Jose Padiha’s remake of Robocop reminds me a lot of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. On it’s own, it’s not bad at all. It’s flawed, but it has a lot of good ideas and better than average execution. Still, the original explores each of the themes in a much better way.
The original Robocop remains one of my all time favorite films. Yes, really. Don’t give me that look – it was a very smart science fiction film wrapped in the cloak of an incredible action film. It managed to combine religious allegory with an examination on how consumerism destroys our humanity. It also looks at whether a man can ever be treated as a product and shows a way that could happen. And, as icing on the cake, it was a wonderful media satire that frequently interrupted the action with inane commercials that were quite horrifying once examined properly.
The new Robocop should be praised for trying to update its themes for our age. In a time when the U.S. is increasingly reliant on drone warfare and local police departments are gaining access to military equipment without anyone batting an eye, the themes of Robocop are more relevant than ever. But the remake never quite goes for the jugular in the way the original did. Despite its good ideas, it remains stuck in first gear as though it is afraid of holding the mirror too closely to the audience. It almost tricks us – the pre-credits sequence is so great that my doubts about this film were almost erased.
Yet those ten minutes shows what is right and what is wrong with the film as a whole. The only media segments present in the film (replacing the local news reports from the original) are clips from “The Novak Report,” a Fox News-esque show hosted by Pat Novak (Samuel L Jackson) who advises that those who think drones violate our civil liberties to “quit whining.” He then shows scenes from Tehran (which the U.S. has invaded in this future) of the robots who are scanning the local populace. They are scared, but Pat is insistent that everything is A-OK. That is, A-OK until suicide bombers attack the ED-209s from the original film and they kill a kid. After that, Pat is forced to cut to footage due to a request from the Pentagon.
It shows our current world and how complicit the media is to horrific violence and immoral actions taken in the name of security. And all of this happens before Robocop shows up. “Wow,” I thought. “I wonder what will happen when they finally reveal their take on the iconic character.”
But it’s after that happens when the movie stumbles and never recovers.
I’m going to spend the rest of the review talking about the characterization of Alex Murphy/Robocop (Joel Kinnaman). It illustrates everything about the film – some good ideas are on display but they aren’t as good as what was present in the original.
Unlike the original, Murphy retains his identity and memories. He is referred to as Alex and remains with his wife and son. I thought this would destroy the film completely, but it doesn’t. There’s actually a great scene that owes a debt to Dalton Trumbo and David Cronenberg where Alex begs to die after learning what has happened to him. It was a scene that was impossible in the original film. It’s a great scene, but the film quickly forgets it.
Here’s the problem – why exactly would Alex agree to become a monster and then train to be a fighting machine? The film doesn’t say. Would YOU want to become some sort of robot warrior after a near death experience? Also, I know one of the themes is about how a man’s mind will defeat programming, but Murphy over comes his brainwashing (where he acts like you would expect Robocop to act) with absolute ease. Even the references to the previous film are rushed through. Yes, he does avenge his own death, but it happens in fifteen minutes and we are off to the next plot point. Never mind that that was the entire arc of the first film and an important aspect of Alex regaining his humanity. I also liked Sellars, the CEO of OMNICORP (as opposed to Omni Consumer Products from the original). As played by Michael Keaton, he’s the sort of Steve Jobs figure that makes more sense in today’s climate than the Old Man would. But he changes on a dime and alternatively becomes hero and villain. I know Robocop is supposed to show the unfeeling corporate entity, but it’s not handled well at all in the remake. As the film goes on, it becomes more unfocused. I wanted more scenes like the one with Alex begging to be killed. But by the end, such moments seemed to be forgotten for quick action scenes and the usual good versus evil idea.
There have been far worse remakes than Robocop. Padiha was brave, taking such a classic film and making it his own. But he didn’t tackle the material with the same excitement that Paul Verhoeven had when he made the original. Padiha is equally capable of making that sort of action satire and I hope he gets his chance. His current film doesn’t hit all the targets that it needs to to be a classic. By no means is it bad, but it had big shoes to fill and doesn’t come close. Still, I can think of worse ways to spend your time. I guess that’s a recommendation.