Watching the new Robocop I came to realise how much I’ve grown to despise the BBFC’s 12A certificate. It’s broadly based on the MPAA’s PG-13, a rating introduced at the behest of no less a man than Steven Spielberg, who’d suffused Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with violence, human sacrifice, bugs and racism, and understandably wanted the teenage target audience to see it unencumbered. Thirty years ago the rationale was to create a rating to fit the movie-as-made. Today movies are made to fit ratings. The folly of this methodology can be seen most vividly when one compares a movie from the devil-may-care past with a present day remake.
Following that other Paul Verhoeven reprise, Len Wiseman’s anemic Total Recall, we’d expect Robocop 2014 to be sanitised and its satire diluted, but why, you ask not unreasonably, would anyone want to remake Robocop this way? It’s path to fruition is based on a glitch in the system; the moment a Hollywood suit, the kind we’d like to see turned to bloody mulch by a couple of machine gun canons, bolted upright in bed and realised that the teen rating was the same as the machine’s target audience. If teenagers loved movies and a rating existed that flagged a film’s suitability for teenagers, why not tailor movies to get that rating? What better way could there be to maximise a film’s potential revenue?
The only problem with this eureka moment is that it’s a robot’s conception of how movie audiences think. Had the genius with the dream spoke to a real ticket-buying teen, he’d have discovered that a movie’s lack of notional suitability for their age group – forbidden fruit, notoriety, was part of the attraction. Kids, you see, like movies made for adults and the reason’s simple: teens like grown up things. There’s no question they won’t see these movies, even if the rating says no. There’s home entertainment, piracy, and better yet, a lifelong devotion to the brand, because a film written and directed with an adult audience in mind is the gift that keeps on giving. A movie like Verhoeven’s Robocop might have provided visceral thrills and eye-catching tech for young eyes, but later one could appreciate the corporate satire, the attack on a colluding media. The only thing today’s teens will appreciate about José Padilha’s remake is that they can’t remember much of it, for it was such a very long time ago and they haven’t watched it since.
Although lacking all the power and brutality of the original movie; a tone that married perfectly with the cutthroat machinations of the satirical Omni Consumer Products, the new Robocop has gone further in one area; a move you might even consider brave. It arguably takes a satirical look at its own conception and production. Michael Keaton’s Omnicorp chairman has a PR problem; his original Robo-products are considered too brutal, too inhumane. If his simple-minded consumers are going to get behind his vision he needs to add humanity to the mix; an emotional connection; but once added, once Joel Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy is weeping over his wife and kid, Keaton realises this melodrama personified is making his product inefficient and maudlin, so orders Gary Oldman’s Josef Mengele with a conscience, to scale back the humanity in a bid to restore Robocop’s edge. Naturally all concerned come to realise it’s too late and eventually succumb to their monstrous act of hubris.
This is the figurative story of Robocop 2014 as well as the literal one. Padilha, constrained by the prime directive from the money men that his movie must be suitable for kids of all ages, knows that he can’t use Verhoeven’s blunt force tactics in hammering home the message that corporations have undemocratically seized control of American civil society, so instead tries to give his story a human heart, making it the tale of a man divorced from his family by corporate interests.
The message is much like the original, that you can’t turn people into machines, no matter how much product you plug them into, but it’s realised here with little or no impact. Why? Because whereas the original movie had the sense to underline its message by making Murphy legally dead and his human existence, including family, lost to him, thereby giving him the anger and impetus to punish those who’d robbed him of his life, Padilha’s movie imagines Robocop as an injured officer with locked in syndrome whose familial separation is a piece of underhanded corporate management. By pushing that relationship front and centre, we just know Murphy will end the movie reunited with Abbie Cornish and son; a ludicrous proposition given our hero’s status as a head and lungs strapped into a titanium robot body. “I want it to be as it was” she tells Robocop in one scene, and the mind boggles.
So the new Robocop is fatally shot to pieces by a gang of writers and directors who’ve insisted on making it a less violent, more intimate story, designed to resonate with a general audience. By the time the film’s reached its anodyne climax; a watered down reprise of Murphy’s penultimate confrontation with Dick Jones; we’ve long since stopped caring about whether this part man, part machine will ever again get to feel his wife’s breast with his inexplicable human hand. Instead we’re more interested in why he has such a hand when both his arms have been removed (did Omnicorp run out of robot hands?), or why everyone talks about him solving his own murder when he’s legally alive and well, or indeed how he’s able to beat his programming and bring Keaton to justice when, unlike his 1987 counterpart, his brain has been medically modified to be subservient to software. If, as Oldman claims, he’s a machine that thinks he’s a man, a man who’s unaware that he’s enslaved to code, how would he ever beat it?
The original movie had it simple: they took the fleshy remains of Alex Murphy and built a cop around him, but his latent humanity slowly rose to the surface. It made sense then. So many things did. This story, the ratings system. Robocop 2014 leaves you wondering: what the fuck happened?