It’s no secret that Hollywood has a love affair with remakes and reboots. By now, the law of diminishing returns has kicked in, but don’t expect the trend to die any time soon. There are many examples to choose from, but I’ll focus on the recent RoboCop remake. There are a few minor spoilers, so read at your discretion.
Like many children of the 80’s, I’m a big fan of the original RoboCop. Unlike many of my contemporaries, however, I don’t view the film as so sacred that the mere mention of a remake is blasphemous. Although I shared many of my fellow fans’ skepticism about the remake, I was willing to give it a fair shot. I actually thought that Jose Padilha was a good choice of director and that in an era of automation, surveillance, and drone warfare, the filmmakers had ample opportunity to introduce the cutting social satire that characterized Verhoeven’s original. To be fair, there’s an attempt to engage with the drone debate. In the film, robots are illegal in the United States for the purposes of civilian law enforcement, although they are employed by the military overseas. RoboCop is introduced as a legal loophole and an attempt to shape public opinion and change legislation. This provides the main motivation for Michael Keaton’s character, Raymond Sellars, the CEO of Omnicorp.
However, the remake never achieves the visceral violence (it’s rated PG-13), satirical edge, or thematic sophistication of its 1987 predecessor. The original works in large part due to its world-building. The news segments and commercials really give viewers a sense of life in this dystopian world. By contrast, Detroit doesn’t look like such a bad place to live in the remake. This is just one example of a more general problem: the remake doesn’t succeed in building a compelling world. Instead of the Media Breaks, Samuel Jackson hosts a Bill O’Reilly style cable news show called the Novak Element. (The filmmakers work in Basil Poledouris’ score as the show’s theme song.) Although I see what they were trying to accomplish, these segments just seemed clunky and out of place compared to the seamless integration of the TV segments in the original. Instead of delivering clever social commentary on the fictional world, Novak simply delivers unimaginative, albeit entertainingly bombastic, exposition. The remake does such a poor job at world-building that it often relies on the original to do the job for it. For example, Jack Earl Haley’s character Mattox, disappointed with RoboCop’s performance in a simulation, says “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar.” The problem is that the movie doesn’t establish ‘I’d buy that for a dollar’ as a common phrase in that world, so there’s no context for it within the film itself. It’s simply an attempt to trade on the world-building and the goodwill fans feel toward the first RoboCop. But a remake can only live on borrowed capital for so long; it eventually has to earn our interest on its own merits.
Another problem with the remake is that it lacks a charismatic and compelling villain. Clarence Boddicker and Dick Jones were diabolically evil. There’s nothing equivalent to Kurtwood Smith’s and Ronny Cox’s performances in the new film. There’s a Boddicker analogue of sorts in the movie, but the story doesn’t do much with him. Then we’ve got Raymond Sellars, Rick Mattox, corrupt cops, and a corrupt police chief. There are too many villains with too many conflicting motivations and none of them really stand out. The lack of a coherent villain is a weakness of this film. One could argue that the filmmakers were going for more subtle, morally ambiguous villains than the corporate sharks and cocaine dealers of the 80’s. But the audience needs a character to hate for the revenge arc to be satisfying. I was left feeling unsatisfied by the end of the movie.
As in the original, RoboCop is trying to solve his own, i.e. Alex Murphy’s, attempted murder. Unlike the original, however, Murphy is Murphy pretty much throughout the movie; he’s only the robot we remember for about ten minutes. He never really has to reclaim his humanity, an important theme in the original. To its credit, the remake tries to do more with his wife and son, but can’t escape the typical Hollywood portrayal of women in crisis. She spends much of the film crying and being manipulated by male characters. I doubt that many women, much less those of a feminist persuasion, are lining up to see this movie, but if they did, I imagine they’d be disappointed. Despite that knock, there are some good scenes between Joel Kinnaman as Alex and Abbie Cornish as Clara Murphy. Thanks to advances in digital effects, the remake is able to show in greater detail than the original how much of Murphy’s physical form has been lost and how dependent he is on his robotic interface with reality. The film also spends quite a lot of time on the emotional and psychological transition Murphy has to make, which, for an action sci-fi movie of this kind, is surprising and commendable. However, the story is more about how a human would cope with a full body prosthesis, than someone having his humanity erased. I think this is the most important distinction between the remake and original from a character perspective.
Another issue I had with the movie is that it felt small screen despite its big budget, IMAX format, and A-list talent. I experienced this phenomenon before with the Green Lantern adaptation. I’m in a minority of fans who didn’t passionately hate that movie, but I confess that it had problems, the chief one being that it felt more like a TV pilot than a blockbuster. Of course, if it had been a TV pilot on the CW, fans would have embraced it. Despite some very cinematic television in recent years, I think audiences still have lower standards for TV than big screen ‘event’ movies. The RoboCop remake also feels like a TV pilot. Again, if it had been a TV pilot in the Almost Human vein, it would have been a great one. I’d watch that show. Instead, it’s a mediocre movie. That basically sums up my opinion of it.
So, at the end of the screening, I really didn’t have strong feelings about the film one way or another. And that’s the problem. I prefer movies that illicit a reaction, even if it’s hatred (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel). RoboCop 2014 could’ve been better. It definitely could have been worse. It’s a mostly well-acted, competently made movie. But it commits the cardinal sin of any movie, particularly one in this genre: it fails to entertain. Unfortunately, it’s just another unnecessary Hollywood remake that is likely to be forgotten. By contrast, the original remains a classic and deserves to be revisited. I recommend skipping the 2014 edition and picking up the original RoboCop on Blu-ray. It costs more than a dollar, but buy it anyways.