The New RoboCop Is What RoboCop Meant to KillS

This new RoboCop movie does not care that anyone might compare it unfavorably to the original 1987 RoboCop movie. It has been programmed not to care about these things. The most readily available metaphor, which is also true, is that the new movie has killed the human mind and guts of its predecessor and kept the cold mechanical body. The whole thing is flat and obvious; even its musical cues land with the clanking unsubtlety of its protagonist's metallic footsteps.

Most importantly, though, it is not funny. At the screening I attended, there were two lines that drew real laughs, both of which referred to something outside the world of the movie proper. One was simply that the filmmakers had decided to create an arbitrary opportunity for Samuel L. Jackson to say "motherfucker," because Samuel L. Jackson is all about saying "motherfucker" in movies, dig? Motherfucker!

The other one was when one of the characters supplied a winking paraphrase of a line from the original RoboCop, "I'd buy that for a dollar!" In the old RoboCop, this was a dumb catchphrase delivered by a sweaty TV host as he leered at large-breasted women, to the idiotic delight of the cretins watching his show in the broken hellscape of Old Detroit. Now it is a dumb catchphrase delivered to ... the audience watching RoboCop.

There's a basic confusion about genre at work here. The original RoboCop was a brilliant comedy operating in the guise of an ultraviolent action movie, or rather, it was a scathing jeremiad operating as a comedy operating in action-movie guise. It was—and remains—a masterpiece of a specific kind of speculative fiction: tales of a world that is recognizably descended from our own, but which has collapsed under the weight of stupidity, consumerism, violence, and vulgarity.

To put a name on this not-quite-imaginary culture, it is a defining vision of Idiotopia—a vision RoboCop shares with works including The Running Man, Max Headroom, and (most explicitly) Idiocracy. These are tales of a particular sort of future that awaits us, the future of "I'd buy that for a dollar!" and Idiocracy's "Oww! My Balls!" and the sketch show Time Trumpet's "Rape an Ape." It is the ironic frame around Quentin Tarantino's movies, artifacts of an alternative Idiotopian universe where entertainment is a bit more brutal and trashy than our own. (There's a reason "Kill Bill" is syntactically identical to "Rape an Ape.")

But the curse and the genius of the great Idiotopian stories is that their warnings come true. Max Headroom—introductory chyron: "20 Minutes Into the Future"—described a world where televisions couldn't be turned off and where journalists were driven by real-time ratings, forced to change programming on the fly to chase traffic. Right now, you probably have an always-on media-delivery device in your pocket, and if enough of you are reading this story, the count will appear on a big screen inside the doorway of Gawker Media.

Here, then, is a sinister corporate monologue from the first RoboCop:

"We have gambled in markets traditionally regarded as nonprofit—hospitals, prisons, space exploration. I say good business is where you find it."

Today, that's a straightforward business prospectus. Likewise the movie's great symbol of excess, the 6000 SUX sedan—"An American Tradition / 8.2 mpg"—was four years and two clicks of the alphabet away from the rise of the SUVs.

Some of the best visual jokes in the original RoboCop aren't even necessarily recognizable as jokes anymore: The embattled Detroit police wear riot armor as their standard uniform; a news ticker scrolls at eye level above the corporate office urinals. The cops drive beat-up Taurus LXs—a sly gag about the short distance between novelty and decay, replacing the dowdy, square-cornered cop car silhouette of 1987 with the sleek, desirable new jellybean shape. Soon enough, real cops were driving Tauruses, and they looked as dowdy as Dodge Diplomats.

Idiotopian satires can't help but undermine themselves. Their existence is a tribute to the attractiveness of what's being parodied: It's fun to be stupid and violent and to buy stuff. We can dread where our civilization is headed because we understand the reasons it will go there.

The process of rebooting RoboCop wiped all of this away—the anger, the comedy, and the underlying self-awareness. A movie about our world going to hell is now a movie about a cop who is part robot. A "robo-cop," if you will. Nothing more.

This time around, Detroit somehow looks bland and nice. The villainous corporation in the original RoboCop, Omni Consumer Products, schemed about pacifying Old Detroit to raze it and develop a new metropolis, Delta City, on the site. The new RoboCop has abandoned that plot line; it already appears to be set in Delta City, anyway. There are some dilapidated parts, the way there are shabby items for sale in Restoration Hardware, but the terror of a city in collapse is gone.

The police force is only corrupt in the usual old-fashioned way, rather than being torn apart by privatization and civic unraveling. Headquarters seems decent, morale appears to be fine, and wounded officers end up in a hospital that resembles a high-end birthing center.

The smooth functioning extends even to the robots. The new movie's idea of a capitalist conspiracy is this: RoboCop, as a cyborg with a human face and brain, is intended to soften the American public's resistance to automated policing, so that his manufacturer, OmniCorp, can sell its existing models of war-bots on the domestic market.

In an off-key preamble to the movie, we see these fully automated machines patrolling the streets of American-occupied Tehran. Iranians desperately hate the robots, but it's not because of any defect in their operating. They're only oppressive because they carry out their orders so well.

The filmmakers have borrowed the name and basic design of the bigger war-bot, the towering bipedal ED-209, from the original movie. In the imagination of 1987, though, the ED-209 was dangerously incompetent, built with the goal of winning defense contracts whether it worked or not. That was the cynical state of the military-industrial complex then.

Now we get a robot that is able to correctly and instantaneously distinguish between hostile parties and noncombatants—a peculiar thing to extrapolate from the drone technology and tactics we're using in 2014. It feels less like an indictment of our current condition than an evasion. RoboCop's own weapon of first resort this time is a supercharged taser gun, so it's usually unclear, as he blasts away and bodies go flying, whether we're supposed to be watching death or mere incapacitation.

The audience isn't there to ask questions. The story has a supposedly political frame around it, in which Jackson, as a grandstanding Bill O'Reilly-type TV talker, uses his program segments to crusade for repeal of a domestic ban against OmniCorp's robots. The American people and their principled representatives in the Senate, you see, are against the automation of police work, unwilling to trust their own liberty to the shiny hands of the machines.

The movie treats this as a real and significant conflict, without noticing that the technophobes and techophiles alike are missing the point. This RoboCop's real superpower isn't mechanical speed or strength or precision; it's that he has real-time access to the entire police database and the networked feed from every surveillance camera in the city. He interrupts his own public unveiling because his facial-recognition software has identified a wanted criminal in the crowd—immediate proof of cyborg superiority.

Is it, though? The same automated surveillance-and-processing chain could just as easily have relayed its findings to a human officer. Versions of such systems are currently in place, scanning faces and tracking suspicious patterns of movement, for humans to act on. While the movie frets over drones, our real-world security apparatus has already gone cyborg.

In another moment that acts like commentary but isn't, the head of OmniCorp—Michael Keaton, playing the role as Steve Jobs—overrules a focus group that had liked the silver body the company had initially given RoboCop. Borrowing directly from Jobs, he declares that the consumers do not know what they want until you show it to them. This RoboCop should be a menacing tactical black.

What's truly funny—and not funny at all—about the scene is that presumably some version of this conversation actually did take place, at MGM. The real product the bad guys at OmniCorp are marketing isn't RoboCop; it's RoboCop. We're not looking ahead to our idiot dystopia. We're living in it.

[Image by Jim Cooke; photos via MGM]