For a filmmaker like José Padilha, whose upcoming RoboCop remake deals with the pros and cons of technological advancement, technology doesn’t seem to be his friend on this particular day.
While conducting a phone interview with Padilha from his home in Rio de Janeiro during a break in his post-production schedule, a brief blackout in the Brazilian city creates a strange beeping sound on the line, a result of his home alarm system going off. After calling back, the connection breaks up two more times before a clean line is finally secured. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear OmniCorp, the shady corporation at the core of both RoboCop films, just might be behind this chain of events.
“I love the first RoboCop,” says Padilha of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s satiric and bloody 1987 original. “And I’m a fan of Verhoeven. He doesn’t shy away from using the language of film and the aesthetics of it by putting it right in your face. Especially with RoboCop, to talk about social issues and create some sort of metaphor. I pretty much consider the original movie to be about fascism and the loss of man’s individuality and the way Verhoeven tackled it was smart.”
That unique perspective is what Padilha feels drives not only RoboCop, but other Verhoeven films. “He had this political drive and I can see it in his other films,” says Padilha. “He has a unique approach in the aesthetics to his movies. It wouldn’t make any sense to emulate it.”
For Padilha, breaking into filmmaking came through documentaries, but he made his biggest splash with his Brazil-set fiction films Elite Squad and its sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which focused on Rio’s SWAT-like Special Police Operations Squad.
Like Verhoeven, Padilha’s mix of action and social commentary is what put him on the radar of Hollywood and a meeting with MGM led to him nabbing the RoboCop job in an unexpected way after original helmer Darren Aronofsky left the project. “When I went in to talk to MGM for the first time, they didn’t offer me RoboCop,” the filmmaker admits. “They wanted to talk to me about other movies, but I saw the poster for the original  RoboCop and I said, ‘I have a take on this one.’ So it was me who said to them, ‘let’s do this’ and they liked my take on it, so here we are.”
That pitch involved the notion of military drones in battle and what that could mean in the future for wars. It was completely different from the take that Aronofsky was working on. “I decided to start from scratch,” admits Padilha. “I just had a take on the story and I wanted to go from there. The idea was in the future, the natural development from drones in warfare are autonomous drones, smart robots that will be able to make decisions on the spot. They will be able to determine if someone is or is not a terrorist threat and act accordingly, so automated decisions will decide life over death. I think this will be happening soon, and it’s going to be a real important decision in the future, both politically and philosophically. When you have a robot that’s pulling the trigger, but making the decision itself, our culpability gets thrown out the window. In the new film, set in 2028 Detroit, OmniCorp have these drones in other countries, but not in America. So they want to get them into the American market and needed a product that had a consciousness, therefore they put a man inside a machine, and that’s the premise for the movie.”
The other thing that separates Padilha’s film from the original is how far technology has changed since 1987 and how much we now rely on it to get by in everyday life. “We’re much closer to the reality of the original RoboCop today than we were in 1987,” says Padilha. “It creates an interesting political question. Consider the war in Vietnam. The war ended for one of many reasons, but one of them was that too many Americans were dying. The same with Iraq. Too many people dying abroad creates a lot of pressure at home. If wars are fought by robots, they could go on forever, because no Americans would die. It opens a lot of questions and, all of a sudden, you have a gigantic imbalance of power. Then you have people fighting robots and there’s something perverse about that. Furthermore, you wouldn’t have any pressure to stop that kind of invasion. Those issues are pretty much here. Machines are also not corruptible, and they can be instilled with certain values and values represented by law. There’s a certain advantage, but also a gigantic disadvantage when you ask if a machine understands the value of a human life and why should it be allowed to take one. This is the debate we are going to be having pretty soon and what we try to anticipate here. I tailored the movie for that. We didn’t try to repeat the first movie. It’s not doable. It’s already been done and it’s great.”
In the original film, Peter Weller played Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop who is injured in the line of duty and transformed into a brand new form of police enforcement: a robotic cop. In the new film, Joel Kinnaman plays the title character and the story digs a little deeper into what makes us human. “Alex Murphy has a beautiful wife, a beautiful kid who loves him and, all of a sudden, just like somebody going to war, he’s seriously wounded and cannot function the way he functioned before,” says Padilha, who adds that that brings up questions about being able to touch his son or make love to his wife or even have human interactions with people. “How do you handle that? If you have intellect and memory, exactly the way they were, but the body is stripped away from you, how does that affect you, in the sense of what it means to be a human being? What defines a human being? Is it brain capacity only or is it interacting with other human beings?”
Another difference between the original and the new film is the evolution of Murphy as RoboCop. “In the original, Alex Murphy is dead when he becomes RoboCop,” says Padilha. “In our movie, he becomes RoboCop slowly. The first time he is RoboCop, he’s a man who wakes up and doesn’t have a body. He’s robotic. What does that mean and what does that mean to be a man? Alex Murphy has to react to that and the way Joel Kinnaman did that is astonishing. He’s an amazing actor and I am so happy we cast him.”
Design-wise, the new film presents three different iterations of the RoboCop design, with one looking pretty faithful to the original film’s silver suit, which was created by famed makeup effects expert Rob Bottin. “When Alex Murphy is going to be RoboCop, this company is launching a product and they test out different versions of their product,” says Padilha. “When Coca-Cola puts out a new drink, they test different cans and have different focus groups until they pick the one the audience likes the best. The same thing goes with RoboCop. They strike the best design market-wise, so there are three different suit designs.”
Working within the studio system was new for Padilha, especially after having autonomy both with the documentaries and feature films he helmed in Brazil. However, he was pleased they let him bring his own sensibilities and beliefs to such a big and expensive franchise. “I was used to doing movies I wanted to do and I had total creative control,” says Padilha. “In the studio system, you have a structure and you have to talk to several people as you develop the movie for a good reason. You have a company putting almost $100 million into a movie, and the company has an interest in looking at the movie as ‘Is this a good or bad investment?’ I went into the system knowing what it was; at the same time, I believe in the power of good storytelling. I think good storytelling is stronger than a formula to begin with. I don’t buy the idea that there is a blockbuster formula. I believe in telling compelling stories and meaningful stories, and I presented that to the studio very clearly from the get-go. That’s the trick. If you go into this movie and state very clearly what you want to do and stay true to this, the studio believes in the idea and you can do what you want in a big movie. That’s what we’ve got here. My experience has been very good.
Of course, Padilha says that just because this RoboCop is more expensive than the original, that doesn’t mean he had less artistic freedom. “Despite the fact that this is how the system works, we’ve managed to deliver a very original movie that’s different from any superhero movie you’ve ever seen,” says Padilha. “The movie is very political and, at the same time, philosophical. And even though it’s an expensive movie with a lot of visual effects, whether it’s a good movie or not, we’ll let the audience decide. But I think we pulled it off. We managed to do the movie that I wanted to do.”
Splitting his time between documentary and narrative films has helped Padilha evolve as a filmmaker, he admits. And documentaries definitely make him look at narrative films in a completely different way. “The structured and research-based documentaries really helped me with RoboCop,” says Padilha. “I went to research all the issues with drones and robots, and understood all the philosophies of mind behind those issues. It was helpful. Also, in documentaries, you don’t have time to think. You have to come up with shots to shoot, otherwise, you might miss it. It’s a helpful exercise for a movie director. It helps you capture actors improvising and there was a lot of improvisation for a movie as big as this one.”
And while Padilha is on the topic of technology, he reveals his love for film and how film is quickly being replaced with shooting digitally, which is what had to happen with RoboCop. “Every movie I’ve done, I shot on film — I love film,” says Padilha. “In Brazil, people still shoot on film and we have some operational film labs. For instance, in Toronto, where we shot RoboCop, there are no labs to develop film anymore [so we shot digitally]. The labs themselves don’t get a lot of work. They are having more problems than ever before. It’s a sad state of affairs, because I love shooting on film. Unfortunately, the era of film seems to be dying and it’s very sad to me. Very few movies will be shot on film from now on.”
Sounds like another conspiracy we might be able to pin on OmniCorp.