(We had suspected that the Robocop remake was going to be an ultimately pointless exercise, but why take our word for it? Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK, has already seen it and has allowed us to cross-post his review of the movie. We're always happy to include his posts here [especially in advance of a movie's US opening], and recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)
There is a fundamental issue at the center of this RoboCop remake. The issue is that it’s not the egregious awful film many of us feared it would be, nor is it anywhere near the heights of great science fiction. If it were a complete cinematic train wreck, like recent big budget sci-fi such as Elysium, Pacific Rim, or 2012’s Total Recall then we could have plenty to tear into; on the other hand, if it were breaking new ground like Minority Report or Source Code, or rebooting a franchise to great effect like 2009’s Star Trek then it could have been a film to really champion.
The overwhelming feeling as the credits begin is at first “it wasn’t that bad” but then soon “it really wasn’t that good either” which begs the eternal question; why? Why take a property like Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film and remake it for a new audience when the original film is widely available on several formats? It clearly isn’t for fans of the original because no one asked for it, so it must be for a new generation. A generation in their teenage years taking into account the 12A (PG-13) rating, but what is the compelling reason? I cannot find one but that doesn’t stop this new version being a decent film, just a redundant one.
Director José Padilha and first time writer Joshua Zetumer clearly have the best intentions to keep to the heart of the original film’s underlying motif of what makes us human, and the difference between robot and man. A fair argument could be made that this film goes further and spends more screentime devoted to that question; I especially liked the addition to the duality of Murphy/RoboCop in that his dopamine levels control his emotions and can be manipulated by his creators. I also appreciated the new take on his suit which has the visor flip down when he enters ‘law enforcement mode’ and the robot takes over, allowing him to act faster than he ever could whilst thinking like a human, making him more efficient and lethal. This is a re-imagining which works and shows a level of intelligence on the film maker’s part.
Also good were the sequences in which RoboCop trains in a virtual reality setting as the technology is not yet proven for real world scenarios. Taking place in a lab in China, it adds a layer of satire that not even the most American of heroes is even manufactured in the USA. It is in this extended portion of the film where the remake element really comes into its own, threatening to actually become an example of how a remake can exist on its own terms.
The problems lie in the complete lack of anything verging on an interesting storyline between the rebuilding sequences. The movie’s attempts at satirizing the media and American military ethics fall flat at almost every attempt with the political TV show scenes, where the script removes any subtlety in favor for telling the audience exactly where the satire is, rendering it redundant. As the TV show host Samuel L Jackson is terrible, just shouting his lines in the same way he’s being doing for 20 years.
Before Murphy is killed we’re forced to endure a police corruption story we’ve seen countless times, and a genuinely boring shakycam shootout which gets the film off to dreadful start. The scenes between Murphy and his wife are tedious, with all the chemistry of a roundtable script reading (which isn’t helped by stars Joel Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish's utter lack of screen presence). This wouldn’t be so bad if their relationship wasn’t a central theme of the film, but unfortunately this is one element diverting from the original which never has any value.
The film’s major weakness is the lack of villain. In 1987 there was Clarence Boddicker and his gang, some of the nastiest bad guys you’d ever wish to see in an action sci-fi picture; they helped the audience root for Murphy by the savage violence inflicted upon him and gave the film its driving force to its thrilling climax. In 2014 there are a few corrupt cops and a Boddicker-lite figure who barely has any screen time. Once they are dispatched the film offers us the ‘thrills’ of senate voting and corporate politics. RoboCop now resembles more of an Iron Man figure as he leaps, jumps, and is thrown about on top of a ED-209, and director Padilha resorts to video game first-person shots. Essentially, the film is divorced of any identity to separate it from the other cluster of poor sci-fi films which have limped on and quickly off the multiplex in recent years.
In 1987 audiences hadn’t seen anything quite like RoboCop before. The unique European attitude which Verhoeven brought to the film meant it would remain in the minds of movie lovers decades later, gaining notoriety when it was opened to new viewers on VHS and hard-to-find uncut versions. Today the look of this remake is familiar, predictable, and even quite boring. This movie is a decent way to spend two hours, but we don’t ask for just decent, especially when we already have something far superior (made in 1987) in mind.