The 2014 Robocop remake sucked. Wow, I bet you didn’t see that one coming!
Picking on a corporate-driven remake is like picking on the kid in school with chronic gas; they can’t help it if they stink.
When a studio attaches a director to a project they don’t care about, it always spells bad news. Worse, the studio will constantly meddle to squeeze as much cash out of the branding as possible. Like it or not, the world must come to grips with an endless stream of exploitative remakes confusingly branded with the exact same title as their predecessor.
Even so, what irritates me about Robocop 2014 is that MGM stood to learn a lot from their source material. I’m not saying that they should have copied the first film outright, but because they failed so abysmally at understanding why the 1987 Paul Verhoeven Robocop worked in the first place, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered.
Here’s a couple of things the studio and director should have picked up on before cobbling together their bland, desperate, and unnecessary cash grab…
Set the tone early on
Both films open similarly with television broadcasts. Verhoeven’s cleverly sets up its universe with a couple of surreal commercials mixed in with news reports about cop mortality rates in New Detroit. The 2014 Padilha version starts with Samuel L. Jackson explaining the story to the camera. Seriously.
While the news reports in the original are filmed in such a way as to mimic actual television, the new one instead reads like a eight-minute infomercial that might as well be titled “Our Story So Far.” Padilha is even too afraid to avoid showing his hand by making sure we see that there are cameras filming Samuel L., just in case we got confused and thought we had accidentally picked a TV broadcast from the future instead of a Robocop movie.
The new film stumbles from that point on by failing to effectively establish setting. 1987’s version of New Detroit looks a lot like old Detroit, but with more molded fiberglass and even more murder. The remake instead never lets us get a clear idea of how bad off the city is and presents a shiny future utopia that just so happens to have the problem of drug dealers in designer suits.
Audiences expect clarity when they’re given a fictional world. Let us know what the state of affairs is and what the rules are, or we will spend the rest of the film struggling to invest in what we’re watching. Samuel L.’s TV show attempts to do this, but fails to point us towards any sort of genuine conflict, instead opting to show footage of tired and racist middle-eastern terrorist tropes.
Verhoeven’s ability to establish setting and premise with a few clever tricks and well-delivered lines should never be underestimated. The Padilha version comes across like Exposition: The Movie, and spends more time talking about the plot than having things happen, let alone charming us or subtly guiding our emotions.
Make us hate the villains
The remake is also wary of committing to a philosophical alignment for its baddies, presumably out of fear of offending some group or the other and missing out on those few, crucial box-office receipts.
For God’s sake, the film even shies away from giving the generic drug dealer character any sort of defining characteristic other than great hair. I should not be just as apt to defend the thuggish antagonist as I would the generic male lead.
A likeable villain is great, but failing to give them proper motivation and characterization made me not care about the “conflict.” Robocop even manages to take out one his main archenemies three-quarters of the way through the new film with little emotional payoff.
Compare this to any bad guy from the Verhoeven Robocop. Clarence Boddicker – played brilliantly by a young Kurtwood Smith of That 70s Show fame – may be likable in certain ways, but there’s no denying he’s a frighteningly ruthless scumbag. Likewise, Miguel Ferrer and Ronny Cox ooze so much shit-eating vileness that I need to take a bath after every scene with them.
Instead, in the new one we get a bunch of flat, Hollywood executive types that insist on speaking in garbled monotones. Also, Gary Oldman is there and he’s dressed like Senator Kelly from X-Men.
The most engaging aspect to me was Michael Keaton struggling to get his project off the ground and butting heads with congress, but should we really be interested in that? The film is Robocop not Douchexec.
Without a sufficiently motivating antagonist – let alone three – Robocop himself is left with little to do and thus little for us to care about as the unexciting film wraps up.
Don’t overthink the plot
These problems all seem to run together at this point, and the plot is squarely to blame. A film called Robocop should not be difficult to explain – the premise is in the title. The original film lead down a logical path; one scene followed the next without any confusion.
The remake, on the other hand, introduces so many elements that have no real bearing or payoff. Why the scene with them recalibrating his brain? Why yet another scene where they suck out his dopamine to make him more robotic? These both should have introduced interesting plot elements, yet instead had no effect on Murphy’s character three minutes down he road.
Furthermore, the new version gets the entire original premise backwards. The introduction of the faulty ED-209 unit in the Verhoeven version was a pivotal scene for establishing why the Robocop program came about. A fully autonomous robot in 1987 was considered a risky and unproven technology.
The newer film’s obscure commentary on drone warfare fails to see this point. The robot program at OCP is up and running with scarcely a hitch, and having a stereotypical middle-eastern child being shot for wielding a kitchen knife sadly fails to establish an issue with the program in light of rampant civilian casualties going on in Afghanistan as we speak. At least that’s compared to a good old-fashioned “the robot you just demonstrated to the board turned someone into a pulpy, human-flavored milkshake.”
Full of unnecessary, convoluted twists and turns, the remake had me pining for the game-changer scenes of the original. Watching the villains screw each other over and then get screwed themselves one by one was entertaining as hell and made a fairly predictable plot all the more gratifying.
Also, streamlining all the motivation problems by having OCP own both the Detroit Police and Boddicker’s gang helped keep the details tidy. Tight cohesion and controlled editing make Verhoeven’s version one of the simplest and best executions of a concept ever.
No one cared about the man inside the suit
This statement may seem off-base, but I say this because, in the original, Alex Murphy was not the focus. Robocop was.
Like the ED-209 arc, the remake yet again gets this premise backwards. Murphy was a rookie in a new precinct, and his partner was the badass cop. He was just a dedicated but inexperienced officer who was exactly the sort of dork that would imitate a gun spinning trick he saw on a cheesy TV show.
The new film’s focus on Murphy’s humanity provides some of the only interest in an otherwise yawn-fest, but Murphy’s prowess as a cop even before his transformation makes me wonder if he really needed a robot suit at all. Padilha’s fixation on showing Murphy’s face and tendency to characterize him as almost the exact same as before the accident (barring the random dopamine scene) makes him feel badass enough on his own, but now with cybernetic enhancements to boot.
By contrast, Peter Weller was cast in the original film because his relatively waifish figure would make the Robocop suit seem less bulky. While Weller delivers his lines spot-on, there’s never an attempt to define his character before his murder other than that he’s a nice guy and a devoted cop.
This absence of character makes his transformation into Robocop all the more interesting. We get the feeling that Murphy has truly been turned into a robot, but as the film goes on we find out that there’s still some of Murphy left inside. His arc is tidy and extremely satisfying, and characterizes Murphy’s identity as a combination of his former human self and the new, gruff cyborg.
The remake instead keeps Murphy’s character largely consistent and misses out on his growth and development. We never forget that he is a human because instead of an emotionally engaging scene where Robocop jams a drill into his skull and removes his helmet, we get a stupid visor that flips up and down just in case we are so dumb that we forget who is in the suit.
Also, actor Joel Kinnaman’s face surrounded by prosthetics and CG looked more like Ivan Ooze from the nauseating Power Rangers movie than an ultra-cool cyborg. Just sayin’.
Violence is golden
This final point is similar to my introduction – it’s almost too easy to point out. The trend of watering down sequels and remakes from R to PG-13 has already been criticized as a shameless strategy to attract more revenue. After all, films don’t need blood and guts and profanity to be good.
But it sure helped the original Robocop! The most iconic scenes of the 1987 film all involve people being blown to bits.
The new film fails to substitute anything memorable in their place. The firefights come across as consequence-free and video-gamey rather than intense, and we never feel like anyone is in enough danger to give a damn.
Let me pick on the worst change the film made as an example: the decision to have the Murphy character injured by car bomb instead of impromptu firing squad. The original scene was nothing if not visceral, especially for 1987, and it set the stage for Murphy’s horrific transformation into a hulking machine.
The bomb that blew up in Murphy’s body in the new version, however, was so weak that it didn’t even shake the bushes in the front yard. The doctor explains that Murphy will be wheelchair-bound, covered in scars and lacking hearing and vision, but that’s better than what the Murphy of the Verhoeven version was diagnosed with – death.
That’s right, 1987 Murphy undeniably gets the shit blown out of him via shotgun shells. The scene of him blacking out and the physicians calling the time-of-death smartly transitions to a POV shot of him being tinkered with as he transitions into Robocop.
The new Murphy might have a limited future, but at least he’d be alive! As it stands, it doesn’t make sense why they removed so much of his tissue. Despite the nifty-looking scene where they show him that he’s basically a head, a hand, and some lungs strung together in a robot frame, I was left wondering why they bothered to remove so much of his organs in the first place if they were salvageable.
The irony is that because they took the time to explain this premise instead of just showing things unfold, I began to ask even more questions.
Overall, common sense dictates that I forgive the 2014 film’s shortcomings because of the incompetent way in which it was conceived. I should also cut it some slack for trying a different approach rather than a tired rehash of the same plot.
Common sense can take a hike, though. There’s no excuse for poorly-directed performances that fail to provide memorable characters and that drive clumsy, misguided plot development. The remake sparked an iota of excitement in certain instances, but as the villainous execs in the film love saying, MGM would quickly command “Shut it down.”