Though I don’t hold any particular nostalgia for the original Robocop, nor do I consider it some classic that can’t be touched, I do recognize why it holds the status of a classic: Because Paul Verhoeven was a master. By way of Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven did an impossibly good job at conveying complex ideas by way of over-the-top action. These films were subversive in their biting satire, yet subtle enough to pass as mindless entertainment to the untrained eye. No one (with the debatable exception of John “The Thing” Carpenter) delivered such visceral thrills with such deceptive intelligence the way Verhoeven could in his prime. In particular, Robocop was intelligent enough that it bordered on prescient; the aggressive sociopolitical satire of 1987 might not be recognized as fiction to the younger viewers of today.
As such, given the current Hollywood climate, we were probably due for a remake. But the circumstances of this remake must be addressed. See, the original Robocop was released by Orion Pictures, which went bankrupt in 1991. The Robocop movie rights were sold off to MGM, who got in similarly dire straits a decade later. As such, when news of a Robocop remake broke in 2005, it was easy to assume that this was just a desperate attempt to shore up revenue and investor confidence by whatever limited means were still available. The involvement of director Darren Aronofsky was enough to pacify the fanbase somewhat, but financial difficulties stalled the project while Black Swan was coming together at Fox Searchlight. Aronofsky jumped ship, MGM went broke, the Robocop remake was permanently dismantled, and the rest is history.
Then along came Jose Padilha.
In 2011, enough dust had cleared at MGM that Padilha was able to step forward with his own vision for a Robocop reboot. Padilha had earned some amount of credibility by way of his successful Brazilian Elite Squad films, though I’m sure it helped that MGM is still struggling somewhat. As it is, they still needed assistance from Columbia Pictures to get the film made and released. What’s more, Padilha was making his US debut with this blockbuster, and his chosen star (Joel Kinnaman) was stepping into this iconic role with virtually no name recognition. Sure, he had taken a few dozen roles elsewhere, but unless you already knew him from “The Killing” (or Safe House, or Lola Versus, or his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), you probably don’t know him at all. Then again, Kinnaman was leading a cast full of such names as Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Michael K. Williams, and Jennifer Ehle.
With all of this background, you can hopefully understand why movie geeks all over the world have been watching this project with bated breath for years. This is a remake of a beloved sci-fi picture, and it was being made with so many unproven/unreliable factors by a company that’s still trying to regain its credibility. The end result could easily have gone either way.
But it didn’t go either way. Instead, this remake barreled right down the middle. To use a bowling metaphor, I’d call it a 7-10 split.
(Side note: My screening today was preceded by a preview of the upcoming Noah, by Darren Aronofsky. Irony!)
To get the positive aspects out of the way, there’s no doubt that Padilha knows how to present an action scene. The shootouts in this movie are uniformly astounding, and shot in some very innovative ways at times. The highlight undoubtedly comes at the beginning, when we see suicide bombers in Iran blow themselves up on TV to protest the use of autonomous US robots policing Middle Eastern streets. It’s great stuff that’s thought-provoking and intense, every bit as visceral and intelligent as anything I’ve seen from Verhoeven, but with its own pitch-black and gritty flavor.
Then again, this comes immediately after Leo’s iconic roar in the MGM logo is replaced by Samuel L. Jackson doing voice warm-ups. I’m not entirely sure that a great shootout is enough to wash that taste of cinematic blasphemy out of my mouth, so you make the call.
Getting back to the action, another highlight is the Robocop/ED-209 showdown. Except that this time, it’s one Robocop against something like a dozen ED-209s. And the latter robots are much worthier opponents for our cyborg protagonist, though Robocop utilizes a very different design flaw in a much more clever way. Great stuff.
Speaking of design, the movie looks rock-solid. The makeup, costuming, production design, sound design, and VFX are all very impressive. I was especially fond of the moment when Alex Murphy first meets his loved ones post-surgery and there’s a metallic “thump” when they hug. It’s a tiny little detail that makes the whole scene, and that attention to detail is what makes a design job great.
Getting back to ED-209, I suppose I should address the callbacks to the original. There are a few recycled lines here and there, but they’re actually quite subtle. The old catchphrases and concepts are used in new ways that make sense in the new contexts. The Fourth Directive is a prime example; though it’s recognizable, the concept is utilized in a completely new way that makes sense in the context of this new continuity. Very nicely done.
The one exception, however, is the theme. Yes, composer Pedro Bromfman uses the original Robocop theme without any alteration, blaring it multiple times for all the world to hear. I can understand how this might be tempting, since it’s a good strong leitmotif that’s frankly very underrated. Hell, I didn’t complain when John Ottman reused the classic Superman March for Superman Returns. HOWEVER, that film was supposed to be in continuity with the Richard Donner films, so the theme’s use there made sense. This, by contrast, is a completely different Robocop and he deserves his own theme. I could understand a little nod toward the original theme (making it someone’s ringtone, for example) but making it an integral part of the soundtrack is a strong sign that Bromfman had no worthy ideas of his own. As such, when Basil Poledouris’ Robocop theme blared over the opening title card, I don’t think it quite sent the intended message.
In fact, the music as a whole seemed completely void of new ideas. The score sounded exactly like you’d expect a modern-day CGI action blockbuster to sound like. And as for the music that wasn’t score, you’ve got the film playing such songs as “If I Only Had A Heart” (from a much more beloved MGM film, you might notice), “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group, and a modern rock cover of “I Fought the Law.” Yurp.
(CORRECTION: A correspondent has since told me that the film was playing “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, not “Frankenstein.” I really should have known better, but the two songs sound so much alike in passing.)
Fortunately, I’m glad to say that the score is not exactly emblematic of the film itself. It does have a lot of new ideas that weren’t explored in the original, but the bad news is that it’s a weaker film for it. See, when you get right down to it, all the major narrative and thematic differences between the two movies hinge on a single switch. In the original movie, Alex Murphy’s transformation took maybe five minutes of running time, most of which were offscreen. The film then spent most of its running time showing the aftermath, as Robocop endeared himself to some citizens of Detroit, sparked riots and protests, fought crime, and gradually regained his humanity.
In the remake, it’s the reverse. The bulk of the remake’s character development is focused on Alex Murphy’s transformation into a machine, focusing on the various mental, emotional, physical, and ethical ramifications of turning a human being into a mindless robot. I can see how this seemed like a good idea in theory. It takes the basic premise of the original in an entirely new direction, exploring a variety of fascinating new subjects that were only hinted at in the previous film. In practice, however, it deals the remake some heavy, heavy setbacks.
First of all, the “public relations” aspect of Robocop hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s an omnipresent part of the film. Every single corporate decision made in this movie is guided by how the public will perceive Robocop. This means that instead of showing us the PR circus as the previous film did, the remake is content to have so many characters talking about votes and focus groups ad infinitum. Needless to say, that’s not nearly as interesting.
Secondly, this new structure means that Murphy has to spend half an hour gradually losing his humanity before he spends the next half-hour gaining it back. So the narrative and the character build up a full head of steam heading in one direction, only to suddenly make a full stop and head in the opposite direction at top speed. It’s a feat so impossible that the film had to pull out a bullshit deus ex machina to make the 180-degree face-turn work.
This approach ruins the pacing beyond repair, especially since the narrative effectively grinds to a halt while Robocop is in development. It’s really hard to care about all the testing happening in China when we know that Murphy’s loved ones and villains are over in Detroit. The film tries to utilize some work-arounds, but it’s not the same. I don’t want to see fight simulations when Robocop could be facing actual bad guys, I don’t want to see Murphy make Skype calls to his wife when he could be trying to comfort her in person, and I don’t want to see Robocop reading the Detroit news when he could be making the Detroit news.
One last note on the subject of the film’s thematic matter: It’s not the least bit interesting or subtle or subversive, especially when compared to the original. For example, there’s a point early in the film when a man is learning to play the guitar with a pair of mechanical arms. He does beautifully at first, until his emotions change his brain chemistry enough to jar the prosthetic fingers. As such, the character’s emotions are put in direct competition with the machinery, such that they can’t work together. That’s about as subtle as the film ever gets.
It’s worth noting how the plot starts to completely unravel when Robocop arrives and starts patrolling the streets. The moment Robocop starts showing signs that he isn’t working out as expected, the characters’ motivations and development get twisted every which way to suit the needs of the plot. I’m sure the filmmakers would have you believe that the characters are acting irrationally because Robocop is so new and no one at OmniCorp had any idea what they were getting themselves into. But knowing what I do about these characters, I’m more inclined to believe that the filmmakers were out of their depth, without any clue about how to express their ideas in a plot-coherent way.
This brings me to the cast. I honestly felt sorry for every single person cast in this movie, and in the original as well. In both incarnations of this story, the robot is the star. This isn’t even like most superhero movies, the best of which offer larger-than-life supervillains and compelling support characters to share the screen with the hero. In Robocop — the original and the remake — there’s only Alex Murphy after the transformation and all the robots he fights against. Everyone else is a mere mortal stuck playing second banana. And that includes Alex Murphy himself.
The remake puts a huge emphasis on the transformation from Alex Murphy to Robocop. Kinnaman is clearly trying his damnedest to sell the pain his character is going through, and bless his heart for that, but it’s so hard to see his performance through all the plastic and CGI that he’s encased in. It’s like trying to watch someone play Batman: Put on the cowl and the costume does pretty much all the work. Take the cowl away from the costume, and the actor is still irrelevant because the logo, the cape, and the utility belt are all still so much more awesome than whoever’s wearing them. That’s what it’s like watching Kinnaman play Robocop without the visor, as he does through most of the running time. Kinnaman could be giving an Oscar-worthy performance, but how am I supposed to watch it when I’m seeing a pair of lungs rhythmically breathe in and out underneath a disembodied head?
Abbie Cornish plays his wife and brings a surprising amount of dignity to the role. Sam Jackson plays a jingoistic cable news pundit for some comic relief, and if you know anything about Samuel L. Jackson, you know that he lives to chew scenery. Everyone else in the cast — especially Gary Oldman, Jay Baruchel, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, and Michael Keaton to a lesser degree — is clearly in this for a paycheck. They do passable work, to be sure, but I know for a fact that every single one of these actors has a better performance in them. Still, it’s hard for me to hold it against any of these actors. Again, they’re playing ordinary human beings against the kickass cyborg we all came to see.
(Side note: If nothing else, it was quite interesting to see Michael K. Williams play a cop for a change.)
On the subject of violence, I only have to point to Alex Murphy’s near-death. In the original movie, Murphy was shot with so many bullet holes that he more resembled a sponge than a corpse. We saw every agonizing second as sadistic thugs emptied their guns into Murphy until he was little more than a pulpy bloodstain on the floor. In the remake, there’s a car bomb that goes off maybe fifteen feet away from the camera and that’s it. Boom, done. We do see what’s left of Murphy after the explosion, and we do revisit the crime scene multiple times as the film continues, but it’s not the same. The remake doesn’t dare us to enjoy the hyperviolence as the last one did. Hell, the original film had to be trimmed down from an NC-17 because Verhoeven made it so violent, and the remake never even came close to flirting with an R.
I realize that the PG-13 violence may be a dealbreaker for fans of the original, but personally, I don’t think it necessarily diminishes the remake. Part of why Verhoeven could show such an epic bloodbath is because he didn’t deal with themes of guilt and accountability the way Padilha does. Padilha is already in over his head just discussing the possibility of a robot police officer killing a child. If he had actually shown a robot police officer killing a child, that’d be going way darker than the film could possibly handle. Plus, Robocop’s use of a taser weapon is more legally and morally justifiable, it would be easier to sell the public on, and it meshes reasonably well with the direction that modern law enforcement is taking. And Robocop also uses a more traditional gun with bullets, so there’s that.
When all is said and done, I think there’s a very basic question to be asked of any remake (or any sequel, for that matter). Everything about the film, for better or worse, boils down to “Does it earn the right to exist?” In the case of Robocop (2014), I think the answer is yes. The remake does a fine job of taking the original premise in a new direction, exploring different facets and moral ideas of the concept that the original film didn’t. And of course, the remake delivers phenomenal action scenes and effects, the like of which could never be made in 1987.
All of that said, the remake is unquestionably the lesser picture. In terms of plot, character development, and thematic content, the original film has this outclassed by a wide margin. Though I applaud Padilha’s effort — and I have no doubt that executive interference muddled the project somewhere along the way — I can’t really say much more except “thanks for trying.”