While the domination of cinema screens by comic book adaptations may be a recent phenomenon, comics themselves have always had an influence upon cinema in both direct and indirect ways. This series of reviews will look at the films which are not based on comics, but are comic books in spirit. This installment considers José Padilha’s RoboCop.
I’ll cut to the chase: José Padilha’s (Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within) remake of RoboCop is a darn good film. No, it is not the masterpiece that is Paul Verhoeven’s original RoboCop, but Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have made the material their own, crafting a film which is tonally, structurally, and thematically different enough from the 1987 original to be judged on its own merits.
One thing RoboCop 2014 is not, however, is a comic book/superhero film. The comparison between the new RoboCop and the superhero genre has been made in various write-ups about the film, in both direct and indirect ways. In particular, the one bit of superhero terminology which I keep seeing crop up is that the film is an “origin story.” This application of the term to the film says more about how pervasive the lexicon of comic book fandom has become in mainstream culture than it does about the film itself, and furthermore indicates a fairly superficial reading of the film and understanding of the superhero genre on the part of those misusing the term. RoboCop isn’t an origin story: it is a story, full stop.
Granted, given the general plotline of the film, it is somewhat forgiveable that some may read RoboCop as a superhero origin tale. This RoboCop traces the journey of Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, The Killing) from being a loving father, husband and dedicated Detroit police officer to a cybernetic organism coping with victimization, (literal) disembodiment, and identity loss. Left close to death by a car bombing — a “gift” from the local gun runner and crooked cops he was investigating — Murphy’s life is saved when his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish, Sucker Punch) agrees to allow him to be the test subject in Omnicorp’s RoboCop program, headed by Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight).
While Norton’s overall goal is to use the science of cybernetic prosthetics and implants to save and improve lives, the RoboCop program is the creation of Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, Batman), who intends to use Murphy as a way to work around laws which prevent the sale of military robots to American law enforcement agencies. Moreover, Sellars’ hope is that Murphy’s deployment on the streets of Detroit will sway public opinion enough to repeal said laws, thus paving the way for Omnicorp to tap the billions of dollars the market offers. Sellars’ goals however force Norton to incrementally strip Murphy of his identity and individuality, much to the distress of Murphy’s wife and son.
While the plot of the film does meet the most basic component of an origin story in detailing how Murphy gains his “superpowers,” the narrative structure and trajectory is antithetical to that of the superhero origin story. This RoboCop isn’t the tale of self-sacrifice and embracement of the superhero identity; it is a story of one man coping with the trauma he experiences, and in turn finding a way to be with his family. This Alex Murphy isn’t a hero: he is a survivor of a violent crime, and as such, a good chunk of the film focuses in on his relationship with Dr. Norton and his family. This character arc marks a dramatic change from the version of Murphy played by Peter Weller in the 1987 film, allowing Kinnaman to rebuild Murphy from the ground up in a way Weller’s three previous successors (Robert John Burke, Richard Eden and Page Fletcher) were unable to, and the work he turns in is surprisingly moving.
Oldman is perhaps given the meatiest material to work with in the film as a doctor struggling and failing to maintain his integrity in face of his corporate overload Sellars, and much of the best material in the film involves Norton as he comforts, confronts and at times lies to Murphy. Less noteworthy is Cornish’s work, though that is hardly her fault, as Clara Murphy is an underwritten role. While the character mainly serves as an adjunct to her husband, Cornish makes the most the material she has to work with.
The dramatic focus of the film isn’t to say that it’s not action-filled; it is, and all of it is stylishly staged by Padilha and beautifully captured by cinematographer Lula Carvalho (Elite Squad). Even stylistically, however, the film does not resemble a comic book/superhero film, a significant point which this remake differs from the original film. With its underlying myth of death and resurrection as part of its narrative, the story of the original RoboCop gave Paul Verhoeven ample rationale to indulge in operatic/comic book bombast throughout the film, from the over-the-top violence to Weller constantly striking perfect superhero poses in the RoboCop costume, even in the midst of a major shootout. By contrast, Padilha draws upon the style of first-person-shooter video games for his action sequences, placing the viewer inside the action (and aligning them with Murphy’s cybernetic point of view) rather than objectively viewing them as in the original. While less memorable than Verhoeven’s approach, Padilha’s choices make sense, and his work here is easily the best adaptation of video game “grammar” onto film seen thus far.
A common criticism of the film has been the absence of a strong villain, but given the film’s focus and structure, this feels more like a choice than a flaw, and is yet another way in which RoboCop also defies comparison to the superhero genre. While still corrupt and conniving, the Omnicorp executives in this RoboCop are nowhere near as overtly villainous as their OCP counterparts are in the original. They have no evil master plan, nor are they in bed with drug dealers and murders; they just want to sell their product legally. Their crimes mainly come down to how they gradually strip Murphy of his individuality and life, playing him like a puppet for their own ends. It is an interesting dynamic, one which holds until the final act of the film, when Keaton’s Sellars (how did that name make it past the first draft?) is forced to become a more conventional villain.
In fact, the shift in the character of Sellars is in keeping with the overall shift the film undergoes in its final act, as the conventions of the action genre suddenly start to assert themselves after being avoided for the first two acts. An ending honest to the film as a whole would be more emotionally and intellectually complicated, and likely have entailed pushing Alex Murphy to the margins and robbing him entirely of his agency, a notion I cannot see as going over well with studio executives. Indeed, if the original RoboCop ends on a rousing—if problematic—note, the new RoboCop cries out for a far bleaker ending than the one it has. Worse, there is nothing about the climax of the film which comes close to the clever and hysterical ending of the original, so those hoping for a “Dick, your fired” moment are bound to be disappointed.
Still, the one thing the ending of the new RoboCop shares with the original film is perhaps the one point which makes it most difficult to describe the film as an origin story. Traditionally, the origin story is, as the name implies, only the beginning of the adventures of a given superhero. RoboCop 2014, though, is as sequel resistant as the original film: the story of Alex Murphy feels complete. In this way, Padilha’s RoboCop pays perhaps the greatest tribute it possibly could to the original while being a product of the corporate attitudes the original film tore to shreds. I’m sure studio executives are thrilled.
RoboCop (2014, USA, 118 minutes). Directed by José Padilha. Written by Joshua Zetumer. Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish and Michael Keaton. Released by Sony Pictures and MGM Studios.