Ken Russell called Paul Verhoeven’s original 1987 RoboCop “The greatest science fiction film since Metropolis.” The original is a cult phenomenon loved by fans so given the recent wave of disappointing remakes such as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Wicker Man, Total Recall, etc. it is understandable that the idea of remaking RoboCop was not welcomed with open arms. After pap shots of a redesigned (and black!) Robocop leaked last year; fans rose to the Internet to express their vitriolic disapproval. We all expected this film to be another boring, sanitised, witless Hollywood action remake but surprisingly enough, this is a solid remake that both retains and builds upon what was good about the original.
In the not too distant future, the malevolent mega-corporation OmniCorp, headed by the unsympathetic Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), produces robot drones for the US government to ‘enforce’ peace in the Middle East. However, the use of these robots on “robophobic” American soil is still illegal. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinneman) is a Detroit cop who is critically injured in the line of duty and revived by OmniCorp in to a part-man, part-machine RoboCop to try and sell the idea of robotic law enforcement officers at home.
The original was not about a robot fighting crime; it was about corruption, greed and the gentrification of capitalism. The film came towards the end of the Reagan era and gleefully satirised his pet doctrines of free enterprise and privitisation. The remake has socio-political allegory in abundance as well but it has been updated for our zeitgeist. US jingoism and drones being used to carry out the rule of law, for instance.
Something clear from the trailer was a vast divergence from the original —Murphy is aware of what has happened to him. I was skeptical of this at first and assumed, like many other recent remakes, the new director just does not understand the original. However, because of this change and the way Murphy, his Frankenstein like creator Dr Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman) and the OmniCorp exec react to this new scenario, the remake better addresses some of the philosophical issues that the original seeded. What does it mean to be human? How much of Murphy’s brain function can be altered before we say he’s no longer Alex Murphy?
The original had some dark humour and some of that is retained by Samuel L Jackson’s character. Jackson plays Pat Novak, prominent supporter of robot crime control and host of the TV show The Novak Element, a Fox News style outlet for his extremely patriotic political commentary. The only thing that would make it more obvious who Pat Novak is supposed to be satirising is if we saw him in rehearsal screaming ‘We’ll do it live! Fuck it! We’ll do it live!’
The film is not faultless, however. One of the big early objections to the remake by fans was that the original was R-rated(18) and this version is PG-13(12A.) I’m inclined to agree that in order to have better retained the tone of the original, it should have been more violent — But more importantly than that, violent juxtaposed with humour. The film also lacks a villain as menacingly unhinged as Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker. Instead we get Antoine Vallen (Patrick Garrow) who’s just a garden-variety, off-the-shelf movie villain. Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy also seems like a weak choice when contrasted with Peter Weller who, in Paul Verhoven’s words, could “convey pathos with just the lower half of his face”
There has been a tendency in modern action blockbusters to feel the need to patronise the audience by assuming the film can’t retain their attention longer than 15 minutes unless there is a big action scene. The action pieces in RoboCop are surprisingly few in number and the film has confidence in its own storyline and themes to not feel the need to do this. For fans of the original, the action that you want to see is there. Okay, so there’s no scene in which RoboCop shoots a rapist in the balls but he does have an epic fight with ED-209, though this time it’s not stairs that defeats him.