Remember that Total Recall remake with Colin Farrell? No? It was all nice and shiny, but terribly bland, and not a patch on Paul Verhoeven’s grimly funny original. Most people have already forgotten it existed, which is probably for the best.
And now here we are, with another remake of a Paul Verhoeven action classic, RoboCop. And whilst it does try harder than most, the result is still an insipid, low-fat version of the original. But should we compare it? Some might argue that the film be judged on its own merits. They released the original close to thirty years ago, and there’ll be a whole generation who’ve never even seen it, or possibly even heard of it.
Many didn’t complain when Batman got rebooted by Christopher Nolan. That series had crashed and burned in an explosion of neon and rubber bat nipples, thanks to Joel Schumacher, so there was probably a collective sigh of relief when Nolan got his hands on the franchise. Similarly, RoboCop suffered when it came to sequels. RoboCop 2 is probably an underrated action film, but still lacks the smart satire of the original, despite its best efforts. The less said about RoboCop 3 and it’s robot ninjas and jetpacks, and the terrible RoboCop TV series (yes, a TV series!!), the better.
The outcry over a RoboCop reboot arose — even before they announced it’s child friendly certificate – because there was an inevitable feeling that no new film would ever be as bold as the original. The Hollywood remake machine prefers to operate by dialling back on violence (unless it’s a film from the horror genre), and polishing away the rough edges, before spitting out a charmless, focus group tested movie that satisfies no-one beyond the ninety minutes runtime. Least of all, the fans.
So let’s be honest. Given that a film has the same name, and the same central character, comparisons are impossible to avoid. If they called it Jumping CGI Cyborg Policeman, or even RobertCop (see Fig.1) then fair enough, I’ll judge the film on its own merits. But it’s not. It’s called RoboCop. They called the main character Murphy. He gets killed by some scumbags, and then rebuilt by an evil corporation.
The film’s biggest crime is not Murphy’s death (or near death in this reboot), but BOREDOM. The director, José Padilha, said he wanted to focus more on Murphy during the aftermath of his attempted murder, and how he comes to terms with being a man forever trapped inside a machine. As if that was somehow different to anything the original had already done, yet much more efficiently. Padilha wastes endless amounts of the film’s run time mistaking emotional depth for dreary melodrama. As an example, Verhoeven’s RoboCop has more anger, confusion, tragedy, and a sense of humanity overcoming the machine, crammed into a mere five minutes of RoboCop walking through his empty house, then this new version achieves in its entire 117 minutes.
For a lot of the movie, the story bounces back and forth between laboratory tests, the occasional meeting with his tear-stained wife, and boring kid, and Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman arguing about whether man and robot should be combined. Admittedly, Keaton’s more interested in looking at colour charts for RoboCop’s paint job.
I’m sure all of this endless chatter about free will and stuff, looked super intelligent on paper, but it’s laid out on-screen in such an obvious, and tedious way. Mostly, it’s all tell and no show. Gary Oldman’s doctor is nearly always watching RoboCop on a bank of screens, providing a handy commentary, should anyone fail to understand this film’s very serious themes (as well as pertinent plot points such as, “He’s solving his own murder!”). Themes that were all in the original of course, but cleverly woven into a tight, funny, satirical, action-packed story.
By contrast, new RoboCop almost forgets it has a story until the final third where the film kicks into some sort of life. It’s all pretty rubbish though. One shoot out in a warehouse is an unexciting mess of thermal imaging, designed more, I suspect, to disguise as much gore as possible and keep the violence nice and safe. That no real character groundwork has been laid for some of the movie’s villains, also makes the action scenes feel kind of boring: they have a lot of energy, but very little tension, and what feel like very low stakes.
And it’s shocking really just how forgettable the villains are in the reboot. Every villain in Verhoeven’s RoboCop is colourful and memorable, from Clarence Boddicker and Dick Jones all the way through to the lesser villains such as Leon and Emil.
I think, really, that’s the ultimate difference between the two versions. Robocop 1987 is wild, untamed, colourful, and unforgettable. RoboCop 2014 is dull, drained of life, and made to order.
I wouldn’t even buy it for a dollar!