On Thursday, the first trailer for next February’s RoboCop reboot/remake was released. I watched it twice – the first time squinting and achingly readjusting my eyesight as a YouTube embed played on my trading card-sized cell phone screen; the second time in high-definition on my laptop. Viewing it initially with lackluster screen resolution and barely passable sound quality, I felt that I couldn’t judge the content fairly, since I was only able to process a flurry of rapid-fire images. The most visually appalling that I could recall were Samuel L. Jackson‘s hairpiece and some the sight of the iconic cyborg police officer of a crime-ridden Detroit re-envisioned (and I use that term so loosely it would not stick even if I used applied super glue and hammered nails into it, crucifixion style) as the stillborn love child of Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s sci-fi comic book superhero Nexus and one of those Jaeger pilot suits from Pacific Rim.
So I waited until the second time when I could finally hear and see everything the trailer had to offer to decide for myself if this 2:20 spot that us fans of the original RoboCop had been waiting for with the kind of anticipation that can reduce your stomach lining to beef jerky was a positive sign of things to come. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have bothered with the second viewing because I hadn’t really missed anything on my initial viewing of the trailer. No matter what size you watch it on, be it Google Glass or IMAX, the trailer for the rebooted RoboCop represents everything the bad buzz that has been gathering and festering for months like locusts feasting on the decaying remains of Bubonic plague victims was priming us for: ugly, bland, humorless, monotonous, and derivative of not only the original RoboCop movies, but of every jacked-up and failed superhero movie ever made by a major studio.
To think, many potential Hollywood blockbusters that endured months (sometimes years) of lousy buzz from the entertainment media throughout their development and production phases were able to permanently silence the naysayers upon the release of their first trailers. Remember the first J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek? Man of Steel? Titanic? That sadly doesn’t appear to be the case here.
Now before I get into the meat of this article, allow me a disclaimer: I’ve never been opposed to remakes or reboots, at least in their larval stage. Certain franchises that have been rebooted just in the past five years had greater potential for continuation, but were originally left to stagnate creatively. Did we really want the Star Trek movie series to end with Nemesis? Was Freddy Vs. Jason an acceptable conclusion to both the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sagas? And I don’t know about you folks, but I definitely didn’t want to see RoboCop saving annoying little girls from robotic ninjas with the assistance of a jet pack for his silver screen adios. That’s the kind of film lover I happen to be.
In my opinion, if the right talent is employed in front of and behind the camera and the hearts and minds of all involved are in the right place, then a remake can not only work but also improve on the original in many ways. Best of all, even if you don’t like the remake or reboot, then the original is still in existence and you can enjoy that for the rest of time if you so desire. The Thing, Cape Fear, The Fly, True Grit, Scarface, The Departed, Little Shop of Horrors, Ocean’s Eleven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and A Fistful of Dollars are my personal favorites of the best remakes in cinema history. Those movies succeeded critically and commercially because they found fresh approaches to beloved old material and had the best casts and crews at their disposal. Everything came together in perfect harmony and the end result was some of the most popular genre films ever made. We can debate the merits of the remakes versus the originals until the sun burns cold, but at the very least few can say that the newer versions of the classic films were not worthy enough to warrant such passionate discussions.
I don’t believe that such arguments will arise over the Paul Verhoeven-directed original RoboCop that was released in the waning years of the Reagan administration and the remake which was directed by Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha (Elite Squad) and is set to be released a week before Valentine’s Day next year. In order for a remake to be successful it has to be its own movie first and foremost, both in terms of story and style. Remakes usually share some of the same plot devices as their originals, but the best remakes/reboots have strong writers and directors to put their unique creative stamp on the material and make it there own.
Watching the trailer for the new RoboCop, I got the sinking feeling that we are in for a forgettable movie experience akin to last year’s uninspired Total Recall remake directed by Len Wiseman (who never met a high concept he couldn’t turn into a slapdash knock-off flick only marginally more accomplished than the typical Asylum release). The writing has been on the wall long before a review of the script written by first-timer Josh Zetumer and Gran Torino scribe Nick Schenk was posted on Latino Review or those troubling set photos of actor Joel Kinnaman in costume as the new Robo made their way onto the Internet a year ago. For me the dark clouds began to form over the reboot several weeks prior when word leaked out that director Padilha was extremely miserable with the constant battles he was fighting with studios MGM and Columbia Pictures over his vision for the movie.
Conflict and compromise are essential and necessary when working on large-scale films in the modern Hollywood studio system. But you can’t expect an unhappy director to perform at the level he needs to be at in order to deliver a good movie. When he is suffering his misery rolls downhill and what you get in the end is at best mediocre entertainment for uncaring mass audiences looking for a way to kill a few hours at the multiplex or on Netflix. Coupled with a lousy script that was the combined effort of two neophyte screenwriters with little care or respect for the original RoboCop and costume and production design that must have been the product of disinterested imaginations and suddenly what we saw in that trailer released on Thursday no longer seems surprising.
Let’s face facts: there has only ever been one great RoboCop movie, and that is naturally the original. It was a true sleeper hit back in the days when big ticket franchises were the real prize at the majors. Ken Russell, the late British director and certifiable nutcase responsible for movies such as The Devils and Altered States, deemed RoboCop to be “the greatest science fiction film since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” How’s that for a recommendation? Frankly, no one saw the success of the first RoboCop in the cards, particularly its own director…at least not at first. Verhoeven, the acclaimed Dutch filmmaker behind audacious features the likes of Turkish Delight and Soldier of Orange (both starring a young Rutger Hauer at the beginning of his celluloid acting career), was having great difficulty breaking into American films when the RoboCop script written by Edward Neumeier (who would go on to adapt Robert A. Heinlein’s classic sci-fi war novel Starship Troopers for Verhoeven a decade later) and Michael Miner landed on his desk. Of course the director could only read the cover page and the title alone made him toss the script into his waste basket. Verhoeven’s wife rescued it from a guaranteed trip to the dump and convinced him to give it another shot.
Warning: SPOILERS for the original RoboCop film…
No one had much faith that RoboCop would be a hit. Not its financier Orion Pictures, a young studio that prided itself on fostering relationships with promising filmmakers and taking chances on projects that weren’t always home run smashes. Not its cast or crew. The marketing campaign drew snickers and snipes for its outlandish premise and title. Once the movie actually opened, something strange happened: critics and audiences seemed to really enjoy it. The finished film was lauded for its pulverizing action sequences and memorable performances from a cast devoid of brand name superstars that included more than a few actors cast against type. But what made the movie a timeless classic of the genre was its cutting edge social satire. RoboCop‘s ultimate villain was Omni Consumer Products (O.C.P. for short), one of the most evil corporations in the history of evil movie corporations, a company that valued the bottom line over the very lives of its employees, which included the Detroit Police Department.
These days it’s common practice for corporations to privatize schools, prisons, hospitals, and even services to the police and military. They can buy up vast amounts of land and take over water supplies. In the 21st century, corporations that want to own anything and everything are a dime a dozen (but would fetch higher prices on the stock market), but in 1987 when RoboCop was released it was a pretty daring move to show us a cold business entity such as O.C.P. buying its own police forces – in film anyway. The idea of all-powerful corporations being the greatest evil imaginable emerged from the pitch black cynical atmosphere of the 1970s and was a classic science fiction trope, but it had yet to be employed effectively in a post-Star Wars cinematic landscape where sunny optimism often took the day.
The satirical elements of RoboCop tend to go over the heads of most viewers, but that’s okay. Even without the eviscerating black comedy, the movie would still rank among the greatest futuristic action movies ever made. When Peter Weller was cast in the title role (over actors like the aforementioned Hauer, Michael Ironside, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger), he had been known up to that point in his career mainly for playing the beatific cult movie superhero Buckaroo Banzai. His lanky frame and perfectly-molded skull made him the best choice to don the bulky armor of RoboCop. Weller was supported by first-rate performances from better-established actors like Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Dan O’Herlihy, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, and Paul McCrane. Verhoeven wanted the film’s violent action sequences to really affect audiences and they proved to be so gruesome that the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board originally slapped RoboCop with an “X” rating that signaled inevitable death at the box office. The excessive gore had to be trimmed to get the movie an infinitely more theater-friendly “R,” but in the late 1990’s, Verhoven’s director’s cut with every drop of deleted violence was released on laserdisc and DVD by the Criterion Collection. That unrated version is now the one most commonly available on home video.
Ever since the RoboCop remake/reboot/whatever was first announced nearly a decade ago, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt at first because the concept originally developed by screenwriters Neumeier and Miner still held great potential and could be updated to reflect the changing times if done with the proper application of imagination, ingenuity, and perhaps some subversive satire. I knew it wouldn’t stand a chance of comparing with the original; honestly friends, what movie can? That didn’t mean it couldn’t carve out a place for itself in the RoboCop legacy and do so with respect and intelligence. But as I watched the new trailer, I saw every trace of the original’s wit and brilliance scrubbed cleanly away as if they were annoying specks of dirt on an otherwise shiny and spotless concept, replaced by a lack of directorial vision and style and marquee actors like Jackson, Gary Oldman, and Michael Keaton (yeah, Keaton’s still a big name, so shut it) in supporting roles that doubtlessly brought them healthy paydays.
Of course, virtual no-names Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish were installed in the leading parts because they work cheap and starring in a movie that few people outside of the MGM and Columbia offices actually want to see made seems like a logical career move. The flashes of action footage in the reboot trailer displayed none of the inventiveness and brutality Verhoeven brought to the original; as expected there were many shots showing off the flashy digital effects and CGI-assisted camera moves, making the scenes that should give audiences a surge of adrenaline look like cut scenes from an Xbox 360 game (the remake is budgeted at $120 million, which is almost ten times the cost of the original; RoboCop‘s $13 million budget, adjusted for inflation, would still only be barely $27 million in 2013 dollars). But the worst offense committed by the new RoboCop is its staggering and unforgivable lack of humanity.
In the opening moments of the remake’s trailer, police officer Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is severely injured by a car bomb. He loses a leg, is burned badly, and will never walk again, but at least he’ll live. Unable to speak as he appears to be in a coma, Murphy’s wife (Cornish) makes the decision to have OmniCorp’s scientific division (headed by Oldman) turn her still-living spouse into a cyborg cop under the company’s control so he’ll be able to walk and interact with her and their son. When Murphy awakens encased in the RoboCop armor, he is completely cognizant of what has happened and is none too thrilled. In the original, Weller’s Alex Murphy is murdered in the line of duty in one of the most horrific death scenes in film history. Tracking down a gang of armed criminals lorded over by the odious Clarence Boddicker (Smith) to an abandoned steel mill with his partner Anne Lewis (Allen), Murphy is subsequently captured and executed by the vicious thugs with such unapologetic cruelty that this sequence ended up being the one most affected by the ratings board’s edict to tone down the violence in order to avoid the dreaded “X.”
Here’s the uncut version of Murphy’s death:
In that scene, it isn’t just the violence and bloodshed that makes it powerful (though it sure helps). This may be a sci-fi adventure with plenty of laughs and thrills, but here we are clearly watching a man be killed in an agonizing manner that no person deserves to suffer. He’s essentially being drawn and quartered by shotgun fire rather than ropes and horses and it’s being done by a group of maniacal ghouls who are not only totally unrepentant in their actions, they’re actually laughing and enjoying every second of ending Alex Murphy’s life. After Boddicker steps in to end Murphy’s prolonged misery with a bullet to the brain, right then and there the audience is on the deceased cop’s side and they desperately want him to return from the grace as RoboCop so he can avenge his death and send these evil bastards on a one-way xpress ride to the gates of Hell. But that also means that once Murphy is brought back to life as the half-man/half-machine enforcer of the law, he loses his identity and the majority of his memories. The love and wonderful times he once shared with his wife and son now remain in his rebooted mind as brief, scratchy video clips.
Once he recovers enough of his past to remember the man who murdered him as Murphy, RoboCop starts hunting them down and sending them running scared until the final spectacular confrontation at the old mill where it all began. By the end of the movie when Robo blows away corrupt O.C.P. senior president Dick Jones (Cox), the company’s aging chairman (O’Herlihy) asks him his name. RoboCop turns to leave the office, pauses for a moment, then turns to the chairman and replies, “Murphy.” With a slight smile Murphy walks away, having successfully brought down his killers and regained his identity. He may never again be the man he once was, but at least now there is no doubt that a real human being is living underneath that cumbersome silver armor.
As I mentioned before, the remake’s Alex Murphy is completely aware of his new armored body from the very beginning, and by giving the choice of turning him into RoboCop to his wife rather than have it made for him by OmniCorp, the character of Murphy/Robo is deprived of a dramatic arc. In the original, O.C.P. rebuilt the dead Murphy into RoboCop without his or his family’s consent because the contract the Detroit Police Department signed with the corporation ensures that all police officers are basically company property, even after they’re dead. Murphy’s wife and son are told that he died in the line of duty and the young officer becomes another empty locker in his old precinct. At first, RoboCop performs his task of cleaning up the streets of Detroit far beyond the expectations of his creators and O.C.P. and with the attitude of a dutiful soldier. It isn’t until his former partner Lewis recognizes RoboCop as Alex Murphy after seeing him in action and remembering his voice and he encounters members of Boddicker’s gang who do the same that Murphy begins to recover his memories slowly and realize what he has become.
In their attempt to update the RoboCop story for the 21st century, Padilha and his writers look to have removed anything resembling character arcs, dramatic tension, bone-crunching violence, and sophisticated humor in favor of something terribly rote and uninvolved. It all reminded me of an early 90’s Marvel Comics book that was only put into production because the editors thought the concept designs were cool and didn’t think of what stories could be generated from the concept, and thus was cancelled almost as soon as it debuted. The acting appears to be serviceable, but it’s evident that no one signed onto this project because they have faith that they’re utilizing their talent to help create classic genre cinema. The few scant ideas of fascination I could pick up in the trailer, like the realization of many Americans’ worst nightmares in the form of drones and hulking armed robots (the ED-209 revamp looks like a sixth generation Transformer) patrolling the streets and the skies, may provide some decent adversary fodder in the final product. However, I doubt they will be exploited as effectively as they would in the hands of filmmakers with a genuine passion for the material, not studio executives with dollar signs burning in their eyes like malfunctioning neon beer lights.
Maybe it was foolish for me to spend the previous 3100 words writing about my feelings towards a mere trailer and not the final version of this new incarnation of RoboCop. Perhaps that’s what you believe; I happen to think otherwise. I’m not saying that the remake/reboot/whatever will be a terrible movie. It could be entertaining enough to watch on Blu-ray or catch on cable one evening long after it’s released in theaters. But based on the first footage unveiled, what is clear to me is that in trying to put a fresh new spin on a character nearly three decades old, the makers of Robocop 2014 have given us something we’ve unfortunately seen many times before. It won’t have a fraction of the impact of the original – both as a thought-provoking and exciting work of cinema and a pop culture touchstone. Not that anyone involved with this movie gives a damn.
And you know what RoboCop – the real RoboCop – has to say about that?