Justice Upgraded

It is the year 2028, when the city of Detroit is being patrolled by the most unique and relentless crime fighter in the world: the half man/half robot Alex Murphy, also known as RoboCop. Condemned to a certain death after being the victim of a terrible explosion, our hero was given a second chance by the powerful corporation OmniCorp, specialized in designing and constructing robots, that offers him the possibility to inhabit a new and powerful mechanical body that enables him, not only to continue living, but to be stronger and faster than he ever could have imagined.

Joel Kinnaman;Gary Oldman;Aimee Garcia

When Murphy’s wife Clara reluctantly signs off under strenuous pressure the authorization for her fading husband to be a part of the newly devised RoboCop program, as what is explained to her as the only way of keeping him alive, little does she know that they are puppets in the middle of a gigantic political and corporate battle.

That is the story of RoboCop, based on the classic cult movie directed by Paul Verhoeven in 1987, which in 2014 will hit theatres all over the world as an action-packed adventure constructed around themes that seem more relevant today than ever before.

Director Jose Padilha explains how he got involved in this project: “Around 3 years ago I went to a meeting at MGM, because they wanted to talk to me about some projects they had. They mentioned several movies they were interested in doing but that didn’t really appeal to me, until I saw they had a poster of the original RoboCop on the wall in the background and I said to them: ‘That’s the one I want to do!’ Then they asked me what I wanted to do with it, and I answered that I would shoot a movie that talked about the relation between fascism and the automation of law enforcement, like the first film already did; but make it more current, as we are on the verge of having to face this reality. And I had a premise for it: we are in the future (2028) and all the superpowers are using robots for war, but in America they don’t allow them to be deployed domestically for law enforcement, because there is a law that forbids the machine to pull the trigger. That was my take from day 1, in that room, and that is the movie we have shot!”

Being a physicist before getting involved in filmmaking, the Brazilian filmmaker was fascinated by the themes of the story: “Humanity has evolved a lot, which we can see through the increase of our average life-span. There is undeniable progress. I mean; do you imagine having a toothache in the Middle Ages! I love science because it has changed things mostly in a very positive way; but, as a famous physicist once said, ‘Science is a key that can open two doors: the door to heaven and the door to hell.’ So, you should be weary of what you do with it and keep your eyes open. And the reason to make a movie like RoboCop is precisely to discuss things like what does it entail to have robots pulling triggers. Because if they kill a kid by mistake, who is to blame? Once you get autonomous machines making life and death decisions accountability becomes fuzzy, and that is something we need to discuss because it is an area where science can go astray.”

The first step was to construct an exciting script around that concept and find the right actor to play Alex Murphy/RoboCop, a role that would end up in the hands of Joel Kinnaman. “There is a big difference between the vision of a robot in 1987 to our future vision of a robot now, because today we already have robots and people with bionic hands and legs that work perfectly well,” explains the Swedish born actor. “So, our vision of a robot in 15 years is going to be something that is pretty advanced!”

Joel Kinnaman;Marianne Jean-Baptiste

That expectation led Production Designer Martin Whist to come up with some groundbreaking and visionary concepts for the robots, vehicles and weapons that appear in the movie, and especially for the design of the new RoboCop suit. “I started with the original concept because we wanted to tip our hat to it and, at the same time, modernize it. And we actually made two: a first one that was more akin to the original and then we reinvented a new version that appears later in the movie.”

“I’m even taller in the RoboCop suit!” chuckles 6’ 2” Kinnaman. “There are always going to be a lot of opinions about it, but I love it. It took about half an hour to put on and is formed of pieces that had to be assembled together. So, wearing it completely changed my pattern of movements. And even though I have to admit that it was a bit uncomfortable, because it weighed around 35 pounds and was pretty taxing, I got used to it. Wearing it became the reality of the situation. And if I ever thought any morning, ‘Ugh, I have got to put this on again,’ I just reminded myself how incredibly fortunate I was.”

“Different to the original,” he continues, “in this movie you can still see my face until I go into combat mode, because there is a visor that comes down. But if I am in a non-threatening situation you can see my face perfectly well.”

RoboCop has to go through many threatening situations while he patrols the streets of a futuristic Detroit solving crimes that include his own. So, when needed, the visor comes down and all hell breaks loose. “He has a lot of fire power!” exclaims Kinnaman. “And when he gets involved in a fight he uses a mixture of many things. I studied some Brazilian jujitsu movements that were modified due to the constraints of the suit, and I did some Thai Boxing too, which helped.”

Involved in some of the fights is the character of Mattox, RoboCop’s trainer, embodied on the screen by Jackie Earle Haley. “In those scenes I have a suit known as the exo-skeleton that looks great and was fun to wear,” he recalls. “It weighed around 30 pounds, with some tension on it that pulled it down; but it was all right, as I could get into it in around 20 minutes and out of easily. Definitely not as overwhelming as the Freddy Krueger make-up I had in A Nightmare on Elm Street that took hours to put on and I was stuck with all day…

“What’s cool about the 21st century vision of this movie has a lot to do with what we are capable of now,” continues the actor, “and not just in terms of computer graphics but also in terms of just how they shoot movies. The technology and the crews are better! In the first RoboCop I believe they used stop-motion with the robots, which now does look a bit dated. So, we really needed to update it!”

Joel Kinnaman

One of the coolest vehicles that appear in the movie is RoboCop’s bike. In the Production Designer’s words: “That thing is insane! Our base was a Kawasaki someone built and that we converted into his bike. I wanted a functioning motorcycle that was real, kick-ass and looked amazing. It doesn’t do anything weird like morphing, although it does have contact points that merge into the suit. So as a computer RoboCop interfaces with his bike, and still does actually ride it! One of the most dramatic things I did was extend the wheel base by about two feet from a regular motorcycle and then lift the back up to make it bigger and more aggressive. It’s sort of an attack animal!”

“He doesn’t have a specific car,” he continues, “but we designed special cars for the Detroit police force that have been totally jacked up and reclad. When RoboCop rolls up the street on his bike surrounded by those cars it’s just totally badass! The truth is that we have a lot of cool vehicles in the movie. But, not being that far into the future, I didn’t want flying cars or anything too ridiculous. So it just needed to look as an update of what is happening right now, using smoother lines and cooler concepts that will also be enhanced by visual effects.”

“Talking in terms of shots, we tracked between 1,300 and 1,600 visual effects shots,” confesses Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Price. “First we have the ones that have to do with RoboCop doing something superhuman based on his abilities as such, because one of the things that really distinguishes this movie has to do with the way he moves. And what I mean by that is that, apart from having the performance of Joel, in CG we have blended his emotion into an animated performance in the situations where he is doing something superhuman because he is stronger and faster. So, there is a subtlety to the performance that we add a robotic component to and then try to make look believable and real while integrating it with the performance the actor is establishing. And we have other robots in the film like the ED-209, which is a player in several sequences, the humanoid EM-208 and also some flying drones. Another big category of shots is connected with the futurization we do by adding a few extra buildings to the landscape and augmenting the vehicles or other items in the film. And then, related to that, we have the graphics, because surveillance and monitoring also form a big part of the movie. So, we have a lot of displays and P.O.V., whether it’s from RoboCop or other robots.”

“I am pretty sure we will have international debates in the UN trying to decide what is correct or incorrect about the use of autonomous robots in war,” foresees José Padilha, “and the same thing will be discussed in every country in regards to their law enforcement laws and the constraints and of what robots can or cannot do. It’s going to happen! And our movie is grounded this way, as its premise is that you cannot use robots for law enforcement in America. Only a conscious human being can be allowed to pull the trigger, because only a human being understands what it is to be human and the true value of human life. So, contrary to the original movie, my RoboCop doesn’t die and become a soulless robot. His brain is intact! This way the emotions and cognitive capacity of Alex Murphy are in there the day he wakes up and finds out he is a robot.”

Next to him at that pivotal moment in the story is Dr. Dennett Norton, described by Gary Oldman as a “well-meaning and well-intentioned guy with great moral compass and integrity that happens to be talented and is brought on to the RoboCop project to help people, but is lured by funding.” As the British actors well explains: “The initial launch of RoboCop is successful; but, because they are in uncharted waters and don’t know what they are dealing with, his soul and emotion start to override the system -which is something they hadn’t calculated. Then they have to fix that so called ‘glitch’ in the system.”

Joel Kinnaman

One of the key storylines in the movie has to do precisely with the emotional effect his new form of existence will have on his wife and son, and on himself too. “One of the themes of the film has to do with what makes a human being,” explains Abbie Cornish, who plays his wife; ”but, at the end of the day, what she is driven by is love: for her him and her son. And I liked that it was never selfish, but compassionate. It’s something I’ve seen in all the mothers I’ve spoken to in order to prepare the role. There was a calm to Clara Murphy and a solidarity that I liked. In the beginning of the movie, when they are all together, she is in a very happy place in her life with a husband that she loves and a very healthy child. There is a piece and serenity there that obviously gets blown apart…”

Clara’s willpower and determination will lead her to confront OmniCorp all the way to its head, Raymond Sellars, played by Michael Keaton. “Michael succeeds in not playing your typical villain and delivers and extraordinary performance,” states Padilha. “And the same can be said about Samuel L. Jackson, who is just a force of nature as this media guy called Novak. When he steps onto the set every single camera looks at him!”

Having worn a Batman suit before, when asked if he was ever tempted to try the RoboCop suit on Keaton’s answer was loud and clear: “No! However, we have come a long way. Our suit looks much more comfortable than the one I had to wear back in the day…”

Jay Baruchel, who portrays the marketing wiz that works for OmniCorp and that channels a lot of the humor in the movie, also had no intention on trying on the RoboCop suit. “I can imagine what it must be like in there…” he joked. “Have you ever been in a locker room after a hockey game?”

Humor, action and drama are all present in a film that retells a story that feels now more current than ever. “As humans we continually go back to our favorite stories,” comments Kinnaman, “which we continuously do in the theatre (nobody is complaining about a remake of Hamlet). So, I think there is a value in retelling old stories in the light of all those new experiences and events that have made societies evolve to where they are today.”

“I think the movie I have done is pretty realistic,” adds Padilha. “If you look at the original RoboCop, that I love, you can see that it is coherent in the way it portrays violence and at the same time had a great philosophical idea in it -which is that the automation of violence can open the door to fascism. And that’s embodied in the character of RoboCop.”

Now that concept has been updated on the big screen in the most exciting way possible. “And we have lots of special effects in RoboCop,” reminds the director, “which I see as a craft. First you learn how to shoot with graphic designing and visual effects, and then you have a team of people working with you to make it work. The visual effects supervisor is on set with you discussing how it will look because, even if there is nothing there, the camera is still tracking it. So, it is a craft that if used correctly doesn’t strip the feeling of realism from the movie. And, in regards to the action, I do admit that I shot most of the those scenes myself and came up with some set pieces that have not been done before, like a gun battle with more than 50 weapons in the dark. Actually, we only lit the scene with the light that came from all the gunshots! The action is very cool and fun.”

Story by Mateo Anderson

Images and Digital story courtesy of Sony Pictures Singapore

RoboCop opens in cinemas 30 Jan 2014

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