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Analysis / RoboCop (2014)

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Visions of the Future and the Present

Robocop (1987) and Robocop (2014) are both near-future Sci-Fi films. So it can be enlightening to look at the visions they offer of the future, their similarities and differences.

RC-1987 is a product of its time. It was the late 80's, so it is important to judge it in that context. To understand what the late 80's were like, one must look to the decades before.

The 60's and 70's were a time of tremendous technological change. In a decade's time, we went from throwing a beeping ball into space to putting men on the moon. Technology in those days seemed like the answer to all of humanity's problems.

The 80's, as a decade, had a very different outlook on technology, one that was essentially a reaction to its predicessors. The 60's and 70's saw technology as a way to cure all ills. We were promised personal jet packs, flying cars, computers we could talk to, and so forth.

And by the 80's, none of it materialized.

Those few bits of technology that could speak used very inhuman, monotone voices just one step removed from Daleks. They would frequently produce unpronounceable gibberish instead of actual words. And that's when they were reading from a script, never mind trying to compose natural sounding grammar. Saying that voice recognition was in its infancy would be an insult to infants, as most of them can learn to understand words after a year or two.

In short, the 80's was the decade when we felt that the future sucked. Technology was something we used at work, that was barely functional if that. Technology could not be trusted because it flat out did not work.

And Robocop 1987 shows us this projected into the future. We see this in the iconic first scene: ED-209. An awesome, intimidating machine with a synthesized voice and deadly weapons. A machine designed to uphold the law.

Which couldn't even figure out that a guy who threw away his gun was unarmed.

In Robocop 1987, technology doesn't work. Not only that, the people only care that it doesn't work because it makes the company look bad, not because it's not working. Also a common trope of the era.

Fast-forward almost three decades and times have changed. Technology works. There is every chance you have a device next to you that is capable of listening to what you want and finding information about it. You can have a device on your dashboard that tells you where you are and where to go with near-unerring accuracy. You can find nearly any piece of information by typing a few words into a machine. And sure, it may take a few tries for the massive database to spit out exactly what you wanted, but it's still there.

We have unmanned machines that can fly an obstacle course without running into things. Machines that can learn rooms and languages. Technology that can adapt to and learn our habits, providing exactly and only what we desired.

So, what future does Robocop 2014 project from this present?

This is a future where technology does exactly what we want. It is perfect and without error. We want to conquer Iran? Boom: it is conquered, via an unstoppable robot army that costs zero American lives. We want to send reporters into the warzoneoccupation zone and have them be completely safe? Done: give them a magic armband and the death machines will do anything to protect them.

And while those familiar with the original might expect that armband to fail, it does not. The ED-209 here is perfectly programmed and completely infallible.

And then it kills a child. A child holding a knife, and is therefore a threat. However insignificant, however meaningless of a threat it may be to a human, it is undeniably a threat. And ED-209 has only one answer for that.

In the future of Robocop 2014, technology does exactly what we want.

Central Theme

Thematically, the two films are also different in their "heart and soul," as it were. The first Robocop is a resurrection story, Alex Murphy being, for all intents and purposes, actually dead for the entire second act. It's only in the third act that we finally see his face, and that parts of Alex really start surfacing again. Summed up beautifully by the film's last lines: "Good shooting, son. What's your name?" "Murphy." The film was entirely about Alex Murphy rising from the dead, reclaiming his identity, his soul, despite being "just a few chunks of meat" encased in a robot body. There's a major plot point about his programming overriding his own behavior, but it's ultimately just a Kryptonite Factor standing between Murphy and the Big Bad.

In the remake, Alex is Alex for the whole film. We know it's him, and he's definitely in there. The film isn't about him coming back to life. Rather, it's about how the programming of his robot parts gradually subsumes his human personality (with some help from OmniCorp engineers) until he's pretty much literally an automaton, and how he has to fight to break his programming and assert his human drives, desires, and decision-making.

The first film told a resurrection story, and told it about as well as you could hope for. The second film doesn't even try to rehash that plot, because it really couldn't have been improved upon. Instead, it takes the question raised but not really answered (in the first film, at least) about where man ends and machine begins, whether or not human will can overcome computer programming, and the importance of free will versus "infallible" logic.