The 2014 update of RoboCop further proves why Hollywood needs to stop remaking films that were great the first time around. This is the second Paul Verhoeven film to be remade, and like the disastrous Len Wiseman-directed Total Recall remake in 2012, it also misses the entire point of the original.
In the original 1987 RoboCop, in a futuristic, crime-ridden dystopian Detroit, detective Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is – in one of the film’s most iconic scenes – brutally murdered by drug lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang of criminals. Omni Consumer Products (or OCP), who practically owns the police force, is looking to create a police officer that can be on patrol 24/7 in the wake of rising criminal activity and an inevitable police strike, so they merge the deceased Murphy with machine, creating RoboCop.
Now, the whole point of Alex Murphy’s story arc is to prove that 1) the human conscious is too powerful to be repressed, 2) that in greedy corporate America and a city overtaken by criminals that a machine can somehow have the greatest moral compass, and 3) when Murphy’s repressed memories come back, his revenge against Boddicker is all the more rewarding.
Unlike the Total Recall remake, this new RoboCop film – helmed by Brazilian director Jose Padilha (Elite Squad) – does inject some of the morality from the original into this version. In the not-too-distant future, OCP has played the part of Team America and has sold militarized robots across the globe (including updated versions of ED-209) to preserve global peace. However, the United States is the one country that has a bill that states that robots cannot police the country.
Omni CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) wants to try and find a way to persuade the public and Congress to budge, so he enlists Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to put a man into one of his machines. Meanwhile, detective Alex Murphy (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman) wants revenge on criminal Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) for putting his partner Lewis (Michael K. Williams) in the hospital, but Vallon beats him to the punch: by sticking a bomb under his car.
Norton sees Murphy as the perfect fit to be their guinea pig, and gets his wife Clara Murphy (Abbie Cornish) to sign the contract to give them the rights to him. Now, here’s where the new version differs and why it doesn’t quite work as well: Murphy is NOT dead. In the original, Murphy/RoboCop was a true Frankenstein tale, where the creature was created with little knowledge, and could slowly learn to adapt. In this version, he is paralyzed and lost limbs, but he could never be claimed deceased.
Naturally, OCP tampers with his functions to process emotions, but we know that he will overcome his programming. The first half of the film plays out like a through-the-motions origin story, putting Murphy through various tests before they can show him to the public. Unlike the soulless 80’s business culture that Verhoeven satirized in the original, Dr. Norton has a conscious, caught between doing what it takes to keep his job and his work, and doing what’s right. While I like seeing a big-budget product with humanity, it unfortunately gets in the way of Murphy trying to regain his.
And speaking of satire, like every blockbuster that plays on Patriot Act politics and post-9/11 fears, there isn’t much. Verhoeven’s original arrived armed with satirical darts to spare, sending up Reaganomics, consumerism, privatizing the police, sexist lowbrow sitcoms, and Cold War politics. Not to mention gritty, gory action that pushed its R-rating to the max.
The new one arrives with a prim and proper PG-13 rating. How boring can you get? There is one great bit of satire in the film, courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson plays Pat Novak, a conspiracy spewing, “I’m right, you’re wrong” television personality who is Bill O’Reilly to a tee, right up to hanging up on his guests when they disagree with him. He blames America for being “robo-phobic” when it comes to their stance on cyborgs policing the country.
Other than Jackson’s welcomed scenery chewing, most of the film’s performances are decent. Kinnaman does robotic well, but once again, considering he is truly human but with robot armor, that’s not a good sign. Keaton certainly represents the worst in cutthroat, disregard for human live businessman, and Oldman is the dialed-back moral center, but it isn’t anything he couldn’t do in his sleep. And it’s a shame about Cornish, talented in Stop-Loss and Limitless, being reduced to the kind of non-role as the worrying and/or pissed-off wife/girlfriend that she poked fun at in Martin McDonaugh’s Seven Psychopaths.
Back to the PG-13 rating for a second, it’s not necessarily that we’re gore-hounds, but it’s nice to see the consequences for the actions on display. When Murphy gets his revenge in this new version, it’s hard to tell what is happening, and ends up ultimately being numbing video game violence. It’s strange in a film that tries to show regard for human life showing so much disregard in monotonous set pieces.
Also, if you’re going to remake a film, why not try and make something your own instead of trying to wink at fans and say, “hey, remember the original?” It’s bad enough it’s being remade. That drove me nuts in Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake with the octopus and the bird’s-eye view shot of the main character’s kidnapping. Ditto the Total Recall remake, having to have the three-breasted prostitute and the woman in the yellow dress (uttering the phrase “two weeks,” nonetheless). The RoboCop remake is no different. Recycled lines are used (“I’d buy that for a dollar,” and “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”), not to mention snippets of the original’s score.
And, other than Jackson’s winning role, the humor is fairly clunky. Murphy’s partner Lewis (a black man and not a woman like in the original) looks at his black armor and says, “At least I know you’re the right color.” That’s what it’s come down to? To be fair, the RoboCop remake does at least make an effort to raise moral questions and give you something to chew on, but those questions bubbled under the surface in the original, giving the audience something to look for in Murphy’s tragic story. No need to look for something when it’s being spelled out in front of you.