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Rebooting RoboCop

Comparing 2014 with 1987

As someone who grew up with Paul Verhoeven’s original 1987 RoboCop, I can’t help but feel the dystopic and critical social commentary of the movie was lost in its reboot. What was once a critical and distopic film exploring the dangers of unchecked corporate power has become a soft endorsement of corporate warfare. Yet, some elements of the remake do provide useful insights into our changing social politics that are worth considering. The evolution of RoboCop reveals how both capitalism and imperialism have changed and deepened their hold on our cultural imaginary in less than pleasant ways.

There are basically four key sets of players in the original story: Omni Consumer Products or OmniCorp (OCP), the mega corporation which builds RoboCop, runs the Detroit police force and plans to construct a corporate utopia called “Delta City” in the ruins of old Detroit; Alex Murphy, the Detroit cop who becomes RoboCop; the police department run by OCP; and crime boss Clarence Boddicker, who is in cahoots with OCP executive Dick Jones,  The connections among these players were central to the original story. By removing or sidelining them in the new movie, a telling critical edge has been lost.

In the original story, OCP takes over the collapsing police department, ostensibly due to rampant crime and the crumbling economy. This explains the significance of the abandoned factory where the story started and ends, as well as why the Detroit police union votes to strike against OCP. But in the remake there is no mention that Detroit’s economy is collapsing, that OCP is actually facilitating this process in order to build its new Delta City, or that the police force is run and controlled by the OCP. Instead OCP is shown as a separate actor from the police. By removing these tensions in the original plot, questions about the dangers of growing private security forces, critiques of forced urban “redevelopment” for the wealthy, and the class politics of unions and labor strikes have all but disappeared from discussion. Instead there is a forced performance from Samuel Jackson playing media pundit Pat Novak, host of The Novak Element, who is basically a black Bill O’Reilly caricature, there to remind us how fucking awesome America is, was and always will be. In stereotypical fashion he attacks liberals more concerned with robot “feelings” than saving American lives abroad. (Watch movie trailer at the bottom of this article.)

I found Jackson’s character especially disappointing because the media had a vaguely critical function in the original Media Break news program, offering important insights into the politics of the times — the US-Russian Cold War, the emerging Star Wars space defense program, and anti-apartheid protests in South Africa. The opening scene with dozens of small TV monitors captures this social unrest quite powerfully with flames and protests in the streets, juxtaposed beside military ICMB missile processions and a “Star Wars Peace Platform” looking down onto Earth. The headlines were about the apartheid government acquiring a neutron bomb from the French in a desperate effort to hold onto power.

In the reboot, we have a talking right-wing pundit, Pat Novak, and an embedded field reporter with OCP soldiers and robots valorizing the American occupation of Iran. Given the changing nature of corporate media today, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see the imperialist dreams here also. But let’s be honest, there are plenty of Americans who would fully support a robot occupation of Iran in a heartbeat. After all, we’re doing it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and who knows where else already, so it’s not much of a stretch. The danger of course is that virtual military occupations abroad become the pretext for actual militarized occupations back home. As OCP’s chief scientist and RoboCop creator Dr. Norton reminds us in one of the few lucid moments of the film, it’s the allusion of freedom which upholds law and order and profits.

But the American flag waiving raises a touchy subject that the film conveniently skirts: Why is RoboCop made in China, and not in Detroit?

The original RoboCop was made in Detroit by OCP, not in a high-tech Chinese lab. I’d suggest this is a good example of how global capitalism is reshaping our social imaginary at fundamental level. We literally can’t even imagine RoboCop being made in America anymore because the destruction of the industrial workforce (and industrial labor activism) has been so complete. The fictional Detroit of 1987 is an eerie foreshadowing to the actual Detroit of 2014, where even the cyborg savior is outsourced.

But perhaps most troubling in the changed story is the fact that OCP has already develop and deployed its ED-209 droids, cyborgs and aerial attack drones for private military occupations abroad. All that is standing in the way of the $6 billion US market is the pesky Dreyfus Act, which outlaws robot soldier use in the US. But the original OCP, while involved in everything from robots and food products to space exploration and urban pacification, was just starting to develop its robot prototypes. The political critique in the original film was precisely about the dangers of unaccountable robot killers, and stopping the dangers before they became normalized.

This is an important shift, since the OCP of 2014 (as opposed to 1987) now has massive factories with thousands of robot soldiers and attack drones in active operation. The original was trying to warn us about the dangers of private mercenary corporation like Blackwater/Xe and Haliburton. Paul Verhoeven was calling this future into question, not uncritically accepting it as inevitable. It’s no accident that the first live test of the ED-209 in the original movie leads to a gruesome boardroom execution after its arrest protocols malfunction. By taking the discussion about killer drones off the table, and replacing it with a weak media pundits debate about robot empathy, the film lost its critical social commentaries about the future dangers posed by an unaccountable, privatized, military-industrial complex. Sound familiar?

While the dystopian vision of 1987 has largely become a reality in 2014, today’s world is being projected forward into an imagined future of 2028. It’s hard to tell what is parodying what here–the past, the present or the future. The only sure thing is that the future of 2028 looks just as bleak as the future of 1987, minus a Dreyfus Act. Robot drones are on their way. Maybe it’s time for our own Dreyfus Act.

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Chris Crews

  • Kelly

    Great review! Your point about the reimagining of relationships between the key players, or their total erasure, is spot on. There was one other reimagined relationship that stood out for me, and that was the relationship between the human and machine elements in Robocop himself. By making the human element of Robocop evident from the very beginning, both in the dream state and the reaction to being brought out of the coma, the tension between human and machine is diminished. There is no concern about the total eradication of the human but rather the degree of suppression. The human that is always there just needs to override the computer program, it does not need to assert its existence in the first place.

    • an interesting point Kelly, perhaps one that I didn’t think about enough as I was writing this piece. I think there could also be more said about the human-posthuman relationships going on here. The scene with the exposed internal organs comes to mind here, as it seemed more like our focus should be on the amazing techno-augmentation capabilities that are sustaining this fragile sliver of human organics, and as you say, less about the cyborgization process itself. It would be interesting to think about the cognitive interactions here between competing systems–one one hand the human brain cognitive software, and on the other, the programmed software interface that is supposed to have overwritten the cognitive software. Makes me think of some of the debates in various iterations of Ghost in the Shell on autonomy and AI… thanks for the interesting comments.

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