Believe it or not, it has been almost 30 years since Verhoeven released his first of three-in-a-row seminal films. Robocop was followed shortly by Total Recall and then Basic Instinct over the space of 5 years. The 2012 remake of Total Recall was pointless enough, but, after viewing the new Robocop yesterday, I had to rewatch the original to wash it from my brain.
The topline here is that you should just skip the remake of this classic film. If all you care about is knowing that, then stop here. If you want to hear a bit more of the value of the attempt and a comparison to the original, read on.
To be fair, the attempt to revisit the original wasn’t without merit conceptually; it simply failed utterly in its execution.
The original Robocop was a satire, by intent and design. The framing and interstitial ads, a la Max Headroom, never let you forget we’re intended to take it all in from a distance. Enjoy it yes, but know it is all heightened and absurd to make a point. The remake tried to wrap that up in the lampooning of Fox News, the Situation Room, and all the insanity that purports to be news these days. But that frame just didn’t work as it was neither real enough nor crazy enough to provide counter-balance until near the end. And, at that point, it was far too late to care. Director Padiha had no real understanding of this sensibility, nor did his writer, Zetumer. Instead they concentrated on making an action flick rather than a social commentary… with a heck of a lot of action and gore. But they utterly lost all the heart of the film, making it a pointless drive to completion rather than a journey for Murphy.
There are many nods to the original, starting with a news report and then moving to the opening long shots (they even used the same fonts for the overlay). Bromfman’s soundtrack references Poledouris’, which is one of the most recognizable and powerful movie themes ever written in the genre. The same relationships are forged, though in the remake it is with his family rather than his partner. The battle of the corporate over the government is still there. And society degenerated into disrepair is even more poignant in the city of Detroit this time around (though Only Lovers Left Alive may have done it better on that point).
What was interesting was how they attempted to turn the story inside out. We start with Robo out of surgery and fully conscious as a man, and then take that away to allow him to regain his human-ness. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work as we don’t invest in him. Despite Kinnaman’s (The Killing) best efforts in the titular role, he is a pawn to be moved from scene to scene. We never get the thrill of Weller’s last line taking back his humanity and life despite having lost absolutely everything else. And we never really connect with him as a man or a cyborg. He simply is an excuse for the story.
The rest of the cast is equally solid, and, mostly unimportant to us despite their best efforts. Garcia (Dexter) gets a glimmer as one of his doctors. And Oldman (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), as his primary maker gets an arc… but not one that makes much sense. Keaton (Birdman) plays a great and controlled bad guy, but none of the smarminess that makes Ferrer or Cox’s deaths so enjoyable and satisfying in the original. In other, smaller roles, Haley (Damnation Alley) and Cornish (Seven Psychopaths) add some nice color. But the former is just a bit too broadly drawn and close-minded to be believed and the latter is marginally too much in the background to matter.
I did like the conceit that the tech was already in use worldwide, but they are trying to bring it into the States. I thought the attempts to modernize the story a little and take on a bit of today’s society was smart in theory. Coming at the story in a slightly different way was completely acceptable (necessary even) so we’d accept a new cast. But there was no heart to this film. No one to care about. No goal to root for. No bad guys so bad that you wanted to see their brains spattered about. The script, logically, is just awfully. There are huge gaps, contradictions, and leaps. There is no flow, no energy. And, perhaps worst of all, stupid choices and issues.
Remakes are always dicey. It takes guts to try. But you have to decide whether you are going to pay homage to the original, riff on it, or completely redo it. In this case, none of the above fully occurred and some of each was there. As a whole, it just didn’t work on pretty much any level. Give yourself a treat and watch the original again instead. It holds up rather well, other than the 80s hair style and clothes (and penchant for coke). It is just as relevant now as it was then, and those final moments are still among the best in the genre.