What the RoboCop remake gets right

Feature Ryan Lambie 10 Feb 2014 - 06:05

We delve into the RoboCop remake to provide a spoiler-filled look at how it compares to the original, and what it gets right...

NB: this article contains spoilers.

The problem with most modern movie remakes, perhaps, is that they're a compromise where commerce frequently trounces art. With brand-aware studios keen to revive old names and properties for the sake of profit, it becomes the job of a new generation of filmmakers to rework an existing idea for a contemporary and often suspicious audience.

When it came to bringing back RoboCop, the level of internet cynicism was understandable: how could you possibly equal - let alone improve on - one of the most respected genre films of the 1980s?

Director Jose Padilha's RoboCop remake doesn't have the unfettered, angry edge of his Brazilian Elite Squad movies, but that's understandable given that he's made a $130m mainstream action drama rather than a $6m independent drama thriller. What RoboCop does have, however, is a real sense of mischief and intelligence about it; the satire isn't a cutting as it was in Ed Neumeier's 1987 screenplay, and the violence is less savage than Paul Verhoeven's, but there's still pathos, relevance and black humour lying beneath the glossy user interface.

"What kind of suit is this?"

The core story is essentially the same: this time, it's Joel Kinnaman playing Alex Murphy, the Detroit cop who's taken in by the Omni Corporation (now simply called OmniCorp) and turned into RoboCop - an armoured law enforcer that could make the company billions. The reasons for RoboCop's creation, however, are very different from the 1987 film.

In the original, the Omni Corporation (or OCP) plans to replace the overwhelmed flesh-and-blood cops of Detroit with robots - their aim being to bulldoze the crime-ridden city and replace it with a new one, controlled and policed by the corporation alone. RoboCop 2014 is set against a very different near-future backdrop: OmniCorp is already a full-blown military contractor by the year 2028, and the US army uses its hulking robot products (which look like pumped-up ED-209s from the first film) to patrol its warzones in the Middle-East.

Having made billions from its droids and drones, OCP plans to expand its operation to its home shores - but there's one small problem. The US government, thanks to something called the Dreyfus Act, has outlawed the use of robots on American soil. But OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) has a plan: create a man-machine hybrid which, through the endorsement of the pro-robot media (in particular Samuel L Jackson's TV host Pat Novak), will convince voters and politicians to allow OCP to bring mechanised law enforcers to American streets.

It's a well-handled set-up, rooting the RoboCop story in recent conflicts and contemporary fears about the use of drone aircraft, both overseas and in our own countries. The creation of RoboCop also reflects the industrial landscape of the present: in the first film, Robo was made as a rival project to ED-209, an embarrassingly lumbering, inefficient monstrosity that had a habit of shooting hapless business executives. ED-209 was but one of the film's pointed references to the American car industry that was already in decline by the 1980s due to competition from overseas.

When later discussing 1987‘s RoboCop, its star Peter Weller said that he knew as soon as he met Paul Verhoeven that the resulting film would be something special - that it not only tapped into the 80s zeitgeist, but also captured something timeless rather than ephemeral.

Although by no means a superior film to the first RoboCop, Jose Padilha’s remake just about manages to do the same thing: it extrapolates what we see in the present day to create an exaggerated science fiction future. It’s worth noting that, just as the gigantic Taiwanese company Foxconn is responsible for making our iPads and PS4s in the present, so a similar Eastern industrial firm creates a robot army on OmniCorp’s behalf in the future.

One of the most effective moments in the remake comes when Alex Murphy wakes up, now effectively welded into his robot life support, and tries to escape from OmniCorp’s clutches. It’s only when he breaks out of the building’s confines that he realises that he isn’t in Detroit, as he and the audience might have assumed - he’s in a factory located somewhere in rural Asia. This time, RoboCop's been outsourced.

The Brazilian connection

What’s impressive is that, in the framework of an expensive Hollywood studio film, Padilha manages to craft a film remarkably close to Elite Squad and its sequel. The Elite Squad movies, set in Rio de Janeiro, show the brutal training of ordinary cops, who are then despatched to the favelas of Rio to serve as Judge Dredd-style law enforcers. Among the almost medieval poverty of the slums, life is cheap and summary executions are common.

The parallels between the dehumanising process of making a man into a soldier in Elite Squad and the transformation of a man into a machine in RoboCop are plain to see. The new version of Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a tough yet ordinary Detroit cop, whose entanglement with corrupt colleagues and a gang of gunrunners (led by Patrick Garrow's somewhat anonymous villain Antoine Vallon) leads to his severe injury from a car bomb. With his charred remains swept up by OmniCorp, Murphy is turned into RoboCop - and in the place of the training the cops in Elite Squad faced, Murphy is effectively dehumanised by the software that augments his damaged brain.

Padilha also portrayed a dystopian city where corrupt police, politicians and the media control everything in a kind of power triangle. All of this makes it into RoboCop intact, and one wonders just how nervous its financers were about the remake's edgier content - this is, after all, a film where political opinion has effectively been annexed by corporations and television.

Commendably, Padilha’s RoboCop captures some of the social commentary that enriched Verhoeven’s film, but doesn’t try to ape the Dutch director’s style. Samuel L Jackson’s raving, opinionated Pat Novak may not be quite as an effective substitute for Casey Wong and the various adverts that appeared in the 1987 film - and if anything, his character’s less subtle than the wryly funny private healthcare commercials and news reports were - but he establishes the tone of a world where a cynical media colludes with big business to sway public opinion.

"Let's go with black"

The movie also reintroduces the ED-209 in a compelling fashion. Just as they were in the 80s original, Padilha’s beefed-up, tank-like robots are both amusing and menacing. The sight of these new EDs, clomping through the streets of a Middle Eastern city, clumsily attempting to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals at the end of a gun is superbly realised. “Peace be upon you", the EDs bark, shortly before they slaughter a few dozen insurgents intent on getting a moment on TV. It's a line that is both chilling and dripping with dark humour.

With its machines and state control, RoboCop presents a world where everyone appears to be trapped in one way or another. Just as Murphy’s kept on life support inside his suit, so the poorer nations are essentially conquered (or as Novak puts it, "pacified") by OmniCorp’s drones. The populace in the west is kept pacified by the media, while even well-meaning geniuses like Gary Oldman’s Dr Norton are a slave to their corporate contracts.

One of the themes in RoboCop is "the illusion of freewill" - a phrase dropped in by Dr Norton during the film. Murphy thinks he’s a man, but he’s an unwitting slave to the software that augments what’s left of his biological brain. So if OmniCorp is the equivalent of a Microsoft or Apple who’ve long since moved into the private military sphere of business, Murphy is part iPad or Google Glass. He’s both a human and a sleek, seductive device ("We're going to give Americans a product they can love", says Michael Keaton's OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars).

So while RoboCop isn't necessarily anti-technology, it does appear to be a meditation, in part, on just how attached we’ve become to the devices and apps we use every day, and in turn how reliant we are on the corporations which provide them. We get to use Google search for free, but in turn, the company stores the data from our searches. Are we giving up our freedom unwittingly in favour of faster and better technology? Are we becoming a prisoner of our own smart phones and tablets?

Dead or alive, you're coming with me

It's hardly surprising that the reviews of RoboCop have been divided to say the least. The very notion of a new RoboCop is a difficult one to accept, and it's equally tricky to sit with the remake without mentally comparing every character and story beat to those in the 1987 version. But despite the assertions of some critics, we'd humbly argue that RoboCop 2014 isn't just another bland remake along the lines of Total Recall (a comparison that has come up repeatedly in RoboCop's reviews).

RoboCop is by no means without its problems - not least a third act which feels oddly rushed, as though something's either been removed or hurriedly reshot - but neither is it without merit, as some have suggested. Like RoboCop himself, the remake may have been conceived by its studio executives for a cold and cynical purposes (it was originally commissioned as a 3D film in the wake of Avatar), but we get no sense that Jose Padilha has approached the project with the same mindset.

At no point does Padilha's film take the obvious or easy route. His film favours political commentary and drama over relentless action, exploring issues of fascism and technological control. There are existential meditations along the lines of Verhoeven's original, where a man undergoes the Kafka-like horror of waking up inside a body he doesn't recognise. Although derided by one or two outlets, we'd argue that the scene where the full extent of Murphy's injuries are revealed by Dr Norton is a powerful moment, and thanks to some superb performances from both Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman, it becomes an emotional scene rather than one about flashy special effects.

Where RoboCop 2014 really succeeds, though, is in its attempt to distinguish itself from the classic original rather than upstage it. Rather than try to recreate the first film's unique brand of mordant, bloody humour, the remake seeks to create its own wryly ambiguous tone that is easily overlooked or misunderstood.

Indeed, Jose Padilha's style of directing has landed him in hot water before. The Elite Squad films were wrongly castigated by some critics for their perceived fascism - the assumption being that by showing their events from the point of view of a ruthless special operations cop, the films were somehow condoning their violent actions. But Padilha is no more on the side of fascism than Martin Scorsese is on the side of the white collar crooks in The Wolf Of Wall Street; Padilha uses these characters to highlight a real-world injustice - namely, injustice on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

Padilha takes a similar approach to RoboCop, applying his own interests to a science fiction film that pitches rich philosophical and political themes at a broad audience. The result is an uncommonly thought-provoking genre movie that, although flawed, succeeds in being so much more than a production-line copy of the classic original.

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As we get yet another article praising the film, I become more certain DoGs opinion has been bought.

Free will is not an illusion... and to demonstrate, I hereby exercise my free will never to watch his utterly pointless remake!

1-0 to free will, your move creep...

I enjoyed it after expecting the worst. The last half hour is fairly weak, but overall it's solid, thoughtful and well acted.
I won't be quoting it in 30 years time but it's a well above average actioner.
I'm afraid your opinion doesn't count until you've actually seen the thing.

I actually liked the movie. I always believed it was one of the ten commandments that THOU SHALT NOT REMAKE ROBOCOP, it's such a sacred sci-fi movie to me, but to be fair, this remake is actually done pretty well and didn't offend my geek sensibilities. Hating the film without seeing it is utterly stupid. If this is you then you are stupid and you are just trying to inject a "holier than thou" attitude. At least watch it first.

I love den of geek, but I doubt that they would be a priority for a marketing company to buy off. And while I don't always agree with them, I've never seen any evidence that the den of geeker's integrity has been compromised. Maybe they just liked the film as a well made, intelligent film that nevertheless has flaws they are willing to acknowledge.

Well, I have actually seen the film, and I was very impressed. I love the original, in fact I watched it only last week, so I went in with the original very much fresh in my mind. This film is a bang up to date version. I went with my son, and he thoroughly enjoyed it, he even asked if he can have it on DVD when it comes out, so a big thumbs up there. So what if films we cherish are remade for a younger audience. I can't imagine my son being overly interested in the original, he's a completely difference generation. But this new version was bang up his street, and up mine too truth be told. I look forward to the sequel. I think all the people who are slating the film should go and see it, and then tell us what they think.

This feels like one Robocop article too many. Of all the movies to need a defense, I never thought DoG would go with this one. Disappointing.

Maybe they just like the film and want to go on record to announce they were wrong in their assumption (having not seen the film before) and want to let people know there is still a good film to go and watch?

Well it hasn't been.

How depressing: we're not allowed to like something, without being accused of sinister motives by someone hiding behind an anonymous name.

Because they like a film you don't? Get over yourself.

Ironic, considering the review's comments on google. Either you're for or against anonymity.

You've lost me. What "review's comments on Google"?

I'm guessing you're for anonymity, btw. - Simon

Indeed. I didn't agree with the initial review, but that's fair enough. I kind of understood having an 'open discussion' article, at least in terms of avoiding spoilers in the comments section of the review.

But this? This is essentially just a second review, but one that seems somehow determined to convince people why they SHOULD like Robocop. And that seems a little pointless and strangely needy.

The reason for this post is that we keep reviews as spoiler-free as possible, so couldn't go into the same level of detail there. Hence, this is our chance to dissect an interesting film with lots of spoilers.

The open discussion article was one that a reader asked us to open up, which we occasionally do for films we figure people want to talk about without fear of spoiling it for other people.

Sorry you think that's pointless and needy. It's your opinion, and I do respect that.

Simon

"It's hardly surprising that the reviews of RoboCop have been divided to say the least. The very notion of a new RoboCop is a difficult one to accept, and it's equally tricky to sit with the remake without mentally comparing every character and story beat to those in the 1987 version"

This comment bugs me. Sure, there will be a significant number of people who are judging the new movie in direct comparison with the original. But there are just as many people, if not more, who are reviewing it purely on it's own merits. I've only seen the original Robocop once, I enjoyed it but I didn't consider it an absolute untouchable classic. And to be honest, I don't remember a whole lot about it, a few notable scenes aside.

On top of that, I'm not someone who has any problem with remakes. I enjoyed the new Carrie adaptation for exactly that reason, because I judged it not by what it did or didn't do differently to the first movie, but simply as it's own movie. And on that basis, it was pretty good.

And the same applies to Robocop. As I said in one of the other posts, I don't think Robocop was a bad film. But I also don't think it was an especially good film. It just felt like a movie about a rather bland generic cop who has an accident and comes back with a snazzy suit. And that's how it played out. I just never really got the sense of much Robo in this particular cop.

I just saw the film, it isn't as bad as the total recall remake, but it isn't far off. Kinnaman does OK, but the bad guy is completely forgettable, generic 'baddie' fodder. You don't empathize with RoboCop, and couldn't really care less if he 'wins' or loses. There's a hysterical scene where he tries to go against his programming, and that's just poor acting/directing - you'll know the scene when you see it. Overall, it's an enjoyable generic shoot-em-up film with the odd deliberate satirical nod to the original, much the same way as Robocop2 was: but it's still a Hollywood sell-out and not really worth your dollars until it goes on TV free-to-view in a few years time.

The name of the corporation in the original movie was "Omni Consumer Products", otherwise known as, "OCP". It was NOT, "Omni Corporation". This isn't an obscure fact.

I thought it competent and flat. My life has not been enriched by the movie experience and I did not have the same feeling of excitement (maybe I'm old). I remain unmoved and slightly poorer in the pocket for having seen this made for kids TV pilot.

I watched it yesterday and I really enjoyed it tbh. It lacked action, and the 12a rating made it feel rather tame. but a really strong supporting cast made it feel worthwhile. I watched the original this morning (for the first time in about 10 years) and it's still brilliant. Ultra violent and definitely a product of it's time. Robocop 2014 was much better than it had any right to be though, and it's a much better 2 hours spent than a lot of films I've seen in the past 12 months.

Well, the movie's good, so why not praise it? It's still suffering of the hate comments of people who haven't seen it, so a bit of counterbalancing is welcome. This is indeed a nice, very decent movie.

does he stay in the black suit the whole movie or does he go back to the silver

I watched this film on the weekend. It passed 2 hrs but there was nothing particularly memorable about it. I certainly won't be talking about this film in a month let alone 25 years. I haven't watched the original in years however I'm gonna track down a copy for this weekend. That tells me that the only thing this movie achieved was to make me wanna watch the original again.

Oh and DoG... please can you get off Jose Padilhas balls. Ww get it. He made 2 good elite squad movies. Robocop is just another bland remake that I'll never bother watching again.

Grow up, please.

Robocop exceeded my expectations ! Good job. I went out and saw it on the big screen. It was released in the UK and I saw it on the same day :) 10 out of 10.

"We get to use Google search for free, but in turn, the company stores the data from our searches. Are we giving up our freedom unwittingly in favour of faster and better technology?"

The alternative to a search engine that tracks its users, is one that does not (ie, where users are anonymous). Then you complain about the use of anonymous names here. Can you spot the contradiction?

I'm completely lost as to what that's got to do with what we're talking about.

You came on this site, under an anonymous name, and heavily implied that we'd been bought off. Your evidence for this is that we liked the film, and nothing more. Our evidence, meanwhile, for liking the film is several thousand words on this site of justification. People can make their own minds up. - Simon

DoG has had a really sloppy handing of this movie and the original one. There review was even worse "well it was kind of not a great movie and had major problems.............4 STARS!"

No offense, but the initial review went "well the movie wasn't very good but 4 stars anyway" and then you blamed the reviewer and the star system instead of being accountable for it. Now you are hurling "anonymous user" insults at some one for calling you out on it.

It's a poor editorial process more then anything else. And the strange defense of it is even more puzzling. I have read plenty of reviews here that never get a reply, but for whatever reason there has been a rush, for this movie specifically, to defend a movie even the reviewer barely liked.

No: the original review said that the film has problems, but was still just about four stars. I'm not quite sure where I blamed anyone for that, and I'm not sure when we've not stood behind it. As I said before, we've written a couple of thousand words on a film that surprised us. For some reason, the fact that we liked the film has seen us hit with a level of criticism that we've not seen on any other review we've ever run on the site. Which is fine: I've got no problem with criticism.

I do have a problem with the accusation that our review has been 'bought'. And please: find me the post where I've insulted anyone? I've stated fact above - that "we're not allowed to like something, without being accused of sinister motives by someone hiding behind an anonymous name". But I fail to see how that's an insult?

I'm increasingly clear that I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't here. As history has shown, there's never been any problem at all with constructive criticism of our work here, and that will always continue at this site.

Simon

it states in the film that Omni Corp. is a subgroup of OCP.

he's back in the silver at the very end

I thought the new RoboCop was a bland actioner with some heavy-handed social commentary shoehorned in. Not a patch on the Verhoeven original.

That said, I'm actually pleased that some people have found plenty to like in it. I wish I could feel the same.

People are allowed to like films that you don't like. They're also equally allowed to say that they like them across a number of articles. Grow up.

Anyone else here think Simon's DoG comments are sensible, well meaning and decent, and a lot of the other comments a bit lop-sided and needlessly vitriolic?

IMHO anyway

but how do you know that you were not influenced to make that decision. You will never know - you can take Free Will as an article of faith - just like a God, but will never prove it exists.

No Clarence Boddicker - boo

As much as I wanted to enjoy it I felt the use of shaky cam and the 180/360 panning shots got tedious (small points I know). Also I just couldn't get into the Joel Kinnaman/Abbie Cornish relationship. I found the use of the original theme tune odd too because it felt like a poke in the eye for the die hards of the original. Any remake which tries to tip an ironic hat to the original just baffles me. Don't get me wrong it was an OK film, but just that and it's rattling around in my brain for all the wrong reasons. Worst of all I can't imagine myself wanting to see it again. Like I said I really wanted to like the film and yes I was there for the original 1987 cinema release but I'm viewing these films in isolation

It's a devisive movie and one that has it's feet firmly planted in geek culture, personally I'd rather debate the merits/pitfalls of this film and what it contributes to filmgoers' perpectives of cinema, originality and remakes...this is what brings together, what I feel, is a community of cinema goers who frequent this site and enjoy healthy debate.

It's strange you should say that because one thing that's stuck with me, especially towards the end was how 'tv' it felt.

Look at some of the comments above, clearly some people enjoyed it and some didn't. The 4* review is what the reviewer thought of the film not what he thinks you should think of the film. It's horses for courses. Just for the record I thought it was just OK but nothing amazing. I am glad I saw it though.

Yes the generic forgettable bad guy really harmed the movie, in the original the bad guys were clear and well defined in this none were really that bad. Like you said not as bad as the TR remake not high praise but a step up, merely watchable for me

The core of the original was a machine remembering what it was like to be a man. A mechanical Jebus brutally crucified, resurrected and can walk on water. Well no longer. This version was a muddled tale full of noise and barking fury, signifying nothing. Ironic perhaps that the MGM lion lost it's roar for this one. I'll concede it's a better film than Robocop 3. Only cost them 130 million dollars to achieve that, so bravo. Padilha hated the experience (clearly Hugh Laurie was no fan either), and will probably shy well away from the studio system in future as a result. You can roll it in glitter, but you can't polish a turd.

On the plus side, because this film had such an anti-climax we may get a more structurally sound sequel. Y'know, a story that actually feels like it's headed somewhere. Perhaps kill off his wife Mad Max style, or someone we might actually miss.

Why do I have to have to see it, to have an opinion. I have seen so many bad bad bad remakes, I am not sure if I can be bothered with a film that seems to be mere average. I will see it, but I doubt I will be saying 'I'll buy that for a dollar !!!!'

Actually, I'm not the same guy as "sellouts". I haven't seen the movie yet but I quite look forward to it.

I was simply amused by your complaining about anonymous names while simultaneously complaining about google tracking searches. Carry on.

You're looking at the wrong bad guy. The gun runner is deliberately throwaway - he caused the transformation into RoboCop, but once that's happened, he's nothing more than a small time criminal who is easily dispatched on the way to a higher level of justice. There's a few moments with him where Murphy gets to push against the software for the first time (the decision to pick that case over what he was investigating before and the use of the left-hand SMG rather than the right-hand tazer when finishing him off), but he's basically insignificant as a character. And is treated as such by the director.

I'd argue that the above scene neatly foreshadows the "fighting the programming" finale, the links between which you seem to have completely missed. And the point the film wanted to make is the distinction between "traditional crime" (ie. on the streets gunrunning) and the type of shady activities that the big corporations get up to. Which one gets more of the film's attention? Attempts to control minds are highlighted by the film and are used both directly and indirectly as the climax. You have to look past the obvious bad guy - the film itself does so.

Even looking past the 'bad guy' (and general clunky performances from the majority of the actors, perhaps save Gary Oldman) the film lacks the bathos and continuous multi-tiered narrative of the original. In fact it reminds me slightly of RoboCop2's forced 'satire' sections and clumsy dissection of the original's themes. It's an ok action film, but I could be watching the CGI action of Matrix Revolutions or GI Joe, or maybe play a video game - and really not care one way or the other. The film pulled it's punches, and I genuinely hoped that Kinnaman's character would be killed off in a couple of scenes just to make the film more interesting. I think the review I most agree with is the BBC's 'Film 2014' review; two very well respected film critics who absolutely nail the issues inherent in this reboot. This film is primarily designed as a vehicle for an ongoing monetized series of Robocop sequels, with whatever salient points the writers could salvage from the original as an afterthought; the original film deserved much more from a reboot.

I'm coming from the position of someone who hasn't seen the original and was simply viewing this film in comparison with other modern "action blockbusters". And in my opinion, when uncoloured by nostalgia for the original, this remake stacks up very well.

It's an intelligent story with a lot to say and a more interesting finale than a simple gun battle. How easy would it have been to turn it into a simple revenge story, climaxing in RoboCop blasting his way into that warehouse? The fact that it had more to it that than elevates it immediately. I'm intrigued as to who you think lets the acting down particularly as I struggle to recall a noticeable weak link.

I can't avoid the fact that the main issues in both your reviews aren't around the content of the film, but rather the context - which I simply don't follow enough to be able to discuss. References to Robocop 2, "Hollywood sell outs" and an ongoing series of films have very little to do with the actual quality of this one film and consequently, I don't really think there's much room for me to dispute and remain on topic?

the old theme music sounds forced in for this movie.

its not! also "Can you fly Bobby?" is nowhere to be heard.

I'm completely with Ryan on this.

I'm a massive fan of the original, I first saw it when I was 12 years old, and I grew up with it, the older I got, and the more I watched it, the layers of satire and black humour revealed themselves. I can watch it now, in my late thirties, and never get bored of it.

So I was rather dismayed to see it was being remade, as most fans of the original were. However, having seen this iteration last weekend, it's far, far less of a monstrosity than I had feared.

It has its fair share of flaws, but the core of the concept is strong enough to lift it above most "remakes". With this one though, I was pleasantly surprised by how thoughtful it was in places. It's well acted, particularly by Oldman, whose character is actually more complex than anything in the original. I loved the scene near the beginning with the double amputee attempting to play the guitar with his robotic arms and hands. His simple plea - "I need emotion to play" is a great setup for the ethical s**tstorm that Norton finds himself in later.

The scene where Norton reveals to the newly awoken Murphy the reduction of his physical form is one of the most disturbing things I've seen in cinema for some time, 12A be damned.

Shame about the score though, why do all scores follow the Zimmer template these days? It's seriously starting to irritate me now. I don't think that is Pedro Bromfman's fault either, just more studio interference.

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