Our resident movie reviewer Wai analyses this controversial remake, and examines remakes in general.
What is the point of a remake?
Or more specifically — what is the point of remaking a great film? That depends on whom you ask. Fanboys would most likely give you a blanket response: OMG WTF remakes are pointless and sacrilegious! Remakes destroy the memory of the original! Remakes rape our childhood! Remakes represent everything that is wrong with the film industry today! Uh-huh. While this sentiment is understandable thanks to the rubbish remakes out there, the fact remains that remakes have been around since the dawn of Cinema, and without remakes the world would have been deprived of so many masterpieces like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly”.
Now, if you were to ask a Hollywood studio like MGM, the whole point is to make money of course. Showbiz is a business first and foremost, and the brutally honest truth of why we get all these remakes is down to brand name value. For films with lasting pop cultural impact like Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic “RoboCop”, the studios are trading on that familiarity the general public has with the property, no matter how vague.
More importantly, in a risk-averse business like this, anything resembling a proven formula is extremely valuable. The way studios see it, if people liked the premise and the characters then, chances are they’ll like it now.
What’s in it for the filmmakers then? I’m not talking about journeymen directors who’re just looking for their next paycheck. Those people aren’t really invested, and it always shows in the soulless crap they churn out. The very thing that fuels fanboy outrage. No, I’m talking about filmmakers who genuinely give a damn. For these guys, a remake is perhaps an opportunity to revisit a childhood favourite and retell the same story their way. Or maybe they have a fresh, valid and relevant take on the material. Even then, a lot of the time you get filmmakers talking up the intended themes and underlying meaning of a film in pre-release interviews, only for all that to be barely present in the finished result. It could be due to last-minute script changes, studio interference, or the filmmaker simply not having what it takes to deliver on a promise.
Based on what’s made it into this 2014 version, director Jose Padilha clearly isn’t just all talk. The film he’s made is surprisingly introspective and philosophically-minded. Taking the original premise of a badly wounded police officer who has most of his body replaced by robotic parts, Padilha uses it to confront us with the thought of what being human and an individual actually means. If most of you is gone, can you still feel like you? And if all that is left is your mind yet you can no longer make your own choices, are you still you?
Issues like these were present in Verhoeven’s film, but it was more subtext than anything. Here, it’s brought to the fore. The remake even finds new thematic ground to explore by playing up the machine aspect of being part-man, part machine. In this context, the machine is a metaphor for control and the suppression of free will.
Something ironically paralleled in the director’s own experience making this movie. Padilha set out to tell a story about one man’s struggle to overcome an all-powerful company that provides the illusion of decision-making in exchange for a product they can have full control over. That’s exactly what Padilha found himself up against. This remake has a well-known history of trouble on its way to the big screen, with director and studio clashing over the handling of the material. Rage against the machine, indeed.
I suspect if he had his way, we would’ve gotten a more thorough examination of those themes. As it is, Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer succeeded in squeezing in just enough smarts to register on screen. This isn’t some deep, profound thought piece, nor does it pretend to be. It does however, show more ambition and shrewdness in its thinking than practically every other Hollywood remake in recent memory.
As before, this is a satirical look at America from an outsider’s perspective. Where Dutchman Verhoeven saw through the Reagan-era bullshit typified by corporate and consumer excess, the Brazilian Padilha’s eye is on the media circus in the US today, especially post-9/11 knee-jerk jingoism masquerading as journalism.
Satire is a tricky thing to pull off: too subtle and people miss the barbs, too obvious and it becomes lame. Padilha strikes the right balance with an amusing Fox News-inspired programme called “The Novak Element”. Popping up throughout the film, its sole existence seems to be about putting a positive spin on everything the nefarious OmniCorp does, and making scathing attacks on anything not in the company’s best interests.
And the company’s interests are rooted firmly in robotic hardware because it (very profitably) fulfills the government’s homeland security needs. Cockblocked by ethical concerns of machines having no conscience, OmniCorp circumvents legislation by putting a man inside a machine. Thus, RoboCop is born.
It gives the premise a modern-day relevance, what with the ongoing debate over the use of unmanned drones in war. It also fits in quite neatly with the rest of the themes, which proves this is no mere cynical cash-grab.
What about the much-maligned PG-13 rating? Is it a symptom of the studio’s need to water everything down to reach a broader audience and therefore sell more tickets? The short answer is yes, the long answer is a bit more complicated.
While Padilha’s film is definitely a product of compromise, I don’t think it counts in this case. A movie like this doesn’t necessarily need to be rated R. Fanboys like to cite Verhoeven’s depiction of over-the-top blood & gore as some badge of quality. What they don’t realise is that he was employing violence as a commentary on the ridiculous violence in 80s Hollywood action flicks. The only time he didn’t treat it as a piss-take was in Officer Alex Murphy’s death scene. There, he wanted to hammer home the horror and finality of the situation.
There are other ways of creating empathy for a character’s pain, as Padilha demonstrates in what is the film’s single most powerful moment. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say it is a gruesome and horrifying scene that does not feature even one drop of blood spilled. It presents Murphy with a grim existential dilemma and for me sums up all the things the filmmakers are trying to say in a simple yet emotional way. Oh, and it also explains the ungloved human hand that’s been the subject of so much ire.
That scene is so effective mainly because it so well played by Joel Kinnaman. Although Peter Weller will always be the definitive RoboCop/Murphy, Kinnaman makes some interesting choices in portraying the duality of his character. I can say the main reason I like the film is because I felt for him. His character development doesn’t end when he becomes a robot either, in fact he has a complete growth arc right until the end. In this version, they emphasise his relationship with his family and to me it’s a nice way to juxtapose the humanity of the character against the inhumanity of the system he’s caught up in.
The rest of the principal cast is mostly excellent and it is their performances that elevate the material even in its weaker moments.
Gary Oldman brings the usual weight to his scientist character, and he has sort of a Frankensteinian/father-son dynamic with Murphy that is new to the “RoboCop” mythos.
Samuel L. Jackson gets a bit melodramatic as Novak the news show host but I think that’s intentional, seeing what he’s meant to represent.
Even Jay Baruchel gets a few laughs as a marketing goon, and the scary thing is I know some people in real life who actually talk and think like him.
My favourite though is Michael Keaton, who is very entertaining as the maverick OmniCorp CEO. He brings a manic energy to every scene he’s in and threatens to steal the entire show. It’s near impossible not to like him in spite of his dubious motivations.
Which unfortunately turns out to be a double-edged sword, as the way his character is handled leads to the film’s biggest and near-fatal flaw. There is no clear villain. Actually, there are a number of so-called baddies, but none of them make any kind of impression.
They’re just plot devices for Murphy’s journey. Then at the end, Keaton’s OmniCorp big-wig is suddenly positioned as the main antagonist. This should come as no surprise to anyone with the faintest recollection of the original, but the connective threads that tie him to Murphy’s mission of personal justice are weak to say the least. So making him — a likable character I must stress once more — the Big Bad Guy is an ill-judged move. I get the feeling the filmmakers consciously tried to avoid repeating the original’s plot points beat-for-beat, but by doing away with its clean narrative through-line, Murphy’s ultimate motivation comes off unfocused and unsatisfying.
The other major weakness is unmemorable action. Frankly, I could not name you a single kick-ass action moment in this film. Don’t get me wrong, the action is okay. It just doesn’t come close to the many fist-pumping moments of the original. Padilha tries some gimmicky visuals, like lighting the gunfights in pitch darkness using only muzzle flares, and a video game-style 1st person POV. While some of these scenes push the boundaries of a PG-13, they’re bloodless in every sense of the word.
If there is one aspect in the whole argument against remakes that best suggests some things should be left untouched, it is the design of RoboCop himself. Designer Rob Bottin’s original suit was a work of beauty and like all truly great designs has stood the test of time.
The 2014 black suit is generic and forgettable, and it’s telling that Murphy’s best look is a first-generation suit that homages the Bottin version. The production designers are more successful with the rest of the tech though, with ED-209 getting a cool revamp.
Speaking of homages, there are a lot of little nods that fans will instantly recognise, like lines of dialogue and composer Basil Poledouris’ “RoboCop” theme music. While this is a nice gesture, it once again takes me back to the remake debate. If this is made for the fans, then it is almost a lost cause because most of us who hold the original in high regard are the very same ones who are most opposed to revisiting something that doesn’t need revisiting. This is where it’s easy for cynicism to creep in because the various callbacks to the original are probably just an attempt to play up the defining attributes of a brand name property. Personally, I don’t feel this way but I can tell you I am in the minority here.
As skeptical as I was about them redoing one of the most formative movies of my childhood, I must say I’ve come away pleasantly surprised by the genuine effort put into this to make it a worthwhile addition to the “RoboCop” canon. It has some serious flaws that prevent it from approaching the greatness of the original. But what works for me works really well and somewhat offsets the negatives.
I appreciate what Padilha was trying to achieve, even if some of it didn’t get past the studio. What I like most about him as filmmaker is how he handles some of the more overt or heavy-handed messages with a degree of subtlety and sensitivity. Yes, sensitivity. In an action movie about a cyborg policeman. And he’s done all that while giving us a “RoboCop” that’s of and for our times.
Although it doesn’t speak for all remakes, this particular remake definitely has a reason for being.