I’d like to tackle the main question right off the bat, since it’s what most people instantly wonder when it comes to remakes: Is RoboCop a rehashed waste of time?
This RoboCop is, by no means, a great movie. But it’s also not a completely forgettable endeavor like other remakes- including 2012’s Total Recall, which failed to bring anything interesting to the table in its attempt to remake Paul Verhoeven’s other 80’s sci-fi classic. You can tell that this was project was placed in the hands of filmmaker, JosÃ© Padilha, that actually had something to say. There are deeper ideas beneath the surface, in what could have just been another mindless action spectacle. Those ideas, though, make the end result frustrating. More on that later.
It should be noted that this isn’t a from-scratch remake, like Batman Begins. It’s more of a retooling-a-classic-for-a-modern-audience reboot, like Casino Royale. That is evidenced by a couple of notable connections it has to the original film- including Basil Poledouris’s RoboCop theme, the original OCP logo, and several classic lines from the 1987 script.
Now let’s tackle any comparisons between this one and the original head-on. The anarchic spirit of the first one is nowhere to be seen here. This one feels sterile and antiseptic compared to the raw, brash spectacle of the original. The tongue-in-cheek satire is more or less gone, save for a couple of scenery-chewing satirical moments from Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson. The characters are less interesting and, in turn, less likable. The original found the balance between being exciting, while also being subversive and having something to say, and the same cannot be said this time. You can also definitely feel exactly how PG-13 this one is. So, in essence, if you’re going to compare the two films then this remake will come up short on just about every level.
So the key here is to enter the theater without expecting this to be anywhere on the level of the 1987 film. Go in with fresh eyes, and take this one in as if it’s the first time you’ve ever met Alex Murphy.
On its own two feet, the movie is enjoyable. All the actors showed up to work, and it’s a credit to Padilha that he coaxes some very good performances out of a veteran cast that could’ve just cynically treated this project like a paycheck. Keaton, Jackson, Gary Oldman, and Jackie Earle Haley all turn in remarkably energized performances. Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) also does a good job of making the most of what he’s given, as the film’s lead.
The story itself moves forward at a brisk pace, and with sound logic. The action is fun, even if it slips into gimmickry during one particular sequence (why would you cut off the lights in your evil warehouse lair because Robocop is coming? Do you think there’s any chance the $2.6 billion bionic man doesn’t have built-in night vision? Oh, I get it. You wanted a night vision action scene. All righty then). But it, unfortunately, never leaves second gear. The film feels like it’s missing a third act, which would’ve added some complexity and intrigue to the narrative. The final half hour races to tie up every loose end in a tidy manner, which makes the ending feel a bit hollow.
A hollow ending on a mindless action flick wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if said action flick hadn’t earlier implied that it was about something. Early on, we’re given many hints that this film wants to say something about present day, real life societal issues. Talk of drone strikes, lines about giving the citizens “the illusion of free will,” and probing dialogue about what it means to be human, never really get further developed. Because of that, they almost feel like window dressing.
The film bases a lot of its meat and potatoes on the notion of what it means to be human, and how a machine could never replace what a human’s heart and mind can do. Yet the film fails to adequately dive into the opportunities it creates to show us the human side of its characters. We’re asked, as an audience, to root for Alex Murphy, and to believe in his humanity, but are only given 10 minutes to see him as a man. We’re given a few pedestrian examples of him being a headstrong cop, a sensitive partner, and a devoted family man- but those feel like bullet-points, considering how quickly we rush to his transformation into RoboCop. The fact that we end up cheering for him anyway, I think, has more to do with Kinnaman’s performance than anything else. We want to see him rebel against the machine.
Never is it more clear that the producers of the film didn’t want to really tackle the heady issues in the script than in the scene where Murphy is reunited with his family after several months. What could’ve been a fascinating look into how Murphy’s physical losses affect his marriage, or how his wife would react to attempting to spend the night with a man who’s so synthetic now that he’ll never be able to make love to her, instead gets completely glossed over. Mind you, they were about to make love seconds before the explosion that cost him 3/4s of his body. How does that affect a relationship? What happens when an injured soldier returns from war, knowing his marriage will have limitations on it for the rest of his life?
During the setup of that scene, I was very intrigued to see how his reunion with his wife would play out. Then there was zero pay-off. And that’s sort of the generalfeeling with a lot of the film’s bigger, deeper ideas.
But despite the feeling that there are whole other chunks of this movie missing, perhaps on the editing room floor, there’s no denying that what’s there is enjoyable. Grounded by good performances, great visuals, and a hero that’s easy to get behind, RoboCop was definitely entertaining. Too bad it could’ve been much more.