Comic-Con 2013: ‘RoboCop’ panel balances drone controversy with sci-fi action

SAN DIEGO – It’s become commonplace to initially disparage remakes of beloved sci-fi films. Often they seem uninspired, slicked-up exercises intended only to earn a moviegoer’s heard-earned $17 (last year’s “Total Recall,” for example), but sometimes they create something original and unexpected (J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek”). The jury is still out, but MGM and Sony Pictures’ reboot of “RoboCop” may fall into the later camp.

The original 1987 thriller was directed with ’80s gusto and camp by Paul Verhoeven. Highly entertaining on one hand, it was also a harsh indictment for increasing police brutality and the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots during that greed-filled decade. It found Peter Weller playing a critically injured police officer who is resurrected as a powerful cyborg meant to bring justice to the streets of Detroit. For acclaimed director José Padilha (“Elite Squad”), it was clear a straight remake would not work today.

“I saw it in ’87; it’s just a film you can’t do again,” Padilha said. “We didn’t decide to redo ‘RoboCop.’ We took the concept of ‘RoboCop’ and brought it to the present.”

Based on the footage shown for the first time at Comic-Con on Friday, this new “RoboCop” takes place in a not-so-distant future (perhaps a few years) where Omnicorp has cornered the market on robotic soldiers and vehicles overseas. These machines have pretty much replaced human soldiers (much like drones today) and seemingly have helped keep the peace in volatile areas. For industrialist Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), there isn’t just a financial opportunity to use these robots for domestic security, but a safer one. If robots are replacing humans, the lives of police officers won’t be in danger.

“He’s a big thinker,” Keaton said of Sellars. “If he had to check what is right is wrong, he simplifies everything. He’s the ultimate pragmatist. This is the world we live in. Am I wrong because I do this I think the world will be a better place? That’s the issue right now.”

It’s hard to imagine such a politically charged issue shaping a mainstream Hollywood film, and to be candid, the current hot button issue may be a convenient selling point.

“The movie takes the current issue of drones and takes them to their increasingly robotic evolution,” Padilha noted. “The first film saw [the future uses], which is of great merit. Now we have more knowledge of how it’s going to go down. First we use them abroad and then we are going to use them at home.”

The filmmaker continued, “It’s fun, has a lot of action, but it’s also a movie that talks about the near future. Right now we are already seeing drones in wars. And soon we’ll see robots being used in wars. When a policeman makes a mistake and shoots a child you can judge a policeman and put him on trial. When a robot makes a mistake and shoots a robot you cannot put it on trail. Is it the programmer who made the robot or is it the city who put it out there?”

An unexpected character who is front and center at pushing for robot policemen is a Fox News-inspired TV pundit played by Samuel L. Jackson.

“I like to refer to Pat Novak as Russ Sharpton,” Jackson said of his character. “A guy who has an opinion and is not afraid to state it and uses every means necessary to get people to agree with him.”

At the center of the movie, however, and hopefully not playing second fiddle to his more well-known co-stars, is Joel Kinnaman (AMC’s “The Killing”). The Swedish actor takes Weller’s role as Alex Murphy, a cop who is taken down and, in order to survive, becomes half-man, half-machine.

“Big difference between the original and [the new film] is he doesn’t die,” Kinnaman said. “He has a form of respiratory system in the armor and in the course of the movie he has this internal battle with the artificial intelligence and his own soul and his own humanity. That was the challenge, to portray that.”

He may not die, but based on the footage shown, what his wife (Abbie Cornish) allows Omnicorp to do seems to make him far from human. A computer is connected to his brain and he is portrayed as cold and inhuman, like Weller’s original armored warrior. In fact, the footage makes it unclear whether he even remembers who he is after the transformation. It’s almost more disturbing than what occurs to Murphy in the original film.

His look? It’s basically a slicked-up version of the original armor, but with dark metal instead of a silver facade. Oh, and his visor seems a bit inspired by, um, the classic “Knight Rider” car from back in the day. (Really.)

One of the few moments of levity during the discussion of the film came from Kinnaman recalling how difficult it was to act with the visor on.

“In all the scenes where there is social interaction the visor comes up,” he said. “When a crime is committed near his vicinity, that’s when the visor comes down. In all the actual scenes the visor is up except when I’m pissed. I had to perfect my jaw acting. I’d be angry with only my mouth.” 

We’ll find out whether this “RoboCop” can live up to the promise that it’s more than just an action flick when it opens nationwide on Feb. 7, 2014.