JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Lewis gently puts her hand on her partner’s arm in order to help him recalibrate his aim in Verhoeven’s RoboCop.

It is hard to miss the irony of Robo-Murphy’s choice of target when Lewis helps him get his targeting back on track.

Verhoeven’s meandering long takes give the viewer a sense of spatial and temporal continuity.

Murphy appears as an awkward outsider when he first enters the animated Metro West precinct hall at the beginning of Verhoeven’s RoboCop.

Murphy’s blue patterned shirt, buttoned up to the top, gives him a nerdy look in Verhoeven’s RoboCop.

Verhoeven presents the police precinct’s unisex locker room as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

The police strike that begins in Verhoeven’s RoboCop continues in RoboCop 2, Irvin Kershner’s 1990 sequel to the first film.

In contrast to Verhoeven’s 1987 film, where the police force as a whole engages in battle against their neoliberal corporate bosses, in the 2014 remake, officers wage war against their co-workers.

Padhila’s fast-paced editing and hand-held camera work create a sense of immediacy and urgency, but they also produce a sense of temporal and spatial confusion.

Padilha’s jerky camera movements, racking focus, and fast cutting style resemble the narrative techniques used in the Bourne films, which erode the spectator’s sense of historical time.

As computer technology improves and adapts to capital’s needs, the work done by devices will likely soon include entire sectors that currently demand human labor.

 

 

 

The two films offer sharply contrasting images of their central male-female pair. Although Verhoeven’s Lewis and Murphy clearly care for one another, the last scene of them alone together shatters any illusions we might have had of them uniting as a couple. While preparing for the final shootout with Boddicker’s gang, Lewis gently puts her hand on her partner’s arm in order to help him recalibrate his aim. On the one hand, we feel the tenderness of her gesture. On the other, it is hard to miss the irony of Murphy’s choice of target. Lewis helps train her partner’s gun on three jars of baby food adorned with smiling cherubic faces, which explode one by one as Murphy picks them off. The scene “produces a spectacle rarely seen in Hollywood films: a man and a woman teaming up not to produce a baby, but to blow that image away” (Burgett 175). Suffice it so say that we are far removed here from the family-values subplot that Padilha develops.

One of the most revealing changes in the remake is the depiction of the mega-corporation, which metamorphoses from the predatory OCP of the first film into the much more sympathetically portrayed OmniCorp. In contrast to Verhoeven’s OCP, Padilha’s OmniCorp does not take over the DPD, has no plans to privatize downtown Detroit, has nothing to do with Murphy’s mutilation, and has no connection to organized crime. The replacement of Dick Jones, the reptilian senior president of OCP, with the bright and genial Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the CEO of OmniCorp, reflects the overall change of the corporation from one film to the other. Jones’s rival at OCP, the opportunistic yuppie Bob Morton, vanishes from the new film along with his sidekick, Johnson. In their place appear Liz Kline, legal counsel for OmniCorp, and Tom Pope, Director of Marketing, whose only visible character flaws are their company loyalty, their competence, and their professionalism. Every scene of Sellars and his two associates shows the group working collaboratively in an atmosphere of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual respect.

This is not to say that Padilha and Co. abandon the themes of corruption, in-fighting, back-stabbing, and the murderous ends to which people go in order to eliminate their rivals. They simply displace these themes from the mega-corporation onto the police department. This displacement constitutes, in my view, the most significant single narrative change that Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer make to the original story.

The re-conception of the image of the DPD appears from the opening narrative sequence of Padilha’s film. This sequence also gives us our first glimpse of the “new and improved” Murphy, preparing us for his subsequent metamorphosis into a full metal superhero, while offering a fine example of Padilha’s narrative technique. In order to appreciate these aspects of Padilha’s film, and the ways that they differ from the original RoboCop, let us compare and contrast the opening narrative sequences of the two films.

Following a helicopter shot of downtown Detroit, a “media break” to which I return below, and an establishing shot that locates us at the Detroit Metro West police station, Verhoeven’s RoboCop begins with a long steadycam shot that follows various figures around the crowded Metro West station. We hear the ambient noises of the busy station and see dozens of officers interacting with the scores of people hanging around the precinct’s crowded main hall. The camera comes to rest on Sergeant Warren Reed (Robert DoQui) and two lawyers as they stop in the middle of the station hall to argue about an inmate’s rights. It then pans left to follow the two lawyers to the door, where it picks up a thin, nerdy-looking guy, who enters the station as the lawyers exit. The nerdy-looking guy walks into a close-up as he approaches the main desk in the center of the hall and introduces himself to the sergeant: “Murphy, transferring in from Metro South.”

After a brief exchange between Murphy and Reed, the camera continues to follow various figures around the precinct, taking us from the main hall of the station into the back corridors, the showers, and the locker room. We overhear snippets of conversation about problems that officers face on the job, the deterioration of their working conditions, and their dissatisfaction with the way OCP is running the department. But it is the mise-en-scène, especially as we move into the locker room, that I find particularly striking in these shots. Verhoeven presents the precinct’s unisex locker room as though it were the most natural thing in the world, not even worthy of comment. Women change clothes (and presumably shower) alongside men, and no one seems to find this the slightest bit awkward or unusual. I can think of no other mainstream Hollywood sci-fi or action film that presents male and female partial frontal nudity (from the waist up) so nonchalantly.

The overall impression one has of the police precinct from the 1987 film’s opening narrative sequence is one of solidarity and camaraderie. We learn that the officers face difficult challenges, but we also sense that they face these challenges together, that they look out for one another, and that they treat each other as equals.

The comparable scenes in the 2014 remake make an entirely different impression on the viewer. Here, we enter with a beefed-up Murphy into an “open concept” office space, with cops staring into computer screens on their cubicle desks.

The sequence begins with a close-up of Murphy’s hands pushing on a crash bar as he swaggers into the office to the musical accompaniment of the invigorating RoboCop theme. We then follow the super cop (who already seems like a super cop) from behind in a medium close-up that places his broad shoulders in the center of the frame. He responds to greetings from his colleagues with short, one-or-two-word replies as he moves coolly and deliberately past his fellow officers to an office at the back of the room. In contrast to Verhoeven’s Murphy, who is presented as an awkward outsider, Padilha’s Murphy is an insider that everybody knows. Most of all, he is cool, an embodiment of the strong and silent masculine hero.

However, the biggest transformation in this opening sequence occurs when Murphy arrives at the office at the back of the room. There, he barges into a meeting between Police Chief Karen Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and two detectives, who are discussing a recent incident that put Murphy’s partner in the hospital. Chief Dean asks Murphy what happened, but he refuses to talk in front of the detectives because, he says, they “gotta be either dumb or dirty.” They turn out to be dirty (i.e., corrupt), and so does Dean.

Dean asks the two officers to leave, which they do, and Murphy tells the chief what happened: “So, me and Jack, we been doin’ some street buys. We get a line on some guns.” The image track then cuts from Dean’s office to the scene of the action, where the story unfolds in flashback. “We come across this low-level G called Jerry who has a piece he’s not supposed to have,” Murphy recounts as we see a street gangster show an automatic rifle to the two undercover cops. The audio track then catches up with the image track as the on-screen Murphy asks Jerry where the hell he got a gun like that.

Padilha’s rugged and super-cool Murphy swaggers through the police station to the musical accompaniment of the invigorating RoboCop theme at the beginning of the remake. Using a narrative device that recurs frequently in the film, Padhila intercuts shots of Murphy recounting the story of Jack’s injury to Chief Dean with images of the scene unfolding in flashback.
“We come across this low-level G called Jerry who has a piece he’s not supposed to have,” we hear Padilha’s Murphy say to Chief Dean as we see the scene unfold in flashback. In Padilha’s RoboCop, the narrative of the encounter with Vallon’s gang concludes with a melodramatic vertical crane shot of Murphy and Jack lit by a powerful spotlight. The camera slowly mounts skyward as rain pours down onto the two partners.

Using a narrative strategy that recurs frequently in the film, the sequence continues to shift between spoken narration and direct representations of the action. The fast-paced sequence alternately (or simultaneously) tells and shows how the two cops set up an undercover sting operation on Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), the generic bad guy that replaces the creepy Boddicker of the first film. The sting would have succeeded had not someone—the two corrupt detectives working in conjunction with Chief Dean, we learn later—tipped off Vallon. The narrative concludes with a vertical crane shot of Murphy trying to revive his partner, who was gunned down in a shootout between the two cops and Vallon’s henchmen. The sequence then ends with a brief return to Dean’s office, where the chief chastises Murphy for operating beyond his jurisdiction.

As this opening narrative sequence suggests, the Padilha film eliminates the conflict between the DPD and OCP, replacing it with an internal conflict within the police force. This new conflict structures the film as a whole, much like the battle between capital and labor structures Verhoeven’s film. Needless to say, this narrative change radically transforms the film’s ideological message. Whereas the 1987 film depicts a group of public servants working in common cause against the forces of private capital, the new RoboCop displaces the battle between striking workers and their corporate bosses onto a fight between good cops and bad cops. The narrative of class struggle becomes a story of police corruption.

In conjunction with the shift away from the narrative of class struggle, the image of the cops changes dramatically from one film to the next. Neither during the opening sequence nor at any other time in the film does the new RoboCop present the cops as workers. In the first film, the police stand in metonymically for labor as such. Their struggle against OCP condenses resistance to the brutal onslaught on organized labor that took place under Reagan into a set of recognizable images. The Padilha film, by contrast, presents the DPD as a distinct subculture cut off from mainstream society. The cops speak in an esoteric street jargon (“We come across this low-level G called Jerry who has a piece he’s not supposed to have,” for example), and they face problems that are unique to their profession. The idea that these cops belong to the labor force, much less that they could plausibly engage in the sort of political action that their counterparts undertake in Verhoeven’s film, does not occur to us.

Padilha’s film style also has an ideological dimension. In contrast to Verhoeven, whose meandering long takes give the viewer a sense of spatial and temporal continuity, Padilha opts for fast-paced editing and hand-held camera work. These narrative techniques create a sense of immediacy and urgency, but they also produce a sense of spatial and temporal disorientation. They resemble the narrative techniques that Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass use in the Bourne films, which pitch the viewer, along with the hero, into a “vertiginous ‘continuous present’” (Fisher 58). Mark Fisher considers the relation to time that films like the Bourne trilogy create, to be typical of current, advanced-capitalist experiences of time. According to Fisher, these films typify “a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate” (59). What they inhibit is both a sense of personal or historical memory and projective imaginings of the future.

Fisher cites in this context Fredric Jameson’s analysis of the antimony of postmodern temporality, in which “an unparalleled rate of change on all levels of social life” coexists with “an unparalleled standardization of everything. [...] What we now begin to feel,” Fisher writes, citing Jameson, “is henceforth, where everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, nothing can change any longer” (Jameson 15, 17-18; cited in Fisher 59). What Fisher and Jameson mean here is that no social change can take place in an environment where the newest gadget or the latest media trend have come to supplant other notions of progress.

The Fisher-Jameson analysis of postmodern temporality bears directly on the worldview communicated in Padilha’s RoboCop. The vision of the future that the film transmits is one in which new products appear at a rapid rate. Sellars, for example, who promotes RoboCop as the hottest item in law enforcement towards the beginning of the film, considers the cyborg obsolete by the end of the film. Yet the film simultaneously communicates a vision of the future in which no socio-political change is possible. Padilha’s elimination of the class struggle, which Karl Marx famously called “the motor of history,” from the film narrative speaks volumes about RoboCop 2014’s message. In contrast to Verhoeven’s film, where the police force as a whole engages in battle against their neoliberal corporate bosses, in the remake, officers wage war against their co-workers.

Granted, already in 1987, when Verhoeven’s film premiered, labor was fighting a rear guard battle. As Harvey notes, “it took less than six months in 1983 to reverse nearly 40 per cent of the decisions made during the 1970s that had been, in the view of business, too favourable to labour” (Brief History 52). Reagan set the tone for the union-busting years to come when, in 1981, he fired the more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who ignored his orders to return to work. But in my view, this anachronistic aspect of Verhoeven’s film makes his vision of the future all the more timely. The original RoboCop intervened on the side of labor at a time when trade unionism needed all the help it could get.

To say that labor could use this sort of support today strikes me as an understatement. The policies and practices of neoliberal capitalism inaugurated in the early 1980s have come to dominate the globe in ways unimaginable at that time. As Susan Buck-Morss writes in 2013,

“nothing—not schools, not prisons, not human genes, not wild plants, not the national army, not foreign governments—nothing is exempt from this process of privatization” (72).

At the same time, the inequality of wealth has reached its highest level since 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash. If the current trend continues, the gap between the wealthiest people in the world and the rest of the population will soon be wider than at any time in documented economic history. Thomas Piketty’s monumental book on capital in the twenty-first century makes crystal clear when the current trend towards record-level inequality began: 1980, the birth year of the neoliberal revolution.[2][open endnotes in new window]

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century shows the current trend towards record-level inequality.

An integral component of the class war that the rich wage against the rest of us is the research and development of innovative new ways for machines to do work that has traditionally been done by human beings. Already in the nineteenth century, Harvey reminds us, “Marx argued that technological innovation was a crucial weapon in class struggle and that many an innovation had been adopted by capital with the sole aim of breaking strikes” (Seventeen Contradictions 103). As computer technology improves and adapts to capital’s needs, the work done by devices will likely soon include entire sectors that currently demand human labor, from routine services (like those that can already be seen at airline check-ins and supermarket check-outs) to highly skilled work in areas like medicine and education. Harvey writes,

“The idea that it will only be the low-paying jobs that will be eliminated and not high-paying skilled jobs (radiologists, doctors, university professors, airplane pilots and the like) is misguided. [...] Larger and larger segments of the world’s population will be considered redundant and disposable from the standpoint of capital” (Seventeen Contradictions 105).

The city of Detroit, where the RoboCop films are set, offers painful testimony to the deleterious effects of neoliberalism. “Once the nation’s richest city, Detroit is now its poorest,” writes Charlie LeDuff in 2013:

“It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home. It is the unemployment capital, where half of the adult population does not work at a consistent job” (LeDuff 5).

The city that Time magazine claimed, in 1951, best represented the spirit of modern twentieth-century United States, is today what a New York Times columnist calls “18 square miles of ‘America’s most severely distressed big city ghetto’” (cited in Neill 640, 651).

The causes of Detroit’s decline are numerous. As Thomas Sugrue demonstrates in his study of the origins of the urban crisis, a long history of racial discrimination in housing policies and hiring practices, combined with a steady and relentless process of deindustrialization, the introduction of labor-saving technologies in the automotive sector, and the flight of investment and jobs from Detroit as car manufacturers and suppliers “searched for cheap labor, low taxes, and lax regulations” elsewhere (xvi), contributed to Detroit’s demise. The reduction of federal urban support under Reagan further exacerbated the problem. As Detroit was hemorrhaging jobs and capital, severely eroding the city’s tax base, Reagan cut urban spending from 12% to 3% of the federal budget, resulting in a decrease in federal revenue support from 26% to 8% of the city’s budget (Sugrue xviii).

When the U.S. housing market collapsed in 2007-08, precipitating the worst international financial crisis since the Great Depression, Detroit was ill equipped to weather the storm. The Bush and Obama administrations bailed out Chrysler and General Motors, who had all but abandoned Detroit by that point, as well as the banks whose shenanigans caused the financial crisis, but they did not bail out Detroit. As a result, on July 17, 2013, the city submitted the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

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