Director: Josè Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley and Samuel L. Jackson
Release Date: Feb 7
Remaking a classic film is often like watching an exchange between a teacher and his/her students:
- Most often, we see the student reiterating the teacher’s lesson, mindlessly parroting her teachings, eager to simply get a passing grade.
- On extremely rare occasions we see a gifted student actively engaging with the material, and forcing the teacher to expand his/her ideas in new and interesting ways.
- And sometimes, unfortunately, the student is in the back of the class, making armpit noises at every opportunity to make the rest of the class giggle, with only the vaguest idea of what the central lesson is actually about.
With this metaphor in mind, Robocop is a student that has interesting ideas but, when asked to expand upon them, finds himself stammering nonsensically, thus disappointing the teacher and later receiving a wedgie from his fellow students in the playground.
The biggest disappointment with Josè Padilha’s sci-fi cop movie is that it simply isn’t much fun. You would think that, with the incredible advancements in CGI animation and the lessons learned from great action movies from the last few years (such as The Avengers or The Raid), the one thing you could expect from Robocop is that there would be some great fight choreography and elaborate set-pieces.
These elements are present, yet, like Alex Murphy himself, it is a mostly hollow and superficial affair.
There are some noteworthy sequences however, that justify this as an action movie. The testing sequence, in which Murphy is pitted against a number of drones to test his combat efficiency is a real standout, both fun and hard-hitting. This is the only moment where a cool, modern Robocop really gets a chance to impress, propelled into action and unsullied by technical limitations of the 80’s. He doesn’t trudge about like a clunky 1980’s robot, but rather leans more towards a grounded Iron Man; fast, agile and tireless.
The film can’t maintain this level of quality though, and quickly devolves into blunt philosophical pondering, wrapped in visualized elevator music. The original’s one-two knockout, in which Murphy takes out Kurtwood Smith’s mob boss and then battles the intimidating ED-209 is mimicked in the worst possible way, sacrificing dramatic gravitas for brisk pacing and a shaky CGI sequence that makes the stakes feel incredibly low.
Gary Oldman, unsurprisingly, provides the film with its best scenes and certainly comes out of this cleaner than everyone else. He plays the doctor/scientist who brings Robocop into being and makes much better use of his screen-time than others.
An early scene, in which he lays a post-op Murphy bare is possibly the films’ most memorable piece, both for his performance and the imagery involved. The ethical dilemma of technology vs. humanity for the sake of efficiency is explored throughout his actions and, while these moments often sacrifice the more fun aspects of the film, they are nonetheless effective, if not a little heavy-handed.
The decision to focus on Murphy’s waning humanity is the films biggest strength but it ultimately lacks the confidence to do anything really interesting with the idea.
This lack of confidence isn’t attributed solely to the writing or director either. It also comes across in Murphy and his wife Clara’s performances.
To be fair, the role of Robocop, in which your main job is to ‘be a robot’, is a fairly thankless role and one that Peter Weller hardly defined in 1987. Yet considerably more emphasis is placed on family ties and the emotional aspects in this remake, so it is a shame that both Kinnaman and Cornish do such a by-the-numbers job, with no particularly memorable lines, quirks or moments.
Even Michael Keaton doesn’t particularly impress, but this is less due to his performance and more a case of miscasting and bad writing. As a fun and enthusiastic sort of character, he seems ill-suited as the president of OmniCorp who is written, half-heartedly, as ‘evil’.
Robocop is a film that wants to take steps away from the original, but keeps it at arms length as a security blanket, which ultimately pleases no one. The new look of Robocop himself is a visualisation of this concept. It’s a clear departure from the original, and while many fans will be enraged with the new look (if not the entire film), it still functions well. It is an inoffensively unnecessary change that only really serves to highlight how close the film is sticking to the original’s formula.
The most glaring example of this practice is Samuel L. Jackson’s role as the hilariously biased news presenter, which very obviously replaces the OmniCorp advertisements from the original. It is impossible to dislike Samuel L. Jackson in a role such as this as he is such a winning personality. Yet at no point does this implementation feel truly original.
The only true severing between this film and the original is in the aesthetics. While the remake is obviously more impressive on a technical level, it disastrously opts to place the action in a ‘not so distant future’. A sound theory in concept, as it emphasizes how the ethical issues are not far divorced from contemporary society. Yet it makes 2028 Detroit look like Genericsville, an extremely far cry from the almost fairy-tale dystopia of the original that held beauty in it’s grittiness.
It’s encouraging to see filmmakers embrace the more subtle aspects of the classics when remaking them for a more modern audience, but this falls regrettably into the bargain bin labelled ‘Forgettable’.
Neither the reliably solid performance from Oldman, nor a surprisingly nuanced portrayal in a minor role from Jackie Earle Haley can hide the fact that this contemplative remake is a dry and shallow experience, more akin to the original’s footnotes than the original itself.
Written by Stephen Hill