The onslaught of 80s remakes continues, but note that sci-fi isn’t the only genre to be harvested again and again. This weekend saw the release of two romantic remakes, Endless Love and About Last Night. But the important one of course is Robocop, the most popular film yet from the 80s canon (expect a Terminator 5 before a remake), even above The Thing or Total Recall. Both of those remakes were great, but got trashed by critics. Robocop received precisely mixed reviews, so it was more difficult to say…
The action is good but surprisingly sparse. Maybe mercifully so, because this is, following the curse of Die Hard 4, rated PG-13. But director José Padilha ensures each action set-piece is unique, given different lighting or scenario or robot villain. This is clearly a director of measurable technical skill, seamlessly blending fantastic visual effects with modern, shaky-cam (yawn) cinematography. Those expecting Robocop to be a blow-up action movie like the latest Total Recall might be disappointed — this one clocks in at two hours, and concerns itself a good deal with its human element, to questionable result.
Familiar with the original Robocop story, there are avenues to further explore with regards to human drama, but the original blended action and drama to masterful effect. The new Robocop does both well, but the missing ingredient unfortunately is character. Note immediately that there is no Clarence Boddicker. And while the characters in the film are entertaining to watch, they don’t offer enough to be compelling — Oldman’s Dr. Norton coming closest and Keaton’s Sellars being the most intriguing. For the reason of character, it is made painfully clear that this movie is a remake, and beholden to the original.
Robocop (2014) deftly maintains the balance between self-seriousness and obliterating ridiculousness. What it misses is satire, though it is present in the dialogue and the overlong Novak television segments. Bad dialogue is excused here by satire, but what isn’t excused is the bad science. I can buy that Sellers says things like “It doesn’t work, keep it on the streets,” even though that conflicts with the realism in the environment, but that Dr. Norton and assistant Jae Kim don’t fully understand what it is they built and speak not in jargon but philosophy? The reason bad science cannot be as excused by the satire might just be because it indicates this movie’s problematic relationship to the original.
Robocop ’87 was an intensely compact film, impeccable pacing, efficient characterization, and a small story with big heart. Every piece of it is connected, and the tale is satisfying and effective. It’s satirical of corporate America; co-writer and story-sourcer Ed Neumeier taking cues from Wall Street’s Book of Five Rings culture and Hollywood’s boardroom treacheries, and so there is a heightened aspect to the atmosphere — the characters are larger-than-life, and things happen that seem internally consistent, but make no sense. Let’s recall that moment where the late Bob Morton’s buddy gives a thumbs-up after a man’s been shot and falls out a skyscraper. Thumbs-up? It feels like a throwaway shot but it would be focus in any other bizarre movie. Here — don’t even notice it. Or laugh with it.
Robocop is intimately suited to the remake experiment, because so much of Robocop was specific to its time and location. The new movie is an admirable attempt to adapt the Robocop story to the modern day — modern politics, modern technology. Appropriately, the aspects that didn’t translate are story-related: as mentioned, the characters, the science, the philosophy. The human drama, as expected, exists but doesn’t elevate the film. Where the updates did take hold — visual effects and design — were not necessarily ‘improved upon,’ but offer a new vision well worth the price of IMAX.
The new Robocop looked pretty hokey in the trailers, but in practice actually looks great. Like an actual badass, where the original Robocop is cool to some extent but works best as a big clunker. The creators definitely stayed true to the character’s premise as an urban knight in shining armor — a great shot of him riding his robocycle and holding his gun like a sword ready to swing upward. He’s flanked by an overall very creative art direction, one of the things I always look for in modern sci-fi films that lacks compares to modern sci-fi video-games, let’s say. Games like Metal Gear Solid V and Bioshock Infinite have fantastic art design as a matter of course, but movies are another issue.
Elysium is a movie with great art design, and Robocop actually shares similar visual qualities. Rick Mattox’s (Jackie Earle Haley, keeping pace with Keaton and co.) exo-skeleton looks straight from Blomkampf’s sci-fi melodramas. The big robots and the small robots are also really great, and I’d die to see a modern interpretation of the Robocop 2 character, would they actually make a sequel (fingers-crossed) and take on Robocop 2 (fingers… God, that would be awful).
Funny thing about the ED-209 in this movie — Robocop takes the Peter Jackson King Kong approach with one-upsmanship, wherein the 1933 movie saw King Kong battle one Allosaur, and the 2005 remake saw King Kong battle three or four Vastatosauruses (right off the dome). Robocop barely fights one ED-209 in the original, and uses brain and brawn to take down two or three in the first of the movie’s three climaxes.
Robocop features a number of scenes that are overlong, particularly Navid’s family, and Robocop without his visor on takes time to get used to, because he often looks silly. Keaton plays a reasonable enough guy who you suddenly realize is actually a comic-book supervillain, and the ending is shot-for-shot the end of Total Recall 2012, on a helipad and everything. But the movie is a hell of a looker, features impressive art design rendered in convincing CG, and a charming cast — charismatic lead, and people like Jennifer Ehle and Michael K. Williams always welcome faces. A good start to what will be a strange year for science-fiction in Hollywood.
This movie is not a revision, but it is a vision of something we all like.