Oh remakes. How you do test my patience. On the one hand I can totally understand why you’d remake a film, we’ve been doing it from the early days of cinema and the retelling of stories is merely part of human nature. We pass stories on from one generation to the next making changes to suit the times. If we didn’t update and change stories then The Bible wouldn’t be so darned popular. A while back I reviewed the Total Recall remake and, along with trashing the ever loving hell out of it, I surmised that it was an example of a remake that got pretty much everything wrong, not just in the retelling of the story but in just basic film making. Some remakes can be great, The Magnificent Seven for example. So where does RoboCop sit, quality wise, if Magnificent Seven is a great remake and Total Recall is fucking awful? Click the link for my review, why don’t ya?
Much like the original film RoboCop is about a police officer named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnerman) who, upon pissing off the wrong criminal drug lords, ends up near death. Military weapons manufacturer and robotics company Omnicorp (A subsidiary of OCP) is looking to bring it’s robotic troopers from policing the world overseas to the streets of the United States. Unfortunately for Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) a bill is currently present stopping him from allowing robots to do all that policing work on US soil. Yep, it’s OK overseas in those dirty foreign countries but the people won’t have none of their freedoms effected by robots at home, no sir. I mean, if they had robot police officers then US citizens would be no different then them terrorist infested Middle Eastern countries. By the way, I’m doing a satire there, which is what the film does too. Yes, they remembered to include satire. Anyway, Murphy is a vegetable so his wife, whilst all emotionally distressed, agrees to have his body put into a machine so Omnicorp can get a human brain behind their robot cops. Then stuff happens for the following 90 minutes.
Now I’d often argue that a good way to do a remake is to take the original premise and spin a new story, not to just retread every footstep the original made. RoboCop doesn’t retread the steps of the original. It does, however, replace the direct action, the sharp satire and strong thematics with 1 hour of little RoboCop action, a basic understanding of satire and only pays lip service to thematic elements. The first hour of the film feels oddly plodding, despite there being plenty going on. The trouble is that whilst we’re getting a lot of character building scenes we’re not getting what the film is intending to deliver. Most of the first hour is spent with Murphy trying to come to terms with what he is now. With boardroom meetings that only serve to remind us what sort of characters the heads of Omnicorp are. Gary Oldman’s Dr Dennett Norton has an arc going on through this section of the film, as he is asked to keep doing increasingly morally dubious things to achieve his bosses goals, but that is about all that is interesting.
The fact Murphy is aware of what he is from the start does allow for the story to delve into ideas of identity a little, although the pay off for this is incredibly predictable. I’m sure you can already guess that the goal of Murphy’s character arc is to prove that man is stronger than machine. That you can’t program a computer chip powerful enough to prevent human emotion from winning out. Occasionally this approach is effective. When they dope him up to get him through his first public appearance you can feel the loss of self as he walks past his wife and child without looking at them. This is a little undermined by him being pretty awesome when on drugs by arresting a guy in a packed crowd instantly. Kinda odd message to send. Not troublesome though. Where his arc hits the most problems is how flatly it is conveyed in the film’s second half. For a while he’s practically a drone, not the man controlling the machine Omnicorp had presented him as. His desire to solve his own attempted murder wins out though and he goes on a rampage of robo-policing to solve that mystery. That’s all done in about 20 minutes and we’re given very little gradual development or any sign of a character within his shell beyond how focused and angry he has become. None of the gradual cracking of the technological armour that you’d expect. Hilariously, for me at least, they go as far as to suggest that his soul is breaking the code and restoring his dopamine levels. Convenient way of saying “we can’t figure out a good scientific answer so, fuck it, souls, right?”.
The film opens with Samuel L Jackson presenting a TV show called The Novak Report, a thinly veiled jab at the sort of bias, overly patriotic news coverage we expect from the US here in the UK. I dunno why it’s called The Novak Report though, cos that’s clearly Samuel L Jackson being himself and wearing a wig. This show crops up a number of times to represent the state of the world and public opinion on RoboCop and Omnicorp. Whilst these scenes do display an understanding that satire was a very important part of the original film’s world the fact that this is the only example of this satire in the film leads The Novak Report to come across more like the ramblings of a mad man given a stage. In the original film the disturbingly skewed news reports were buffered by adverts for equally disturbing products. This showed the presentation of the news as being a symptom of the world the film was set within. Without those adverts that is lost. Very little effort is made to show us what this future version of the US is like. We get what they’re views are of the outside world at the film’s open, being that the US appears to be policing everywhere and is paranoid with a fear of their safety. This is very timely to our world today to be fair, but it lacks the extra elements of satire needed to fully sell this world to us. At the same time the only signs that crime is a problem in Detroit is the fact that there are corrupt cops on the force, which is such a common trope it’s pretty much a staple of any film involving the police now.
I’ve been quite hard on RoboCop in this review so far but it’s mostly due to missed marks. To the film’s merit it is at least trying to be more than a blindly dumb action film. From watching the trailers you’d think RoboCop had superpowers with all the fast moving action shown. A man weighing over a tonne should not be able to leap and swing all over the place like a Mexican jumping bean strapped to Jiminy Cricket. Thankfully that only happens a couple of times. Mostly RoboCop moves like he did in the original film, just a lot faster. I can accept faster targeting and body motions in this update. Launching a bike through a window nearly 10ft in the air and proceeding to swing around a bunch of ED-209s is a little trickier for me to reconcile with. That all said the action is handled fairly well and has a strong kinetic pace to it, which is to be accepted from Jose Padilha based on Elite Squad. Also, one sequence is set to Hocus Pocus by Focus and that’s pretty much one of my favourite songs of all time.. so… good job Jose.
So RoboCop does manage to miss the mark by some way. But by how much? Well, it isn’t Total Recall remake bad, not by a long way. It’s actually a pretty solid film that appears to have had its heart in the right place but has been fumbled greatly in the execution. At best I’d say it was an above average piece of Sci-fi action that doesn’t treat you like a total buffoon but isn’t clever enough in its use of character and themes to rise above the basic requirements of a what could be considered a good film. A few moments are little cringe worthy, Revealing what remains of Murphy just feels like a scene lifted from a corny low budget 90s film trying to be dark and edgy, for example. Also, in one scene… and I shit ye not here… Murphy tracks down a local criminal who is, according to his HUD “totally stoned”. All that said, you could do far, far worse than this film. At least it isn’t offensive to every fibre of my being like Total Recall was. At least it isn’t the worst RoboCop film. And no, I won’t review the worst RoboCop film. I’m not even sure I can get through it a second time.