Lamenting about the woeful lack of originality in Hollywood is hardly novel. Much like politics or religion, it’s a topic discussed often but rarely comes to any real resolution. Simply put, Hollywood studios are averse to risk. They always finance the familiar rather than risk resources on something original. It’s this kind of logic that gets us a February chock full of remakes and reboots.
Last weekend alone, I had the option of seeing a remake of “Endless Love,” a remake of “About Last Night,” or a remake of “RoboCop.” Out of morbid curiosity, I chose “RoboCop,” primarily because I love the original so much. It’s an ‘80s schlock masterpiece that is one of the most brutal, violent and hilarious action movies ever committed to celluloid. For what it attempts to be it is practically perfect; however, the remake is not.
I’m mildly irritated by the deluge of remakes and re-imaginings that clutter the cinematic landscape, but for the most part it’s harmless. When Hollywood trotted out Brad Pitt and George Clooney in a remake of “Oceans 11,” cinephiles rolled their eyes, but there wasn’t a huge swell of indignation. Why? Because the movie isn’t a cultural staple or a well-loved classic. It is just a thing that existed and has some level of recognition; it gets repackaged for a new era of film fans. Soderbergh himself said that while he loved the idea of a star-studded caper film, he was not a big fan of the Rat Pack original. So, while the core concept might be lazy, there’s still a goal of improving upon the source material—to deliver audiences a better (or unique) version of the same story. I suppose if you’re going to be a re-make apologist, that is the best-case scenario.
“RoboCop” manages to fail in delivering on that promise in the most spectacular of ways. There’s a pre-title action sequence that is mind-blowing in its awesomeness—a scene which involves a Bill O’Reilly-like television pundit who is acting as a corporate shill for a company that has developed super intelligent robots. The robots happen to be enforcing American will in foreign nations. It’s a chilling scene that depicts how menacing and terrifying drone warfare can become, as citizens are scanned by scary-looking humanoid robots deciding whether they are friend or foe. When a bunch of locals decide to fight back against their robot oppressors, they are eviscerated swiftly, and dispatched violently. It’s a scenario so plausible it’s a little frightening. Back when the original “RoboCop” came out, the idea of corporate-contracted robot peacekeepers was an awesome sci-fi fantasy. Almost 30 years later, it feels like an inevitability.
The first five minutes of the film are a great mix of sobering, satirical surrealism. For a moment I thought we were going to get a “RoboCop” worthy of the original. After the titles rolled, a different movie began. A toothless and passionless, by-the-numbers remake clocked a record time into its descent into boredom.
Like the original, there is a good-natured, hard-as-nails cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). Murphy gets killed and brought back to life thanks to cutting-edge technology. OCP, the company behind this technology, is looking for a new type of cyborg hybrid so that lawmakers can start shaping policy to allow robots to patrol the streets of the U.S. So, they roll out RoboCop to try to win hearts and minds.
The original “RoboCop” achieved a beautiful symmetry of action and humor. It was so wonderfully over-the-top and committed to the premise. The new “RoboCop” commits to the premise. They spend a lot of time and effort on the idea that a corporation would go to heinous lengths to push an agenda at the expense of innocent people. The original film was so amusing because of the comical, scenery-chewing exploits of the corporate executives. The new version commits the cardinal sin that plagues so many remakes: There’s little joy in the new “RoboCop” because it tries to be far too serious.
Director José Padilha (“Elite Squad”) strips apart the original like a hack mechanic in a chop shop. He forgets this movie is supposed to be fun; instead he tries to make it smart. I can’t fault him for it, but the movie is just way too deadpan. It reminded me of that joyless “Total Recall” adaptation from 2012—the one where they swapped out a mugging, overacting Arnold Schwarreznegger and cast Colin Ferrell doing his best Zoolander impression.
The most apt metaphor I can find for this flaccid remake is how RoboCop dispatches his foes. They took away his gun and replaced it with a taser. Now, instead of brutally gunning down his opponents into a bloody pulp, he hits them with a taser that shocks them into submission. This non-lethal version of “RoboCop” is laughably disappointing. I wish studios would stop regurgitating these remakes with such frequency.
Directed by José Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton