In defence of the RoboCop remake (with vegetables)

Feature Ryan Lambie 18 Sep 2012 - 06:30

With the redesigned suit from the RoboCop remake causing a stir, Ryan mounts a defence of next year's remake...

Editor's note:

Since we originally ran this article, we've received a very strongly worded letter from legal people working on behalf of MGM and CPII. Apparently, at least one of the promotional images that we've used in our generally positive reporting of the RoboCop remake has constituted "copyright infringement under the Copyright Act, Title 17 U.S Code Section 106(3)-(4)". Furthermore, the same letter kindly also alerted us to the fact that "This conduct may also violate the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and The Universal Copyright Convention, as well as bilateral treaties with other countries that allow for protection of CPII 's copyrighted works even beyond U.S borders".

We have been asked to "immediately cease and desist from using the Website to directly or indirectly cause, contribute to, enable, facilitate, aid, abet, induce, encourage, and/or participate in the infringement of CPII’s copyrighted works".

We are not sure how long we had to comply, but we've removed the offending exhibit from the site, and we are obviously apologetic for the distress this has caused, and the inevitable financial impact this will have had.

Furthermore, to err on the side of caution, and to prevent us inadvertedly causing such trouble again, we have had to update this article with images that we trust will be more acceptable. Our apologies again for any inconvenience caused in our attempts to be nice to the new RoboCop film.

Was the new RoboCop suit ever going to be anything but controversial? Remakes are seldom greeted with much enthusiasm, and when you’re dealing with a movie as admired as Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, it’s unsurprising that the mere idea of a new version of that 1987 action film has been treated with a mixture of apathy, distrust and outright hostility.

Nor is it surprising that, when the first glimpses of Joel Kinnaman in what we’re assuming is the final RoboCop outfit showed up on the web, the overall reaction wasn’t favourable; any redesign of the character’s suit will always be compared to the one Rob Bottin created back in the 80s.

In fairness, my first reaction to the set pictures from José Padilha’s movie wasn’t of dislike or annoyance, but bemusement. I spent several minutes wondering what it reminded me of, and after a while, I worked it out: it looks like lots of things mashed together - a dash of the Nolan Batman outfit, a touch of Japanese manga and anime hero The Guyver, a smidgeon of Power Rangers, and a dusting of Alienware PC hardware for good measure.

[Obviously, we can't now show you any pictures of Joel Kinnaman in his Robo outfit, so here's a recreation - made with tin foil and parsnips.]

As a devoted fan of the original film, it’s difficult not to feel at least a little ambivalent about the new version of RoboCop. With a relatively lean budget, the makers of the 1987 film created a truly unforgettable character, and playing around with the look of Robo is akin to redesigning the costume of an iconic superhero like Batman or Superman – you can do it, but you’d best be prepared for some stinging reactions in the process. 

It’s worth bearing in mind, of course, that there’s much we don’t yet know about the RoboCop remake. The images we’ve seen so far aren’t official stills, so it’s likely that, with some CG augmentation, the outfit will look very different in the finished film. 

Whether you like the new design or not, it’s arguable that the filmmakers behind the remake couldn’t have simply brought back the RoboCop suit from the 1987 movie and its sequels. Not only would this have led to accusations of its filmmakers unimaginatively recycling ideas (or copping out, if you’ll excuse the pun), but it would also have been wrong for a new generation of filmgoers.

Before you fling your rotten tomatoes, allow me to explain. Paul Verhoeven’s concept of RoboCop was based on classic American icons – cowboys embodied by actors such as John Wayne, or invincible, maverick cops like Dirty Harry. His RoboCop is an ordinary Irish police officer transformed by technology into a modern equivalent of an Old West gunslinger; his walk is slow and deliberate, each step highlighted by a metallic stomp, like the spurs of a small-town sheriff. He’s fearless, implacable. He shoots and never misses.

When designing RoboCop’s suit, Rob Bottin had originally imagined a much stealthier character, and thought up a costume with lots of dynamic lines which suggested forward motion. In the end, the concept he came up with based on Verhoeven’s suggestions was much heavier. He took inspiration and styling cues from Japanese animation heroes (just as the designers of the new suit appear to have done), the robot Maria from Metropolis, Star Wars’ C3PO, as well as the comic book character Judge Dredd. 

Twenty-five years later, and our cultural touchstones have shifted. A hero based on John Wayne and Dirty Harry wouldn’t mean much to a teenage audience (and lest we forget, this is primarily who the new RoboCop movie will be aimed at). The past decade or so has seen action cinema dominated not by slow-moving, stern men of purpose, but by stealthy characters who leap from rooftop to rooftop, or engage in rapid, close-quarters fights involving pens and rolled-up magazines.

It’s inevitable, then, that a modern RoboCop would be lighter and more nimble – more Jason Bourne than John Wayne. The influence of videogames shouldn’t be discounted, either; since the arrival of games such as Halo and Crysis, many of us have vicariously enjoyed what it might be like to be a half human, half machine hybrid. 

So while the new RoboCop outfit doesn’t look especially mind-blowing at first glance, we should at least bear in mind that, in the finished film, with all its lighting, sound effects and CG wizardry, it may look much better – especially when it’s in motion. Just how athletic is the new RoboCop? Can he fly around, like Iron Man? Does he still have the gun stored in his thigh, like the old Robo? 

One thing we do know, from other images seen so far, is that RoboCop will drive a car and ride a motorbike.

[Obviously, we can't now show you these pictures, so here's a parsnip driving a Taurus Police Interceptor instead.]

Then we come to director José Padilha. His two Elite Squad movies are, arguably, among the finest police thrillers of the past decade. Not only do they mix politically shrewd drama and action extraordinarily well, but they also drive home a message that isn't dissimilar to one explored by RoboCop or its inspiration, Judge Dredd. The Elite Squad movies are about a private army of heavily-armed law enforcers, who attempt to overwhelm violent drug dealing gang culture with even more violence. The result is an irresistible force hitting an immovable object, and the losses and trauma on both sides are devastating. 

If Padilha doesn't make an intelligent, aggressive and powerful RoboCop picture, it'll be due to outside forces, we suspect, than because of any lack of talent on his part. For Padilha, an independent filmmaker from Brazil, feeding himself into the Hollywood blockbuster woodchipper is a big risk, but if he can mix the realism of Elite Squad with the sci-fi of the RoboCop franchise, the results could be explosive.

And if there are any readers worried that Padilha's RoboCop will step too far away from the comic-book overtones of the 1987 movie, rest assured that the metal law enforcer's arch nemesis ED-209 will be back for the remake.

[Obviously, we can't now show you the first official image of ED-209, so here's our artist's impression, which incorporates only the freshest organic produce.]

There’s another important point to consider, too: the suit is only 25 per cent of the character, at most. Fabulous though Bottin’s work was on the original RoboCop, it was Peter Weller’s stunning performance that brought the character to life. His expert body movements truly made us believe that he was a cyborg and not just an actor in a suit, and with only part of his face exposed for much of the film, he nevertheless succeeded in making the plight of his character truly moving.

Even the best costume design in the world wouldn’t have disguised a mediocre performance, and with a lesser actor cast as Robo, the results could have been shambolic. 

It could be argued, then, that it’s actor Joel Kinnaman, the actor inside the new RoboCop, who faces the greater challenge, and not the suit designer. His previous work, in the US remake of The Killing TV series, or 2010’s Swedish thriller Easy Money (Snabba Cash) hint at an actor with great potential.

If Kinnaman can bring strength and humanity to the role, and truly make us believe that he too is the future of law enforcement, then maybe, just maybe, next summer will see the release of a rare thing: a genuinely brilliant big-screen remake.

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