Jose Padilha confronts automated death-dealing in his RoboCop remake

Jose Padilha confronts the morality of automated death-dealing in his RoboCop remake, writes Kavita Daswani

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 5:11pm

Up until he took on the task of remaking RoboCop, director-producer Jose Padilha was little-known outside his native Brazil, where his ultra-violent Elite Squad (2007) and its 2010 sequel were among the highest-grossing movies in the country's history, winning an armful of awards, and becoming something of a cultural phenomenon.

As far as budget and global reach go, RoboCop, his new version of the action-packed 1987 classic science-fiction satire directed by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven and starring Peter Weller, is Padilha's biggest film to date. The 2014 edition's plot cleaves closely to that of the original, revolving around a policeman who would otherwise be an amputee in a wheelchair but is given new life as a virtually indestructible robot, assigned with fighting crime, and killing criminals whenever necessary.

But if a robot kills a kid, it makes no sense to punish the robot - so then, who is accountable?
Jose Padilha 

A physics degree holder who has worked in high finance, the 46-year-old Padilha confers an intelligence to the film that isn't typically seen in the genre. "Hollywood ran out of original ideas a long time ago," he says about the current predilection for remakes, sequels and expansions of existing franchises.

"The original RoboCop was a classic, very bold aesthetically in its use of violence. But first and foremost, it created a character that encapsulates an idea that I think is pretty sophisticated. You might watch it and not get it, but it's there."

The Brazilian sees "the heart and soul" of both the original and his reboot being "the connection between the automation of violence and war, and fascism". When viewing the 1987 film, "It's what I thought about when I watched it, and it's easy to spot," he says.

Rather than veer away from this theme, his film embraces this concept and "that's the thing we should be wary about: that when there is automated violence, that is the door to fascism". That notion - of someone behind the scenes controlling human-killing machines - exists already and raises questions about morality.

"When you automate violence," Padilha says, "everything changes. If you have a policeman in Rio [de Janeiro] and there is a shooting and he kills a kid by mistake he can be arrested, judged and punished. But if a robot kills a kid, it makes no sense to punish the robot - so then, who is accountable? Is it the guy who developed it, or manufactured it, or the software? Accountability becomes fuzzy when you have automatic things making decisions in the real world. And in 10 or 15 years, countries will have to react to that."

Padilha's RoboCop is set in 2028, in a Detroit where OmniCorp, a conglomerate helmed by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), makes drones and robotic troops which are used around the world. In the US, however, the technology is illegal. So Sellars has an idea: make a robot that is part conscious, sentient human being. Dr Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) is the neuro-engineer called in to make it happen.

But in order for a man to be transformed into a robot, he has to almost die first: Swedish-born actor Joel Kinnaman plays Alex Murphy, a police officer badly injured by a car bomb whose only recourse, if he wants to live, is to inhabit the body of a robot.

Suddenly, a RoboCop is allowed to roam the streets of Detroit, bolstering the argument - as pushed by Samuel L. Jackson's right-wing media celebrity Patrick Novak - to have RoboCops in every city in the United States.

While Murphy is sent out on crime-fighting missions in Detroit, he is also trying to investigate his own near-death, while needing to maintain a relationship with his beloved wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (12-year-old Canadian actor John Paul Ruttan). "It seems to be a simple premise, but it entails a lot of things," says Padilha. "[Alex] is being used by a corporation to advance an agenda. He is a conscious RoboCop, and there has to be a real person inside the robot, so people can feel he is making his own decisions. He has a life, and then one day he wakes up and he's a robot. It's terrible and frightening. He can't touch his kid. His life has been stripped away. He has to be docked into a medical device so his blood can be cleaned of viruses and bacteria because he has no immune system. He is fed through tubes. It's a nightmare being RoboCop.

"So once you get the political premise and throw it onto this character, there are amazing dramatic opportunities: how does he live like that, how does his family cope?"

Veteran actor Oldman relished the idea of working with Padilha, because he knew the director would bring an unusual dimension to the film. "Because it's Jose, it's already got a pedigree to it. It was more appealing to me going into it, saying 'I like this guy, I like his other stuff'," the star says.

"This is the first time he's dipping his toe into pop culture. But coming from that other world, he's bringing his own sensitivity to it."

And even though the film's territory borders science fiction, Oldman believes it is still reality-based, largely due to the logical mind of the director. "There's a lot of exposition and analysis and we tried to make it as intelligent as we possibly could, to give it an internal logic, even if it's a genre movie," he says.

Oldman describes sitting down with Padilha for four weeks, and "we got rid of all the stupid people doing stupid things". For example, " Iron Man is a great ride, but no-one can fly from Malibu to Afghanistan, and if they could, where would the layover be? We took out stuff like that," the actor says.

In this RoboCop, he says, "there are no people landing nuclear bombs on meteors that are hurtling towards the earth. I do not want people, when they go home after the movie, to have what I call a 'refrigerator moment': when they open the fridge to get a beer or milk or whatever, and they're thinking about the film, saying to themselves, 'hang on a minute, how did those things happen?'

"In this movie they should think, 'Yes, why couldn't someone be made up of 50 per cent robotic parts?' It seems that anything is possible."

RoboCop opens on Thursday