Though it didn't appear on many/any end-of-the-year top 10 lists, I think my favorite movie of 2013 was Elysium, Neill Blomkamp's film about a not-too-distant future where the ultra-rich have fled a polluted, diseased, and overcrowded earth to live on an idyllic orbiting space station/gated community called Elysium, boldly continuing science fiction's proud and unique tradition of addressing social, cultural, and political themes by hypothesizing where humanity might be in the future.
Another sci-fi film that takes on sociopolitical issues -- but with lots of blood and a ton of laughs -- is 1987's RoboCop, a film that has become a cult and critical favorite as it tells the story of a gravely wounded Detroit cop who becomes a crime-fighting cyborg while addressing the military industrial complex, corporatism, and the decline of popular culture among other things. With a film so beloved, I guess it's inevitable that there would be a remake. But instead of being a toothless, needless, sanitized imitation, I'm happy to report that the new RoboCop -- despite being PG-13 compared to the original's hard R -- is willing to make significant changes and swing even harder at its political commentary in a distinctly modern way by addressing an issue that we should all be talking about: the use of drones and the possibility of deploying them on U.S. soil. Watch my ReThink Review of RoboCop below (transcript following).
The original 1987 RoboCop, made for just $13 million, became both a cult and critical hit for its graphic violence, humor, and sly cultural and political commentary as it told the story of a cyborg policeman attempting to protect a dystopian Detroit from a crime wave and a corporate takeover. With a film so celebrated and presciently topical more than 25 years since its release, most who know the original would call the idea of remaking RoboCop either infuriating, baffling, or sadly inevitable. But I've got some good news for you. While not nearly as funny or gory as the original, the reboot of RoboCop continues the original's bold sociopolitical commentary, but with new themes to address issues Americans should be debating now and will surely grapple with in the near future.
The basic premise of the film remains the same -- in the not-too-distant future, a dedicated Detroit cop named Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman) is gravely wounded and has the salvageable parts of his head and body placed inside a crime fighting robotic body called RoboCop made by a company called OmniCorp, with Murphy's memories and humanity doing battle with his programming as he cleans up the streets and attempts to untangle a conspiracy linked with his own murder.
But, thankfully, the makers of the new RoboCop gave themselves some freedom with their adaptation, adding major characters like the well-meaning but conflicted chief scientist heading the RoboCop project (played by Gary Oldman), Murphy's wife (played by Abbie Cornish who spends the entire movie near tears), OmniCorp's head of marketing (played by Jay Baruchel), a military and weapons advisor (played by Jackie Earle Haley), and a bloviating conservative commentator named Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson) whose persona and TV show are obviously based on the shows and antics of Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck.
While the 1987 film makes a military-industrial complex point with OmniCorp's plans to refine their robot technology in American cities before making a killing selling it to the military, Novak and CEO of OmniCorp Raymond Sellars (played by Michael Keaton) make a forceful argument for bringing military drone technology used overseas to US soil where they can tirelessly and incorruptibly patrol America's streets while keeping policemen out of harm's way.
The focus on drones, how to sell them to the American public, and the need for humanity in how we fight wars and crime is where the new RoboCop truly distinguishes itself while placing it firmly in science fiction's proud tradition of using visions of the future to address current issues. The murky ethics of using drones overseas is a discussion Americans are basically not having, but we surely will as politicians increasingly consider using them in the US for law enforcement and patrolling borders. And as robotics and artificial intelligence continue to improve, we're seriously going to need to grapple with who -- or what -- we trust to enforce the law and, more importantly, pull the trigger.
When we eventually have that debate, those in favor of the domestic use of drones will sound a lot like Novak and Sellars since their arguments are not just rational, but very appealing. Sellars, who seems to be patterned after a tech CEO and actually steals a quote from Steve Jobs, isn't a traditional villain, but an ambitious futurist who truly believes he's doing the right thing to the point that he's willing to throw ethics out the window.
There are a lot of other ways the new RoboCop differs from the original, including the fact that Murphy never has his memory erased, and the rebellious humor of the original and its use of TV shows and commercials for jokes and social commentary are sorely missed. But fans of the original will find a lot to like about 2014's RoboCop, which pays homage to the original while making enough changes so it feels like it was worth making. It's exciting to think that an action movie like this may spur audiences to think about our current and future use of drones, and with the film's overt political edge, I'll be very curious to see what issues get addressed if there's a RoboCop 2.