Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not automatically opposed to remakes. I believe there’s value in remaking a film if the story wasn’t done justice the first time around (Ocean’s 11), if the remake has an interesting new perspective on the subject matter (The Fly), or in the case of a foreign language remake, if the new film transports its story effectively to a new culture (The Departed). But films like The Departed, Ocean’s 11 and The Fly are rare. More often than not, we’re faced with uninspired style-over-substance hack-jobs that exist solely to capitalize on the established brand name of the original.
The RoboCop remake is a prime example. There’s no reason for this remake to exist. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original is a classic, there’s nothing new to add to that story, and it’s not like it’s an under-seen gem begging to be remade either. Yet, here we are. Set sometime in 2028, the remake follows honest cop Alex Murphy (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman) who is left for dead after a devastating car bombing. Instead of having his last rights read to him, weapons manufacturer Omnicorp forces Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) to sign a contract that effectively transforms Alex from a grotesque pile of goo into a slick crime-fighting cyborg. While some like Omnicorp scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) hopes the research on Alex will pave the way for helping other paraplegic war veterans, Omnicorp’s president Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) sees Murphy only as a tool to turn the tide in the vote for using robots as police officers on American streets.
The 21st century RoboCop has a few things going for it: its slicker, has better effects (naturally), and is well-acted. With a cast that includes the likes of Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton, how couldn’t it? It’s also the American debut of José Padilha, an award-winning Brazilian director whose gritty, commentary-heavy Elite Squad films established him as one of the most exciting new voices in world cinema.
Unfortunately, something seems to have been lost in the translation to American cinema. For a high-octane action movie, Padilha’s film is shockingly sterile and toothless. Some of it may be due to its PG-13 rating but a lot of it has to do with how generic the film looks. The action scenes, although effective, are only effective in the way a bag of peanuts is an effective solution for hunger. What’s more, for a story rooted in science fiction, Padhila’s film is surprisingly devoid of much social commentary. A quality that many great works of science fiction share is their ability to use a fictional universe to comment on an aspect of our society. You don’t get much of that here as Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer are more interested in surface level thrills than social commentary. Moreover, whatever commentary Zetumer does manage to inject into the film is swiftly forgotten after the first act. This is especially disappointing since there are some interesting topics of discussion at hand here including the incorruptible nature of machines and the question of what makes a person human.
Without the actual science, what we’re left with is a rather generic, vision-less action movie that has more in common with an aimless superhero origin movie than a gritty science fiction thriller. By the time the climax of the film’s runs around, it ends up being just another action movie where corporations are the bad guys. Just about the only thing this 21st century RoboCop has going for it is that it isn’t outright terrible like Total Recall, the last remake of a Paul Verhoven film. But when has not sucking been a barometer for success?