Remakes. As a rule I don’t think much of them. The premise is to take a successful old film (not a flop, which would benefit from a revisit) and bring it into the new age, usually to exploit a brand new to a new generation and because the film industry is in a quagmire: Everything has been done, so let’s do it again.
The first time I saw the original 18-certificate Robocop, I was 8 years old. It wasn’t at the cinema, of course, but this film had recently come out for a rental and a friend of mine (via his parents) had managed to get it and I was in awe at his house. It remains possibly the most violent film I’ve ever seen (and it didn’t ‘warp my fragile little mind’) and possibly one of the most inventive sci-fi-action-satire stories ever. The satire was a little lost on me until later years, but I remained firm that what was a classic.
The 2 sequels suffered from the laws of diminishing returns. With no Paul Verhoeven there was no ultra-violence any more (and this was in order to create deep sympathy with the protagonist murdered early in the original), and then we lost Peter Weller as Robocop for the final PG-rated yawn.
Nearly 30 years later instead of a sequel we’re back with a remake of the original film that possibly serves as a boot for a new series (chorus: “oh no!”). Many – possibly all – fans of the first film had a bad taste in their mouth. The non-success of recent 80s remakes (Total Recall, The A-Team etc.) didn’t bode well. We had films that looked slicker but didn’t have the soul of the original. I was ready to completely throw in the towel when I heard Darren Aronofsky walked away from directing it. He’s good, so it must be bad. I was put off by leaked materials from the film too.
To get closer to the point, I saw the remake by renting it on a tablet (the first time I did that. I remember walking back with VHS tapes to the video store), and it’s not horrible. It doesn’t beat the original but it’s a strong ‘good’.
Robocop (2014) isn’t an exact remake of the original film which helps to divorce some comparison with the original. Director Jose Padilla wanted to make a film that focuses largely on the time between Murphy’s death (though in this one it’s severe disabling injuries, an idea from original Robocop scriptwriter Michael Miner’s ‘Supercop’ treatment) and release as a product. We have a bigger name cast in this remake, and they do help to keep the quality up.
Instead of the news and satirical advertisement pieces in the original, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) hosts a show which asks if robot law enforcement should be in America given the ‘success’ of robots abroad to enforce US foreign policy (yes, this is an analogy to drone usage). Opposition boils down to the remorselessness of machines. So, Omnicorp (Omni Consumper Products in the original) wants to merge man and machine.
In the original, there is a character called Roosevelt, a kind of unimportant character who seems to be reborn as Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) in this film. Oldman possibly steals the show as a man caught between using technology to aid humanity and militaristic use. Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton; golden choice!) comes off like Steve Jobs, were he to make ‘i’ products for military use.
Borrowing some things from the original sequels we have Murphy’s (played by Joel Kinnaman, who does sensitivity well) wife and son, but they aren’t fleshed that much more than from the 80s despite more screen time. Lewis who was a white female cop in the original is now a black male cop of incidental value. And speaking of incidental value, there is no group of criminals who were as detestable (in the good way) as Clarence Boddicker’s gang in the original. Verhoeven pointed out in a documentary that Kurtwood Smith (who played Boddicker) was a dead ringer for Heinrich Himmler; a kind of nice looking man which contrasted with the depth of his evilness. In the remake we have Antoine Vallon who isn’t really developed.
Though this remake is a PG, Padilla mines the boundaries well and it still comes off as dark (see Murphy reduced to a head, hand and pair of lungs). The visual effects are obviously an upgrade from the original, though the original still doesn’t look dated. I’m not too big a fan of the new suit as it looks like Batman; the deliberate clunkiness of Weller in the original and the stitched-to-machinery make-up near the end made it a believable fusion of man and machine. Apart from some scenes, you pretty much think Kinnaman is just in a glorified motorbike suit (and he has a motorbike too).
Though I was engrossed by it, I hope they don’t make remakes of the sequels, no matter how loose. It could only get worse. The sad thing, though, is that this remake will be forever in the shadow of the original. Had they used different characters and changed the story a bit more it could’ve been classed as an original film worthy of being a modern classic. But, that said, for the purposes of bringing Robo alive again, all involved did a good job. I saw it twice in my rental period.