Keith: With last week’s Movie Of The Week pieces, and now this Conversation, it feels like we’re turning into a RoboCop fan site. But at the risk of overkill, let’s put our RoboTalk to bed with one last RoboConversation. For all my RoboFandom, I tried to approach the new version of RoboCop with an open mind. As deep as the original’s roots were in the 1980s, nothing says those roots couldn’t be transported to the present. And in some respects, I think this new version—directed by José Padilha, from a script by Joshua Zetumer—makes all the right moves conceptually. A bold opening ties the theme of robotic weaponry to America’s increasing reliance on drones, to chilling effect. The changes to Alex Murphy’s journey give it more metaphorical resonance. Where the original RoboCop had him struggling to recover his humanity after being reborn as a robotic being without an identity, here, he awakens fully aware of his humanity, only for it to be marginalized and eliminated by Omnicorp, the company responsible for saving him. It’s a neat illustration of how good intentions and morality itself get pushed aside when the bottom line becomes the first, last, and only consideration in business or government. (And most dangerously, when the two become indistinguishable.) The film keeps the framework and some key elements from the original, but throws out almost everything else in favor of new material relevant to the present. That’s smart. Too bad the execution varies from workmanlike to dull. Scott, was that your impression, too?
Scott: Like any other remake, RoboCop is the heartrending story of a Hollywood studio wanting to squeeze more cash out of a prized cow, but the promise and peril of a RoboCop remake is that a watered-down version of the 1987 original isn’t feasible in the way a watered-down version of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall was. Politics are built into RoboCop’s DNA as much as Terminator-style science-fiction/action is, so the filmmakers have to figure out some way to make the character relevant to 2014. And to that end, the pre-credits sequence really had me sitting up in my chair. We get Samuel L. Jackson as a cable-news demagogue hailing OmniCorp’s solution to suppressing violence in global hot spots like Tehran by having heavily armed robots (including ED-209, the wonderfully clunky behemoth from the original film) patrolling the streets instead of American troops. We can see from the footage of Tehran that security involves turning the city into a terrifying police state, where every citizen cowers at the end of a gun, and the film invites us to think about the way the American government engages threats abroad with unmanned drones, all in the name of limiting the engagement of actual U.S. troops on the ground. That’s an exciting contemporary metaphor for RoboCop, and I was eager to see how the film might follow through on it.
But after that opening, the film settles into a limp, directionless thriller that becomes overly obsessed with technology and showing off its generous effects budget. (At times, it feels like an effects house submitting a demo reel for a Minority Report reboot.) There’s an interesting thread about the way RoboCop becomes a public-relations challenge, with a humanity that must be adjusted depending on what’s expected of him as cop, spokesman, or family man. But opening aside, the film reeks of compromise, and it’s utterly lacking in the satirical wit that made the original such a treat. Am I being too hard on it?
Tasha: I think you’re absolutely being too hard on it in saying it doesn’t have any satirical wit: The Samuel L. Jackson demagogue segments are heavy-handed, but both accurate enough about modern political talk-show rhetoric to be familiar, and hyperbolic enough to be funny. (The original RoboCop wasn’t exactly subtle about its political views, either.) And I disagree about it tanking directly after the opening. The third act is standard-issue dumb-action-movie stuff, and it goes to some laughably contrived places (“What? The woman I was meeting with 30 seconds ago is still in the building? What luck! Bring her to my evil helipad at once!”), but the first two acts are considerably more creative than they needed to be, if the people behind RoboCop 2014 were just trying to bang out a glossier, CGI-ier clone of the first film. Frankly, I thought it was on average a mediocre film, but a great remake.
It’s extremely hard for filmmakers to remake a classic. Discard too much of the original, and everyone will gripe that the new version isn’t actually a remake, it’s a separate film riding on a classic’s popularity. Don’t discard enough, and everyone will complain about the new film’s lack of daring or creativity. RoboCop 2014 finds unusually interesting ways to walk that line, by keeping but re-envisioning the original elements. The most satisfying part of that, as Keith mentioned, is giving Alex Murphy his own consciousness from the start, and letting him grapple with what his humanity means. But even that broad decision has a dozen little familiar RoboCop 1987 elements hanging off it—his owners’ decision to ditch even healthy parts of his meat-body is acknowledged, but handled very differently than the first film’s “Lose the arm” moment. The goop that sustains RoboCop is there, but handled differently. His relationship with his re-creators is there, but handled differently. His relationship with his former cop compatriots, with his family, and with his murder: All present, but different. The first film is recognizable in nearly every moment of this one, and yet that doesn’t make it predictable. They aren’t so similar that they invite scene-by-scene unfavorable comparisons; the new one has its own flaws, but at least it’s its own film. For once, I felt like I was watching a creative remix made by people who loved and respected the original version, but want to tell their own story as well—two things I don’t normally see in remakes. I take it I’m alone in that regard?
Keith: No. I agree with all your points, Tasha. I just don’t think the movie works. Where RoboCop 1987 kept pulling back to show the madness of the world at large, the satire of this film’s opening disappears for whole chunks. The villains are colorless—even Michael Keaton in what should have been a memorable performance—and the long, long stretches of RoboCop learning how to be RoboCop don’t really go anywhere. (I do really like the scene in which Murphy sees how little of his body is left, particularly the pause before the revelation that while he’s kept a human hand, it’s attached to wires and metal, not flesh and blood.) I respect that the film tries to go its own way. I just don’t think it gets particularly far.
Scott: A mediocre movie but a great remake? That just doesn’t compute for me, Tasha. I’ve conceded here and in my review that nü-RoboCop isn’t a by-the-numbers remake just looking to put a gloss on long-ago hit. But while I appreciate certain aspects of the new movie—namely, the updated political metaphor of robots serving as unmanned combat drones overseas, and the nuanced relationship RoboCop has with Gary Oldman’s sensitive Dr. Frankenstein—the entire project feels watered-down and compromised, a failed attempt to square Padilha’s brand of action politics with whatever mass-appeal notes Sony executives must have had for him. And I’m sorry, but Jackson aside, this movie isn’t funny. At all. That’s regrettable.
For due diligence before seeing this RoboCop, I caught up with Padilha’s Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, two massive hits in their native Brazil that also served as political flashpoints both in that country and abroad. (The continuity between Padilha and Verhoeven, two foreigners offering their outsider perspectives on America, makes him seem like the perfect choice.) Padilha first came to my attention—and the world’s—with Bus 174, a documentary about a homeless man whose hijacking of a city bus played out on national television, mainly because the police were too inept to contain it. In that film, Padilha delved into the hijacker’s impoverished background and addressed the systemic problems that led him to his desperate place. Yet Elite Squad, an action movie about a highly trained group of black-suited special-ops policeman, was accused by some of fascism for championing men who “clean up” the favelas by any means necessary. I joked on Twitter that RoboCop was being remade by a guy who made a movie that basically advocated for OCP’s urban renewal plan. I confess the joke was a little glib—and thanks to the Brazilian critic Filipe Furtado, who more accurately refers to Elite Squad as a “confused text”—but plainly, Padilha is eager to mingle politics with action, which is what this RoboCop needs, and what none of the original sequels had. And yet “confused text” isn’t a bad description for Padilha’s RoboCop, either. I left not knowing what the film was ultimately trying to tell me.
Tasha: Well, that’s exactly how it can be both a mediocre movie and a great remake for me. Seen as a whole, the film has too many jangling elements that don’t come together. But I enjoyed so many of the little pieces on their own, particularly in their relationship to the first film. Padilha and Zetumer have some unusual storytelling instincts that work well in the moment, but not for the big picture. For instance: In the testing phase, RoboCop takes down an entire warehouse full of drone soldiers with minimal effort. It’s a moderately exciting sequence, with its own villain (Jackie Earle Haley, as a contemptuous, loathsome corporate merc) and its own stakes. But in that fight, the filmmakers clearly established RoboCopy’s capabilities. So when he arrives at the warehouse full of criminals led by the Clarence Boddicker equivalent, I was dreading a fight sequence that would try to up the ante by being twice as long and twice as big, while still being entirely redundant with the earlier segment. Instead, RoboCopy peremptorily burns through the baddies, and casually guns down his own murderer, who’s barely seen as a blur in the background.
That’s a daring choice. Skimping on what could be another obligatory action sequence, turning it into almost a punchline, denying a villain his moment in the spotlight, and making it clear that these particular bad guys are just outclassed, and the real enemies are elsewhere—these are all interesting decisions. They stay within the puckish sense of humor of the first film, but pull the storyline sharply away from it. I appreciated all of it—within its moment. But within the film’s arc as a whole, it’s all just a distraction. The action peaks early with the trial-run warehouse battle. There’s no catharsis in a big sequence that takes down a criminal gang and its leader. That’s part of the point—Alex doesn’t get any catharsis out of it either, and it doesn’t help resolve his issues—but that doesn’t make it any more workable as the middle act of the story. Does that make more sense? Do individual sequences or decisions from this new RoboCop stand out, even where you don’t think the whole works?
Keith: I guess that’s where the “great remake” claims falls apart from me. In the original, everything hung together: the satire, the action, the humor, the gore. It all balanced nicely, and everything worked in service of a film that moved. What’s more, Verhoeven wrung considerable pathos from the film. That’s most pronounced in the scene where Murphy returns to his old home and keeps flashing on memories of the life he’ll never have again. But the scene that always gets me is when he saves the rape victim. She’s hysterical with relief, and all RoboCop can do is say, “Ma’am, you have suffered an emotional shock. I will notify a rape crisis center.” I know there’s humor in there, but it also makes me sad for RoboCop. He’s done a heroic thing, but he has nothing else to offer the poor woman, and her heightened emotion just reflects how little he now feels. RoboCop 2014 does a lot more with Murphy’s family, but it never made me feel a thing for him. And apart from that opening scene, it didn’t offer much of a chance to reflect on the world of today, either, despite the connections between RoboCop and automated warfare. In short, nothing here worked as well as in the original, despite some interesting ideas. What’s great about that?
Scott: One major difference between original and extra-crispy RoboCop we haven’t discussed is the vastly expanded role of Murphy’s wife, played in the new one by Abbie Cornish. The original had Murphy’s wife and son as mere fragments in his flickering memory, which are rendered touchingly as the faint, still-burning embers of his humanity. Because Murphy is conceived here as entirely conscious of what’s happening to him—and kept alive by his wife’s consent—his family plays an active role in caring for him and advocating for him against OmniCorp’s treachery. When I think about the differences between the two films in this respect, the new film feels like a lot of wasted energy. Having Murphy’s family exist in a more abstract way in RoboCop, as memories he clings to even as they haunt him, is far more affecting than scene after scene of Cornish fretting over his mistreatment. The film also misses the opportunity to exploit the marital tension caused by his wife’s decision to keep him alive, when it seems like he’d have rather been allowed to die. (It occurs to me now, too, that such a scenario could have provided the film with another metaphor about end-of-life decisions, which would have opened up an entirely new political front.)
There’s an abiding intelligence to RoboCopy that makes the disappointment of it more acute, because it has lots of good, original ideas, but never quite follows through on them. And the first RoboCop throws all that into sharp relief for me: It’s such a disciplined, uncompromised, fully realized work, with distinctive elements (ED-209, the RoboCop design, the trio of bad guys, the graphic pop of the imagery, the score, etc.) that come together harmoniously under Paul Verhoeven’s direction. Beyond the bookending sequences, I’m having trouble rising to Tasha’s challenge of singling out scenes or elements in the remake that stood out for me, because the film feels so diffuse and confused by comparison. I feel like I want to see a remake of the remake, because the potential for greatness is there.
Tasha: And possibly the key to that greatness lies in picking one or two of the threads RoboCopy lays out and focusing on them. There’s so much potential in the topics RoboCop 2014 tries to tackle: American hawkishness in the drone age, the surveillance state, corporate manipulation of government, the easy handling of the American people through shiny products and marketing techniques, the extremity of modern political discourse, the commoditization of life, and on and on. You say the film has no satirical wit, but I see a certain amount of dry, desperate humor in the way RoboCop 2014 finds the unfortunate associations and synergies between all these elements, and takes them to a not-so-distant-future level of extremity. The new version features virtually no laugh lines, unlike the 1987 version, but I don’t think its type of bleak, black humor is as far from the original as you think. (Besides, the laughs in the original were pretty extreme and unpleasant to begin with, and it’d be harder to make “Bitches leave” or “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” play today.)
I agree that the film feels compromised, especially in that generic last act, with its nonsensical rooftop confrontation and generic gunfights, none of which are germane to all the ideas the film touches on in the early going. (The happy ending is particularly odd—a malfunctioning robot-cop murders a beloved billionaire, and thus fixes all his problems and guarantees himself a happy home at his victim’s corporation?) Obviously, the film isn’t going to replace the first version in anyone’s hearts. But I still respect the way RoboCopy tries to update the base story and re-imagine it as much as possible, and to find its own footing and its own voice—even when I don’t entirely care for the voice it finds. Given how dismissive you guys are about the film, and in particular Scott’s unwillingness to acknowledge a single positive quality in it, I find it hard to imagine a remade version that wouldn’t have let you down. And maybe that’s the inherent problem with remakes: They’re looking for the easiest audience, one motivated by nostalgia and familiarity, but they’re playing to the toughest crowd, one with a particular, complicated set of expectations and demands. On such an uneven playing field, it’s hard to win. At least this one tried.