RoboCop (Columbia Pictures, PG-13)

Robocop 75In the future, when I tell people what my favorite film is, I won’t feel the need to clarify that I mean the original, but Jose Padilha has made the second best RoboCop movie, and while that’s a fairly minor achievement, it is an achievement.

RoboCop 500

When people ask me what my favorite movie of all time is, I usually pick one of three or four options depending on how I’m feeling at the time. Most often, the movie I go with is RoboCop. A lot of people react with surprise, or a mildly condescending laugh. What I immediately know about those people is that they have never seen RoboCop. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi action satire is an absolute masterpiece. It’s a very dense film, with many different (and in other hands, conflicting) layers, all of which fit together to form a perfect film. No one ever needed to remake it. But it’s from the eighties, so a remake was inevitable, and perhaps surprisingly, I was pretty open to the idea.

First off, the RoboCop brand was driven into the ground long ago with two disappointing sequels, a cartoon show for kids, a live action TV show, and four unwatchable (but I watched them anyway) Canadian made-for-TV movies, so if anyone says that this remake “ruins RoboCop” they are mistaken. It was “ruined” already. And more importantly, RoboCop’s focus on satire and technology makes it a prime candidate for an update.

A remake could never replace the original, but it could be an interesting companion piece, assuming you have an interesting director, which they do. Jose Padilha may not be a household name, but he made two movies called Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2, which are gritty, politically minded, somewhat fascistic cop movies. In other words, he’s a great choice for RoboCop. I was already feeling positive about him as director, and then I heard an interview with him that told me two very important things; he understands what makes the original great, and he was never interested in making a direct remake. I never wanted to see another actor playing Clarence Boddicker, or just see a scene for scene re-enactment. I want a different movie, which remains true to the spirit of the original. There are three elements which I feel are essential to a remake of RoboCop, and I think it’s time to see if the new film lives up.

1.Satire

It’s here. Right from the beginning, we are introduced to Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, a Glenn Beck type who rants and raves about how America’s government is too afraid to put the country’s security in the hands of robots. We see footage of American machines enacting an insane kind of martial law in the Middle East, and Novak seems to fully support the use of these drones on American soil. Like the original, this film also attacks consumerism, and big business. At some points it almost feels like it’s satirizing its own production. Gary Oldman plays the doctor tasked with creating RoboCop, and he struggles to make a good product under constant pressure from the higher-ups to meet ridiculous deadlines and make his product more marketable. Padilha has been vocal about the fact that he clashed with the studio while making the film, and the original release date was August of last year. All the RoboCop sequels tried to pull off satire, but this is the closest to Verhoeven anyone has come since the original.

2. Grit

The Elite Squad movies are the definition of “gritty,” so I was pretty sure Padilha would have this one covered. He does his best. Much has been made of the fact that this film is PG-13, and yes, it hurts the film. That said, PG-13 has come a long way, and he’s able to get away with a lot. Lula Carvalho’s cinematography is kinetic and exciting, and the film contains at least one potentially nightmare-inducing image. The action is well staged and the fact that the hero is a robot allows him to sustain some fairly gruesome injuries. An unrated director’s cut could do wonders, but they push the PG-13 about as far as it will go.

3. Heart

I have to be honest; it’s embarrassing how emotional I get watching RoboCop. What’s amazing about it is how economical the storytelling is. In the original film, Alex Murphy and his wife never actually share a scene together, but we have a very clear sense of their relationship and the loss he’s suffered. Here, Murphy’s identity is known throughout the process of becoming RoboCop, so his wife and son are much more present in the film. These scenes are less effective and take up more screen time, but they do work, thanks largely to the cast. My biggest fear going into this movie was Joel Kinnaman. I’d never seen him in anything before, and the trailers seemed to actively avoid using any of his dialogue. It turns out, he’s pretty great in the role. He understands that becoming RoboCop is not a superpower, but something tragic. From a design standpoint, I’m not crazy about how the visor on the suit is often flipped up to show his face, but it allows Kinnaman to do a lot of emoting and bring more to the character than was necessarily on the page. The character scenes are a bit hit and miss, but it would be impossible to say that this is a soulless remake.

Let me be clear; there is no reason for anyone to watch this as his or her first RoboCop film. It doesn’t compare to the original, and of course it never could. That said, looking at it as a remake of my all-time favorite film, I have to say that it did everything I needed it to do, and I had a pretty good time watching it. The first half is better than the second, when it suddenly feels more beholden to what came before, but even the weaker parts of this movie are better than anything in the Total Recall remake. In the future, when I tell people what my favorite film is, I won’t feel the need to clarify that I mean the original, but Jose Padilha has made the second best RoboCop movie, and while that’s a fairly minor achievement, it is an achievement. | Sean Lass

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