DIR: José Padilha • WRI: Joshua Zetumer • PRO: Marc Abraham, Gary Barber, Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Eric Newman • DOP: Lula Carvalho • ED: Peter McNulty, Daniel Rezende • MUS: Pedro Bromfman • DES: Martin Whist • CAST: Joel Kinnaman, Douglas Urbanski, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman
It’s the near-future. American drone warfare abroad is now the norm but back home the American people are reluctant to let un-feeling robots protect their streets. The head of OCP Raymond Sellers (Keaton) decided to grease the political wheels back home by creating a human/robot hybrid to prove to the American people that his products can be trusted and thus open up the lucrative home market. To this end he brings in Dr Norton (Oldman) to turn fatally-wounded hero-cop Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) into the titular Robocop.
First of all, it’s worth laying a few cards on the table. I. Love. The original Robocop. It’s a genuine classic and one of the few films that I loved as a kid which has only gotten better the older I’ve gotten and been able to appreciate the political satire more, etc. So with that in mind, Robocop did not need to be remade. It still works just as well now as it did then and as such I’ve been eagerly awaiting this remake for some time, looking at the discussions online and sharpening my knives accordingly. In no uncertain terms, I expected, nay, wanted to hate this film. So with that in mind… It’s actually rather good. And no one is more surprised by that than me.
Now, it’s by no means without criticism but even the areas that could be considered failings in an odd way contribute to what makes it good. Take for example Robocop himself. Despite the film being about him, it’s not really ‘about’ him. Far more time is spent focusing on the rest of the characters and how the very existence of Robocop affects them and the various ethical and existential quandaries that arise. In fitting with one of the main themes of the movie, Robocop himself just isn’t important. In the story he’s a political and social tool being pushed and pulled by various factions toward their own means. And on a story level he is merely a protagonist-MacGuffin being moved around to help explore the film’s themes. This is very much a positive because Robocop is neither interesting nor particularly well-acted (Kinnaman is serviceable but hardly compelling, trying to hang a whole movie on him would have been appalling).
On top of this the action scenes, what few of them there are, do little to excite. They’re all very flashy and fast-paced but there are only really two that I felt stood out; the night-vision fight in the warehouse and the grand finale fight against the ED-209s. Again though, despite this being a failing on one level, it balances out in the long run as more time is spent focusing on the rest of the ensemble cast and their far more interesting discussions and debates. In this sense Gary Oldman’s Norton is probably the true main character as the morally conflicted scientist tasked with bringing Robocop into the world and seeing how it affects both Murphy himself and his family. Michael Keaton also gets far more screen-time than expected as the ‘evil’ capitalist and nominal villain of the piece. As ever Keaton is excellent, once again proving that it’s a crying shame he doesn’t get more work.
Add to this some gorgeous art direction and set-design and an impressive level of attention to detail in terms of the subtler aspects of the world-building and you’re presented with a surprisingly cohesive film that does an excellent job of portraying a near-future America. There are no hover-cars or lasers, just a lot more touch-screens and camera-surveillance, while every interior has a crisp, clean, Apple-store sheen to it. The one aspect that does fall short, however, is the score; it’s barely audible and rather bland especially in the action scenes. Additionally while it’s admirable that they tried to keep the original theme music, the effort was misguided as it simply doesn’t fit with the more modern aesthetic. Yet the film does have considerably more fun with the licenced music it uses, employing an eclectic but very enjoyable variety of older music up to and including a song from The Wizard of Oz.
One of the more contentious issues the remake has faced since its announcement has been whether or not it would have the same level of political satire that the original is so fondly remembered for. To that end the argument could definitely be made that this film is going over very similar ground to The Dark Knight and doesn’t really have much new to say in its analysis of Post-9/11 America. The main difference is that Robocop has significantly more fun while doing it and, unlike the borderline cowardice of Nolan’s very non-committal approach to taking political sides, Robocop has a clear liberal leaning and milks it satirising of the Conservatives generally, and the Right Wing media in particular, for all its worth. This is where Sam Jackson comes into it and let’s just say the filmmakers know how to use Sam Jackson.
To be clear, this is still a remake of a film that did not need to be remade. That said if it was going to happen anyway, this is the kind of remake all remakes should strive toward being. Unlike a film such as the recent (equally pointless) Oldboy remake, Robocop does not let its reverence for the original undermine the necessity for innovation that’s required to update a film in this way. The satire is prevalent and funny, the world-building demonstrates far more care and attention to detail than many recent blockbusters (*cough* Elysium *cough*) and on the whole given how delightfully over the top and cartoonish the original was, it’s a very pleasant surprise that this film has turned out to be as ideas-focused as it has, coming as it does at the expense of the action scenes. While the lead actor/character may be the weak-link in the chain, this is much more of an ensemble piece than the original and as such doesn’t suffer too badly from that.
So it would appear that the long-despised remake of Robocop has turned out to be actually pretty decent. Were the reference still topical, I’d almost claim the Mayans must be right.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Robocop is released on 7th February 2014