Set 14 years in the future, the "RoboCop" reboot mixes cutting-edge special effects with a now not-so-unbelievable vision of the future of cyborgs, bipedal drones, and hologram interfaces.
In the 2014 "RoboCop" remake, the titular protagonist Alex Murphy is no longer brought back from the dead, as was the case in the darker, more outlandish 1987 original. Instead, Murphy is critically injured yet alive when robbed of the choice to become an experimental cyborg and the face of OmniCorp's efforts to fill US cities with firearm-wielding droids.
While changing the philosophical nature of the original movie -- which dealt more with the nature of what it meant to be human in a morally depraved future -- it allows the remake to address more realistically inevitable questions regarding technological and scientific advancements on the horizon.
Instead of the original "RoboCop" silver appearance, the remake gives its character a more aggressive, sleek look at the behest of OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars, played by Michael Keaton.
"I was looking at Formula One cars, stealth bombers, time-trial cycling, Iron Man triathletes," said Martin Whist, production designer.
The design team behind "RoboCop" took a conservative -- and more likely accurate -- approach to modifying the urban environment of 2028, given its proximity to the present.
"Any of the advances that show the different time frame mainly are in electronics and technology. The buildings are buildings in the Detroit skyline," Whist said. "Cars don’t fly."
In making Alex Murphy a living cyborg, the "RoboCop" remake forced a design dilemma that the production team had to address, which they did with surprising scientific accuracy. "They dispose of most of his body except for an arm, head, lungs, and spinal cord. That's quite smart," said Charles Higgins, an associate professor of neuroscience and electrical engineering at the University of Arizona.
"We'd want to preserve not just the central brain, but the spinal cord all the way down. That has a lot of info the person will have learned across their life to control their body," Higgins added. "You'd want to tie that into all the motors and synthetic muscles. I suspect it was done for visual effect, but as a scientist, that was the right thing to do."
While keeping the urban landscape of 2028 Detroit recognizable, Whist notes that his team focused more intently on the technology, specifically the interfaces, of the future to emphasize technological change.
"Just as a general rule, it kind of becomes less and less physical the more and more advanced it gets. That was the main theme that we adopted," Whist explained. The film prominently features holographic displays one can interact with, like the one that surrounds Samuel L. Jackson's character, the aggressively pro-military and pro-OmniCorp television show host Pat Novak.
When "RoboCop" does feature consumer electronics -- phones, tablets, and monitors for instance -- each has an almost nonexistent bezel with a transparent display. "As you advance into the future, the more sophisticated the elements, the less noticeable the source of the information," Whist added.
One aspect of the original film that stayed virtually the same in the update is the design and role of the Enforcement Drone Series 209, or ED-209 for short. The autonomous, emotion-free killer robot acts as the antithesis to the still-somewhat-human cyborg.
To bring the remake up to modern standards regarding the ethics of robotics, the plot now features a future piece of legislation known as the Dreyfuss Act, a publicly supported initiative to disallow the combination of droids and firearms on US soil. That law forms the very basis for why the callous executives of OmniCorp put their faith in RoboCop to humanize robotic law enforcement.
In attempting to depict a cyborg more realistically, the production team behind "RoboCop" had to address some more trivial aspects to the design.
"He’s a fusion between biology and robotics: his brain is in there, and his eyes and face and mouth all still exist and are part of the functioning robot. That makes you start to question things, like how does it get its information?" Whist said.
One of the more-pressing questions that the film does address -- suffice it to say RoboCop doesn't eat or go to the bathroom -- is whether Murphy goes to sleep. "He docks, and in his docking he basically uploads and downloads his information and can almost get a blood transfusion," Whist explained.
While critics of initiatives like DARPA's Robotics Challenge Trials fear that the military is discretely funding the development of robotics as weapons without oversight or public discourse on the matter, the level of artificial intelligence in humanoid robots pales in comparison to the current neuroscience and prosthetic advancements made in the lab.
"The truth in the real world is that we're much closer to making RoboCop than ED-209. The RoboCop tech is an extension of existing prosthetics. The ED-209 is a true autonomous robot. It has cognition at the level of a cat or even higher. We don't know how to do that," Higgins said. "A fully autonomous robot that is as intelligent as a cat is much farther in the future."