Lewis and Murphy, the central couple in Verhoeven’s RoboCop, will undergo a radical transformation in Padilha’s remake.
Murphy’s signature gesture of twirling his gun begins the last sequence in which we see him alive as a flesh-and-blood human being in Verhoeven’s RoboCop.
Screenwriter Edward Neumeier says in the audio commentary on the Criterion DVD of RoboCop 1987 that “the old man is modeled after Reagan,” adding that “the corporate boardroom is slightly modeled after the Reagan White House.”
U.S. President Ronald Reagan is one of the most important figures in the “neoliberal revolution” that swept across the globe during the 1980s.
“We’ve gambled in markets usually regarded as nonprofit,” says OCP senior president Dick Jones at a corporate board meeting, giving almost a dictionary definition of neoliberalism.
Emil’s affirmation that there is “no better way to steal than free enterprise” echoes the suggestion in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that founding a bank is a better way to steal money that robbing one.
A virtual real estate agent relentlessly enumerates the property’s amenities as Robo-Murphy walks through his former home in Verhoeven’s RoboCop.
Robo-Murphy punches the computer screen, much to the spectator’s satisfaction.
In an understated tongue-in-cheek commentary on corporate culture, Verhoeven has the entrance to the executive lounge at OCP lead directly into the men’s washroom.
Another tongue-in-cheek critique of corporate culture appears in the form of ticker feeds above the urinals in the “executive lounge” of OCP.
Verhoeven’s RoboCop moves with the agility of Star Wars’ C-3PO.
José Padilha’s 2014 remake of RoboCop tells us as much about the current state of class relations as Paul Verhoeoven’s 1987 film of the same title tells us about labor relations during the Reagan era. Both of these films function as barometers of the socio-economic relations of their times. But whereas the first RoboCop offers a sharp critique of nascent neoliberalism, the Padilha remake endorses the flourishing neoliberal order of the twenty-first century.
Padilha’s endorsement of triumphant neoliberalism is not entirely unequivocal. The 2014 RoboCop invites us to come to our own conclusions about the social and political issues it raises. However, I argue, the apparently fair and balanced approach that RoboCop 2014 adopts, enables the film to promote all the more effectively the neoliberal agenda of privatization and corporatization that Verhoeven’s film critiqued more than a quarter of a century earlier. In sum, I argue, both RoboCop films engage in ideological class warfare, but they take opposite sides.
In order to gauge the difference between the two films, I begin with a summary of the main plotline of Verhoeven’s 1987 film, sparingly adding commentary and providing socio-historical context along the way. I pay particular attention in this plot summary to the ways the original RoboCop movie critiques the neoliberal politics of its day and to its interweaving of a narrative of class struggle with a story of cops fighting criminals.
I then offer an overview of salient changes from one version of RoboCop to the other, culminating in a comparative analysis of the two films’ opening narrative sequences. This comparison leads me to an examination of the various strategies that the Padilha film adopts to avoid the subject of class antagonism, and the ways that these strategies reflect or promote the prevailing neoliberal position on the issue of class. I conclude with an analysis of the films’ contrasting portrayals of capital’s principle ideological vehicle, the media, and the very different uses to which they put these portrayals.
Set in a near-future Detroit, Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop recounts the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a police officer who is shot to pieces in the line of duty during a raid that he and his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) conduct on a criminal gang in an abandoned factory in Old Detroit. Murphy is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Attempts to revive him fail, and the medics operating on him ultimately “call it,” pronouncing him dead.
Murphy’s death is due in part, the 1987 film suggests, to a lack of police backup, which the precinct is unable to provide to Lewis and Murphy due to a shortage of manpower. This shortage of manpower is, in turn, at least partially the result of a reduction of the police labor force, which has decreased since Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a private mega-corporation, has taken over the Detroit Police Department and begun running it like a for-profit business.
Murphy’s death is more than just a byproduct of corporate restructuring. We learn early in the film that OCP has been moving a lot of officers from various Detroit precincts to the notoriously dangerous precinct of Metro West. Murphy is one of those transfers. The implication, we infer from later developments in the film, is that OCP is intentionally putting officers with profiles like Murphy’s in dangerous situations in the aim of generating raw material for a new cyborg law-enforcement program that the Security Concepts division of OCP is researching. When a colleague at Security Concepts asks the team leader Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) when they can begin developing their cyborg cop, Morton responds: “As soon as some schmuck volunteers.” The film then cuts immediately to a shot of Murphy twirling his gun, beginning the last sequence in which we see him alive as a flesh-and-blood human being.
An essential component in OCP’s efforts to cut costs and increase profits is its plan to replace the men and women of the police force with efficient, reliable, and cost-effective machines. This replacement of human labor with mechanized labor is a topical 1980s subject. The Reagan era marks the beginning of a major shift from human resources to technological resources in both the private and public sectors. This shift is still taking place, accounting in no small measure for the rise in unemployment and underemployment, and the concomitant fall in real wages, documented in books like David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s The Rich and the Rest of Us, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
In Verhoeven’s RoboCop, the need for efficient and reliable law enforcement is urgent, according to the avuncular “old man” at OCP (Dan O’Herlihy), the company’s top executive, in order to protect the million workers who will begin building Delta City, the conglomeration of interconnected skyscrapers that OCP plans to build on the site of Old Detroit. We have here a perfect dovetailing of means and ends: OCP wants to privatize a public service so that they can convert the public space of the city into private property. If, as Harvey writes, “the corporatization, commodification, and privatization of hitherto public assets has been a signature feature of the neoliberal project,” OCP would be a model neoliberal corporation (Brief History 160).
OCP senior president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), second in command at the corporation, offers a justification for the company’s takeover of the Detroit Police Department that sounds almost like dictionary definition of neoliberalism:
Harvey’s 2005 characterization of neoliberalism’s primary objective alters only slightly Jones’s rationale. Harvey writes,
When we learn, midway through film, that Jones is the mastermind behind Detroit’s most powerful crime gang, the message is therefore clear: main-street crime is a manifestation of Wall Street crime.
The film insists on the link between capitalism and the criminality countless times. One of the gang members justifies spending stolen money on cocaine as “capital investment.” In order to clarify what he means, the business-savvy gangster offers an explanation that sounds like a paraphrase of Mack the Knife’s suggestion, in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, that founding a bank is a better way to steal money that robbing one: “No better way to steal than free enterprise.”[open endnotes in new window] One could multiply examples of this sort. The film repeatedly undermines the neoliberal rhetoric about the beneficial “trickle down” effects of unfettered capitalism. Free-market capitalism is the cause of the city’s problems in Verhoeven’s RoboCop, not their solution.
In a speech that acknowledges the suffering that OCP has caused to Detroit’s community services (in particular, to law enforcement), the distinguished old man of the company proposes to “give something back.” This high-minded rhetoric about corporate responsibility rings hollow the moment the old man unveils the gift he plans to offer to the embattled police force. What he has in mind is the ED-209 law-enforcement droid, “a 24-hour-a-day police officer, a cop who doesn’t need to eat or sleep, a cop with superior firepower and the reflexes to use it.” This is a funny way to heal wounds, by dealing a crippling blow to the injured party.
ED-209 is Jones’s pet project. Unfortunately, the droid malfunctions horribly during a demonstration, unloading dozens of rounds of bullets into a hapless OCP executive. Taking advantage of this “glitch” in the ED-209 program, the young and ambitious Morton seizes the opportunity to promote his cyborg-cop project. Much to Jones’s displeasure, the old man, concerned about the loss of profit that the ED-209 setback will cost the company, gives Morton the green light to go to prototype. Morton and his team then proceed with “total body prosthesis” of Murphy’s lifeless body, replacing nearly every part of his body with mechanical parts, wiping out his memory, and programming him with a set of directives.
As might be expected in a post-Blade Runner sci-fi film of this sort, parts of Murphy’s memory survive. Fragmented memories of his wife and son, and images of Murphy’s execution-style murder, haunt the cyborg. Prompted by one of these flashbacks, RoboCop returns to the Murphys’ now vacant house, where he visualizes scenes from his former life as he walks from room to room. During this tour, a virtual real estate agent on a computer monitor relentlessly enumerates the property’s amenities, informing the visitor that this “one-family house built by ZM Industries [...] has a growth factor of seven,” that “this kitchen by Food Concepts makes everything a snap,” and so forth. The scene ends with Robo-Murphy putting his fist through the computer screen, much to the spectator’s satisfaction.
The robot cop then tracks down the gang that killed Murphy. His investigations lead him to Detroit crime boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and, through Boddicker, ultimately to Jones, who has a mutually beneficial business relationship with the gang boss. The Omni executive arranged for Boddicker to kill his OCP rival Morton, and he now charges him with the destruction of RoboCop. With Morton and his “bastard creation” (as Jones calls it) out of the way, the senior executive could resume production of the ED-209 droid on the pretense of protecting the million people working on the construction of Delta City. At the same time, Jones explains, Boddicker would be able to benefit from the presence of “a million workers living in trailers” on the Delta City site. Jones expounds,
Boddicker responds to this proposition by repeating the phrase that Jones uses to characterize OCP’s neoliberal project:
In the final scene of the film, RoboCop bursts into an OCP board meeting to confront Jones. However, as he already knows from a previous attempt to bring Jones to justice, the cyborg is unable to arrest the company president due to “directive 4,” a classified directive built into his cyborg brain that prohibits him from arresting a senior OCP executive. It is only when the old man, whom Jones has taken as a hostage at this point, fires Jones that RoboCop is no longer impeded by directive 4 from acting against Jones. The cyborg cop then gives Jones what the Criterion DVD calls “Dick’s 9mm severance package,” sending him out of a window of the OCP boardroom in a shower of bullets.
As this narrative of super cops, crime bosses, and corporate criminals unfolds, the Detroit Police Department (DPD) engages in political action against OCP in order to protect their rights as workers and to maintain a modicum of job security. Throughout the film we see and hear (or hear about) members of the DPD discussing their situation, holding a strike vote, and going on strike. This explicitly political narrative, which runs in parallel to the story of RoboCop’s adventures, begins to develop in the opening narrative sequence of the film, when a cop in the police station, overhearing a fellow officer mention OCP, opines:
The precinct sergeant overhears these remarks and tries to quelch any discussion of a strike, but he is clearly unable to control his subordinates. By the end of the film the entire DPD, with the exception of RoboCop (who cannot strike because he is a product, not an employee, of OCP) and Lewis (who stands by her partner), has walked off the job.
As this synopsis shows, Verhoeven’s RoboCop intertwines two narrative threads. On the one hand, cops are fighting criminals. On the other hand, a group of unionized municipal employees is battling against a mega-corporation that has privatized a hitherto public service and is attempting to make the workers redundant by replacing them with machines. The film superimposes these two narratives on one another: one staging a showdown between capital and labor, and another depicting a battle between cops and robbers. Not only does the film identify capitalists with criminals (and vice-versa). The employees who take on the mega-corporation are also the same cops who are battling the criminal underworld. By encouraging us to side with the crime fighters, the film urges us to side with the striking workers at the same time.
In the audio commentary on the Criterion DVD of the 1987 RoboCop, producer Jon Davison calls the film “fascism for liberals.” I find this slogan misleading. It suggests that the film appeals to lefty-liberals but gives them a spectacle of violence in the place of an emancipatory political narrative. But the film is clearly marketed to fans of action movies. The trailers show numerous images of cars skidding, guns shooting, buildings bursting into flames, and people crashing through windows. They do not give the slightest hint of the film’s politics. A spectator watching the preview would have no idea that the film has a political message beyond a vague tough on crime agenda. Rather than “fascism for liberals,” I would characterize the film as “anti-capitalism for conservatives.” It promises violence and excitement, which it delivers, giving us a resounding critique of neoliberal capitalism in the process. Verhoeven’s RoboCop is a powerful piece of ideological propaganda in the class war against the rich, recruiting the unconverted (or the not necessarily converted) spectator to the anti-capitalist cause.
Padilha’s 2014 remake of RoboCop changes virtually every significant narrative and thematic element of the original RoboCop story. Perhaps the most obvious of these changes is the relation between the police officer that we see at the beginning of the movie and the robot cop he later becomes. As we have seen, in the first film, Murphy dies and comes back to life as RoboCop. In Padilha’s remake, by contrast, Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) does not die. He remains Alex Murphy throughout the film. His memories, values, aesthetic tastes (he likes Frank Sinatra), and affective attachments all remain intact. This narrative change has the effect of enabling us to identify with Robo-Murphy in ways that the first film does not. Verhoeven’s film urges us to side with RoboCop more than to identify with him. This distinction might seem subtle, but it is key to understanding the difference between the two films.
In conjunction with the change in Murphy’s post-injury character, Padilha reconfigures the cyborg hero’s physical appearance, rendering him less robotic and more dynamic. Verhoeven’s RoboCop moves with the agility of Star Wars’ C-3PO and speaks with the eloquence of the robot from the 1960s sci-fi TV show Lost in Space. Padilha’s cyborg is a kinetic superhero that leaps through space like the hero of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and talks alternately like a street-smart cop and a loving and tender husband.
The tender-and-loving-husband part is almost entirely Padilha’s invention. In the first film, Murphy’s wife and son appear as stock characters in brief flashbacks. In the remake, Clara and David Murphy (Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan) become major characters with psychological depth. Unfortunately, in order to communicate this depth, Padilha reverts to clichéd images of stereotypical gender roles, presented via hackneyed cinematic techniques (close-ups of Clara’s tear-streaked face, insidious piano music designed solely to jerk tears, and so forth). Ironically, the 30-odd minutes of screen time that Padilha dedicates to developing the relationship between Murphy and his family are significantly less memorable than the two or three minutes that Verhoeven dedicates to RoboCop’s memories of his former life with his wife and son in the first film.
The large amount of screen time dedicated to the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Murphy in the new film compensates in a way for another significant change that Padilha makes to the original story: the transformation of Murphy’s partner, Anne Lewis, into Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams). Murphy and Jack interact like characters in a buddy movie, while the relationship between the hero and the main female character is transposed onto the married couple.