"RoboCop" is back — with a modern political twist.
The story of a machine peacekeeper patrolling the streets of Detroit has been recalibrated as an allegory about drone warfare in an age when remote-control killings have become a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.
Nearly three decades since the release of the Cold-War era film, director José Padilha’s remake reflects the growing debate in Washington over just how extensively drones should be employed.
The film opens with Pat Novak — played by Samuel L. Jackson — a corporate shill masquerading as a newsman, talking up the virtues of American robots and drones keeping watch over Tehran.
“It is great to see American machines helping to promote peace abroad – so then tell me, why can’t we use these machines here at home?” Jackson asks, laying out the central theme of the movie in an intentionally cartoonish way. “Why is America so robo-phobic?”
That query hangs over the film as the familiar elements of the sci-fi origin story play out on screen.
Alex Murphy — portrayed by Joel Kinnaman — is a Detroit police officer nearly killed by a ruthless gang leader. A massive corporation OmniCorp, preserves a fraction of his body, ultimately putting him in a hunk of metal designed to protect the Motor City. As in the original film, Murphy turns on his creators — albeit in a more sanitized, PG-13 way.
But the film obviously takes its inspiration from recent political events.
Once the robot crime tool begins to clean up the streets of Detroit, the public quickly rallies behind such technology. It's a phenomenon not so different from repeated polling that shows widespread public support for the U.S. drone campaign.
The film takes aim at such approval, questioning whether limiting American casualties on the battlefield is sufficient justification for taking the human component out of war.
President Obama has defended the expansion of drone strikes in the Middle East, arguing that it enhances American national security at a fraction of the cost of traditional warfare.
"This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on," Obama said in 2012, defending the drone program.
"It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash. It's not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions,” he added. “And it is also part and parcel of our overall authority when it comes to battling al Qaeda. It is not something that's being used beyond that."
By coincidence, the film is being released just as the Obama administration weighs whether it can use a drone strike to kill an American overseas suspected of plotting terrorist attacks against the homeland.
And “RoboCop” comes in the wake of various states passing laws to restrict the domestic deployment of drones.
The film's political message falls in line with repeated warnings from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
“What will be the standard for how we kill Americans in America?” Paul asked in his filibuster last year of John Brennan's nomination to lead the CIA. “Could political dissent be part of the standard for drone strikes?”
Padilha, the director, acknowledged such concerns when promoting his cautionary tale.
“I think we are afraid of drones. I think more and more drones are being used in wars and there is a host of consequences by the use of drones,” he said. “And we're going to take a step beyond drones. Because we're eventually going to run into autonomous drones, which means drones don't even have people piloting them — they're just complex software, running the machine.”
This is not to suggest that the film is purely a think piece. It's also a genre movie that has been met with decidedly mixed reviews.
But in the cinematic doldrums of February, moviegoers will have an opportunity to grapple with many of the same questions now consuming their elected leaders — minus the gore fest normally associated with the “RoboCop” brand.