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Director puts ‘RoboCop’ back on the beat

Posted 7:31am on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014

Philosophy! Politics! And a heroic man-machine battling giant bipedal robots with high-caliber mounted guns!

“In the original Robocop, the way I see it, that character embodies an idea: that the automation of violence opens the door to fascism,” says Jose Padilha, director of the new reboot of RoboCop that opened last week. Joel Kinnaman of The Killing stars as Detective Alex Murphy, the man inside the machine.

“America pulled out of Vietnam because soldiers were dying,” says the Brazilian Padilha. “America pulled out of Iraq because soldiers were dying. If you take away the soldiers and you put robots there, what happens? I mean, it’s a question.

“Think about it in another way: If the state asks the police to do preposterous, violent things, police can say ‘No.’ Machines can’t.”

The divide between automaton and human is a particularly timely topic, considering some recent world events — the Arab Spring, the use of drones in warfare — which is par for the course for Padilha. He has made not only acclaimed documentaries such as Secrets of the Tribe, but also two of the most popular movies in Brazilian history: Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which is that country’s highest-grossing film. Although the “Elite Squad” movies are ostensibly action films, their main concern is the violence of police work and its transformative qualities to both cops and communities.

Padilha’s documentarian lack of sentimentality and knack for constructing gripping action sequences make him an intriguing choice to remake Paul Verhoeven’s enduring 1987 cult classic about a devastatingly injured police officer given new life as a mostly mechanical crime fighter. The original RoboCop is largely remembered for its violence and catchphrases, but its Dutch director had subtextual concerns as well, amid plain critiques of corporate corruption and media insanity.

“You look at the very violent armies, or the very violent police groups, and they all go through training that dehumanizes them, that makes them machine-like. So clearly, there is a risk in automating violence,” says Padilha. “Verhoeven saw that in RoboCop. The original RoboCop was a man fighting against directives, machine directives. The more the technology develops, the more this becomes relevant.”

Falling into filmmaking

The sun dramatically setting on the great expanse of Los Angeles several stories beneath Padilha, the filmmaker frequently leans forward into the corona of the SLS Hotel suite’s single lamp as he gains intellectual momentum.

“I’m actually an academic failure,” he says with a broad smile. “I started in college doing physics, then I was hired by an investment bank because of mathematics and derivatives and so on. … I started doing a postdoc in mathematics, but I dropped [out]. So I ended up being a filmmaker — you see what happens?”

Padilha’s standards might be a tad high. His father “produced movies; that’s why I always wanted to make movies. My father is a scientist first, but also a filmmaker. He worked at NASA for a while, he developed patents for stuff; he is the real deal.

“In Brazil at the time, banks were making so much money and hiring kids who were good at mathematics, and I got an offer and I took it. That’s why I’m here as a filmmaker, because I got so depressed and fed up with working in the banks, in one year I was shooting documentaries.”

His interest in “real-life problems” spilled over from his nonfiction work into enormously successful narrative films. “I just don’t know how to make a movie that ain’t about something. I have to like the subject matter in order to make the movie.”

What is human?

In the case of RoboCop, that had to do with not only ethical issues of warfare but also the philosophical quandary of what defines humanity — mixed with robots fighting and a super-cool custom motorcycle blasting through near-future Detroit and stuff. Which may all seem far-fetched … but perhaps it’s not really as far off as one might think.

“We already have drones shooting and fighting wars. At the same time, we know we’re going to have robots. Different countries are going to have to make decisions about that. Brazil is going to have to decide, ‘Do I want to have robots in my police force? Do I want to have robots in my army?’ Every country is going to have to pass legislation about this. It’s going to happen. I saw in RoboCop the chance of making a movie that makes people think about that.”

Which is all well and good, but without an emotional center, things tend to fall apart. So apart from the high-tech detective work, gunbattles and corporate maneuvering, Murphy struggles to reconnect with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and his own humanity.

Padilha recruited an outstanding cast to help root the human part of the film, including Gary Oldman as RoboCop’s ethically burdened Dr. Frankenstein, Samuel L. Jackson as a bloviating television personality, Michael Keaton, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle and Jackie Earle Haley.

“What keeps (Murphy) alive is that he loves his family, his kid, and he wants to be there for them. It’s the strongest emotional core of a human being. Once you lose that, you lose your humanity. Once you lose your ability to have empathy, then you’re like a machine. Then you can perpetrate atrocities.”

Padilha refers to scenes in which Murphy is graphically shown the extent to which his organic material has been replaced with high-tech components, in which Murphy struggles against his programming, and in which he and his wife face the terrible uncertainty that now permeates their relationship.

“Those are the things that define us as human beings,” says the director. “The ability to feel toward each other; we believe that we have free will although a lot of philosophers don’t. But it’s taken away (from Murphy by the corporation). And finally the emotions are taken away. So it talks about what defines us as men, rather than machines.”

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