“But I was curious to see what they’d do with a remake” is a phrase you need to immediately remove from your vocabulary. We have now suffered through a decade-long creativity crisis in Hollywood, and I can think of maybe one or two remakes that were worthwhile, or at least managed to transcend the very genre’s implicit dispensability. And that’s if I count The Departed amongst the remake cycle. I know I’m flogging a long-long-dead horse, but the remake cycle of the ’00s and ’10s is tiresome, and the bare-faced exploitation of nostalgia reveals a both a horrific cynicism on the part of major Hollywood studios, and a severe lack of film education in the general filmgoing public.
So now we have a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 satire RoboCop to contend with, now directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha (the Elite Squad movies), and that it can – for certain sections – be considered merely passably entertaining isn’t enough to justify its existence. Remember how you forgot about the Total Recall remake? Even though it is perhaps the vastly superior film, this version of RoboCop is destined for the same AverageFest purgatory in just a few months time.
The original RoboCop was a satire of Reagan-era corporate worship, and how privatization of everything can lead to rampant crime, a sleeping media-distracted populace, and an essential denial of humanity, smothered under blatant layers of corporate greed. The faceless yuppies of the original have now been compiled into Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) a clear analogue for Steve Jobs, this generation’s go-to figure for corporate evil (Steve Jobs was also the evil corporate tackling dummy in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2). The crass, catchphrase-spouting future TV has become an angry, slick talking head punditry show hosted by Samuel L. Jackson. And the original’s old-world Euro-trash satire and extreme violence have been thrown away wholesale, the filmmakers forgetting to trade them in for anything at all. It’s rated PG-13, which should say a lot, compared to the very, very hard “R” the original received.
This RoboCop, despite some dalliances with ultra-creepy body horror, seems simultaneously scattered and usual. The plot meanders from act to act, opening holes it never thinks to close, not ever really building momentum. The thematic platitudes are obvious and ham-fisted, and the anti-corporate message seems but one element of a story that also involves medical ethics, notions of free will, a crime wave we never really witness, and wartime politics only tantalizingly hinted at in a brief Iranian-set prologue that is never referred to later in the flick.
A cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is exploded by a bad guy. Sellars, trying to sell his crime-fighting robots to America (the last anti-robot nation in the world), decides to make Murphy’s body into a cyborg with a human brain. Murphy did lose some limbs in the explosion, but when you see the extent of his robotification, you’ll be simultaneously shocked and perhaps a little baffled. The Frankensteinian scenes of medical transformation (at the hands of a worrisome Gary Oldman) do at the very least have a sickly ring of genuine horror, and I enjoyed them. The following crime plot, however, is not as interesting, and never rally collects into the horrific twist you keep longing for. It chugs along in a pretty rote fashion, never daring to break its PG-13 mold, and give us something truly tragic, truly horrifying, or truly satirical.
What’s more, the anti-corporate message rings hollow, especially seeing as how remakes tend to focus on the blind business of the day rather than any sort of actual new explorations of previously dear material.
I can declare that the film has a solid aesthetic, some interesting ideas (I like that RoboCop had to be built in China for use in Detroit), and some fine acting – I was especially fond of Jackie Earle Haley as the anti-cyborg robot expert. But overall, the film deflates, unable to capture any sort of subversive naughtiness, fun violence, or even distinguishable action sequences. RoboCop is just sort of limp, middle-of-the-road, dollar bin fodder.
A note to 15-year-old boys everywhere: find the original and watch it. Sneak it into the house when your parents aren’t looking. You’ll discover one of the finer sci-fi films of the 1980s, and one of the most violent. Don’t even do it to compare it to this remake. Just watch a good movie. It’s easier than you think.