At this juncture, it is practically a truth universally acknowledged that everything is a remake. Even those films that shock us with their originality in an age of derivation, films which have no source material outside the brilliant ideas populating the minds of their auteur screenwriter/directors, like Gravity and Her, are in essence still built upon old ideas (like the myth of Pygmalion) and genre conventions (what is Gravity but a lost-at-sea thriller transplanted to the final frontier).
What is originality really? Don’t go to the cinema this month to find out; three of four major releases opening wide this Valentine’s Day 2014 are remakes of 80s films (two are remakes of films it is unlikely anyone under 30 has any familiarity with at all) and the other film is a bonkers adaptation of a bonkers fantasy romance. Everything may be remixed, but this Valentine’s Day, the DJ is barely trying. It appears he fell asleep at the turntable.
Of these February remakes, RoboCop is both the most respectable (and has in turn gotten the most respect) and the most sacrilegious. It is respectable because if any film’s content has gotten more relevant from its release to 2014 (other than Network of course) it is RoboCop. A new vision of that material doesn’t just seem appropriate… it seems necessary. It is sacrilegious because the film upon which this remake is based is now considered a beloved classic – it, unlike About Last Night and Endless Love, has much to live up to and little hope of unseating Peter Weller in the hearts and minds of the unexpectedly-worshipful masses who have adopted Paul Verhoeven as a kooky-kinky Dutch hero in the decade and change since his Hollywood exile.
I cannot compare this new RoboCop, directed by Brazilian newcomer Jose Padilha, to the 1987 original because I have not seen the original (in brief: sorry, soon to be rectified), but I did not need to see Verhoeven’s original RoboCop to realize the many ways in which (as many[robocopy] have begun to teasingly call it, and I can’t help following the trend) RoboCopy is a derivative work.
As a matter of fact, I saw a film last month (it was the only 2014 release I managed to see last month and already it’s been replicated to a tee) that shares so much with RoboCop it is almost humorous to behold the two films existing in such close proximity to each other, circling the same drain of exhausted tropes. I did not like Ride Along very much, but at least one of its Dirty Cops was played with lispy enthusiasm by John Leguizamo, it’s Bad Arms Dealer role was given over to a hammy but surprising-in-a-good-way cameo, and the overwhelming plottiness led to a great set-up for Kevin Hart to do what he does best – try to play a more physically imposing man than he actually is or could ever be. RoboCop too has a set of Dirty Cops who serve their master, a Bad Arms Dealer, and turn on the Only Good Cops, putting them in harm’s way. Beat-for-beat, in spite of being set in a not-that-distant future, in a different city, in a science fiction movie about robot-men, this story plays out identically in Ride Along and RoboCop. In Ride Along, the familiarity was tiring, but allowed some room for Kevin Hart to play in Eddie Murphy’s sandbox. In RoboCop, the familiarity is disheartening, stifling what seems from the outset to be a film of political vision and cutting satire, drowning it in yet another story of bought cops. It is exhausting to see a film this fanciful and this politically ambitious focus so heavily on component parts that are so overused that they feel recycled from last month’s bad comedy and seem to be more ill-used here.
But so much of this film is about familiarity. As a film designed to impress upon young male’s how much of a badass this armored-in-black law-drone is, RoboCop is ruthlessly efficient in mashing together smart-sounding media-satire (much of the film is a string of buzzwords [Drones! Senate Votes!!!] shouted in the cable-news mode so that RoboCopy sounds like it belongs in 2014) with a superhero origin story, the most tired of all genre tropes in 2014.
And really, in a sea of superhero movies, that is all that can be said for the film’s many action setpieces which see RoboCop take out scores of enemies – they are ruthlessly efficient. They occur. We know who dies. Give the film this: it is easy to keep score in this action film – if you’re not sure who RoboCop is killing, expect the character’s name and vital signs to appear onscreen a moment later… the benefit of having a robot protagonist I guess.
The only pieces of this film that step outside that efficiency, that seem to be more man, more soul, than machine, feature Gary Oldman as a mad scientist who is, contrary to the standard trope, more mad with compassion than ambition or avarice, and Samuel L. Jackson as a conservative talking-head for a crass Fox News stand-in.
Oldman is extraordinarily effective as the film’s cautious soul, a genius doctor able to do so much with science who is hesitant to act on that ability. He wants the best for his patients; he beams admiringly as one is able to use prosthetic hands to play the guitar while his wife looks on in tears. He is a Good Man in a Bad Situation, but Oldman takes it deeper than that. When he shares the screen with Joel Kinnaman, the cop in the suit this go-round (Kinnaman brings a healthy swagger and pleasant soulfulness to the role before his emotions are turned off and the Weller imitation begins), RoboCop is a modern-day Universal monster film. Kinnaman is a man turned beast, pining after what cannot be his. He is a brain, a pair of lungs, and a hand, encased horrifyingly in cold metal and tubing. He is our argument on cutting off life support taken to drastic extremes.
Exploring this dynamic, the dynamic of a man so far from being a man that it should be impossible for him to return to domestic bliss, Robocop justifies its existence. It nearly invalidates all that hard-work by, in the end, letting all the Good People who allow the Bad Situation to happen by merely following along, from Oldman’s doctor to Abbie Cornish’s longing wife, to get off scot-free. There should be a cost for all this madness, and yet, remarkably, in spite of how insane it is that a robot-man gets half of Detroit shot up and kills the CEO of the city’s favorite/maybe-only company, the epilogue shows all surviving characters are all smiles now.
With the exception of Jackson’s Pat Novak, that is. The Jackson pieces, which open and close the film and are peppered throughout a bit too inconsistently to warrant the device, act as a demented Greek chorus, relaying important stage-setting and thematic information to the audience, but filtering it through a corrupted, imperialistic lens. Using Jackson in this way, allowing him to speak directly to the audience, is an interesting hook, setting the film apart from just about everything else and giving it a futuristic look that much of the rest of the film somehow lacks; but Jackson’s bead on a media blowhard is too good. In spearing the Fox News type, he is all thorns and no blossom. He has none of the oily charisma that might win an audience over to his point of view. He seems too much the clown we can laugh at rather than a man whose power to sway the American public should scare us.
All the oily charisma in the film is saved for Michael Keaton who, for much of his time on-screen, does a fine job pulling everyone around him, Oldman’s scientist included, to his dark side while spouting off about protecting the American people in the most efficient manner possible and creating a new American hero. He does this in such a calm, level-headed way that his argument’s often seem genuinely convincing even though we know as an audience they all come from desires that have little to do with the safety of the American people and much more to do with the tax money of the American people. Before Keaton’s OmniCorp CEO goes, as he must, mad with power, he lands enough points to make any liberal opposed completely to drone warfare think twice. In this character, a whip smart and scarily relatable corporate head who turns, with little provocation, into a mustache-twirling fool (sans mustache, but if he had one, he’d twirl it) all of this film’s squandered potential lies.
Padilha comes so close to making a clever, necessary film. Undoubtedly (and by design, for sure) Padilha’s remake is relevant. Trailers seemed to promise that this relevance might prove justification enough for the reuse of the RoboCop character – maybe this wouldn’t just feel acceptable, maybe it would feel essential! Surely the need for this type of story could not have peaked in the Reagan years! And while Padilha proves there is gas left in the tank, that a RoboCop for a new age could truly speak to things in 2014 that RoboCop 1987 could never have dreamed of, it is sad that much of what RoboCop 1987 represented seems more suited to our times than this ultimately inessential remake which, in its happy-ending, and in its optimistic portrayal of a Detroit, borne upon the shoulders of a machine with a true American soul, on the rise, seems optimistically aspiration in the most impossible, untimely ways.