’s remake be set in present day, taking a more realistic approach to the story and focusing on real-life advances made in neuroscience and technology since the original film, or will it be a fantastical near future story?
From a production design aspect, what would a major metropolitan city look like in the year 2023 or even 2050? The original film used its setting as a commentary on the decay of American industry in the ’70s and early ’80s, featuring abandoned Rust Belt-style factories and steel mills. Can we expect skylines and cityscapes reminiscent of Minority Report, or will Old Detroit be a crumbling, burned-out graveyard of concrete and steel?
On that note, will Padilha film in Detroit? It would certainly help the city out and bring a gritty, realistic feel to his adaptation. After all, The original RoboCop was filmed in downtown Dallas, Texas. In fact, no RoboCop film was ever actually filmed in Michigan. RoboCop 2 was shot in Houston while the kid-friendly RoboCop 3 was filmed in Atlanta, Georgia.
Will OCP, Clarence Boddicker, Dick Jones, and ED-209 be featured in Padilha’s film? If Anne Lewis didn’t make the cut, all bets are off. At this point, the design of RoboCop is my primary concern. I understand wanting to take a concept and rework it and make it your own, but changing such an iconic design could be dangerous.
What if Christopher Nolan decided Batman shouldn’t wear a cowl with pointed ears or changed the shape of the mask to prevent too much “jaw action” – or if a remake of Star Wars allowed you to see Anakin Skywalker’s eyes behind the iconic Darth Vader helmet?
“I’d buy that for a dollar!”
Remakes are, by their very nature, derivative. They take a fully-formed idea and tear it apart piece by piece only to put it back together again.
What’s worse is many of these films have become so influential that new franchises have found success based on similar themes and ideas.
Take Iron Man for example. While the Marvel character has been around longer than RoboCop, Jon Favreau’s 2008 film speaks the same cinematic vocabulary. It borrows many key elements from Verhoeven’s work.
Both characters are a fusion of organic and mechanic who bend gun barrels and use pin-point precision targeting to disable terrorists and criminals. Both Iron Man and RoboCop analyze structural weaknesses and punch through walls to grab bad guys.
OCP and Stark Enterprises are both heavily invested in military contracts and manufacturing weapons. Let’s not forget the third act of each film, as Iron Monger is essentially ED-209: a larger, more powerful version of the hero.
Both RoboCop and Iron Man defeat the advanced technological monster and restore a non-corrupt figurehead to their respective corporations. Even the last seconds of each film are parallel. Tony Starks tells the world he is Iron Man, while RoboCop tells them his name is Murphy.
With that being said, how can a remake of Robocop not feel like Iron Man at this point? A vast majority of the YouTube Generation doesn’t even know who RoboCop is – they think it’s just the name of a Kanye West song.
Even small kids in Avengers t-shirts will make the connection between some “knock-off cyborg beat cop” and their favorite Marvel superhero. That will be Jose Padilha’s greatest challenge, making a RoboCop film that hits all the right notes without sounding like a cover.
In any case, Verhoeven’s film has stood the test of time and is still extremely relevant, from the SUX-6000 commercials to the socio-political satire of corporate greed and failing economies. I hope Padilha succeeds in re-imagining RoboCop, though I can’t imagine a better version than the one I watched as a kid…