Why are The Fly (1986) and The Thing (1982) so great? They’re remakes, and we all know that remakes are crap. We roll our eyes at remakes. But two of the greatest genre films of my lifetime - two films that are actual contenders for being considered perfect - are remakes.
The answer is simple: they were directed by great filmmakers who were allowed to make the movies they wanted to make. David Cronenberg and John Carpenter took the basic building blocks of the original films - broad concepts, settings and characters - and used them to make cinema that was uniquely their own. They weren’t saddled with homages to make or famous beats to hit, and so their remakes bear a family resemblance to the originals but, in the end, stake their own tones, themes and aesthetics. There’s no point in The Thing where the titular monster briefly transforms into a James Arness-looking creature. There’s no moment in The Fly where everything stops so someone can say ‘Help meeeee!’ and wink into the camera.
The Robocop remake is directed by a filmmaker who has proven his chops. Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad films show a filmmaker with grit and talent; given the right material he could have made a great remake of Robocop. For the first half hour of Robocop 2014 it seems as if Padilha has been given that material, that he’s been allowed to make a movie that conforms to his vision. I’m not sure I would have liked that movie much - it’s a serious movie, a movie where Robocop looks in a mirror and weeps when he first sees what has become of himself - but it’s a movie that has its own concerns and its own aesthetic.
The problem is the movie Padilha starts making isn’t Robocop; I don’t mean to say it isn’t Verhoeven’s Robocop, as that’s obvious from the tone of this film. The movie that Padilha is making isn’t a cop movie, and the need to make the title fit what’s on screen forces his movie to contort itself into something unfulfilling and uninteresting. Padilha’s movie about drone warfare and the role human conscience must play in our foreign policy gets sidelined by warehouse shoot-em-ups that aren’t exciting and a police corruption storyline that takes the wind out of everything. Robocop 2014 is subject to the tyranny of its high-concept title.
There are two films at war in Robocop 2014: there’s the drone movie and there’s the action spectacle. Robocop needs to end with a big robot gun battle because that’s the kind of movie it is, but it’s also trying to be the kind of movie where perhaps the evil CEO has a point. When the gun battle comes it doesn’t feel earned, it feels like everybody is overreacting and that this is a story that should end with Robocop giving an interview, not shooting people dead. Padilha somehow made a Robocop that needed to end with Robocop the whistleblower, not Robocop the gunman.
But even that drone warfare movie is hobbled by studio interference. One of the insidious evils of drone warfare is how clean it appears to us; we sit at home and a robot goes off and drops bombs on… somebody. We never see the damage. Even if a wedding party is wiped out, it’s something happening offscreen. Robocop 2014’s PG-13 violence makes the film just as sanitized as drone warfare. The script doesn’t make a particularly strong argument against drone warfare, but even the few weak points it makes are undermined by the bloodless nature of the action. There’s one scene in the film where a peace-keeping robot kills a child, but we don’t truly see it. To sell the horror of drone warfare, to reveal the bloody truth of our robot death squads, Padilha needs to be able to show this child really DIE, not just disappear in an explosion as the camera jerks aside. We need to see squibs hit, body parts come undone, a young man absolutely destroyed by a barrage of bullets.
Basically we need to see what Paul Verhoeven showed us in 1986. I walked into Robocop 2014 thinking the PG-13 would kill all the fun of the original’s hyperviolence, but the reality is that this movie is not trying to have fun and the PG-13 kills all the impact of the political statement the film is trying to make.
And Jesus does the film ever try to make it. This is a movie that keeps cutting to Samuel L. Jackson as a TV talk show host who stands there and, in the most boring way possible, spells out the message of the movie (well, in reverse, as he’s a bad guy who is all for drones). This version of Robocop isn’t the satire that Verhoeven’s masterpiece was - and it’s not trying to be - but to make these talk show segments so leaden, so slow, is a major mistake. If nothing else it feels old fashioned, not like an angry conservative show from the 2020s.
The leaden nature of those segments might be an aesthetic choice, because much of the film is slow, talky and not too interesting. Robocop 2014 is definitely the movie for people who wish the original film had lots and lots of scenes of Alex Murphy’s wife and child - and then five more scenes on top of that. The movie leans on the family drama as much as it leans on scenes of OCP’s executives sitting around and talking, which is to say over half the runtime is made up of family or executives talking.
I understand why the family stuff is in the movie, even if none of it works and there’s way too much of it - it’s to give Murphy depth as a character (aka, it’s a hacky screenwriting trick, like saving the cat). But the executive chit chat sessions - Michael Keaton’s squirrely CEO talking to Gary Oldman’s sympathetic scientist, or to Jennifer Ehle’s cold-blooded exec or Jay Baruchel’s kinda comedic relief marketing guy - are simply exposition sessions. And what’s worse, they’re the source of the film’s tonal schism - nobody in OCP seems to be that bad of a guy, so when they become bad enough guys at the end to warrant being shot by Robocop it feels crazily out of place. You're watching a movie about the slow nature of corruption where somebody suddenly points a gun at a kid just to earn their own death.
Joel Kinnaman is fine as this version of Robocop. If Peter Weller is your be-all end-all Robocop, you’ll have problems with Kinnaman’s very emotional performance, but it’s a different vision of the character. In fact I would have prefered to see that emotional version of Robocop continue, but since this movie must conform to the original (you know, homages and winks must be made), 2014 Robocop is suddenly and without much good reason rendered a zombie by a huge dose of sedatives. This gives Kinnaman the chance to walk around like Weller and deliver lines in a monotone for a while, but it’s a symptom of the schism in the film. The story doesn’t actually need him to behave that way, marketing does.
If Padilha had been given the freedom to make something in line with the first half of the film - a more procedurally-oriented movie that takes lots of time to discuss philosophy and morality - Robocop 2014 might have been interesting. If Padilha had been stuck with the tonal Frankenstein’s monster of a script he has but was allowed to unleash some actual violence and fun action, Robocop 2014 might have been powerful. But as a neutered movie that is constantly battling itself, Robocop 2014 eventually reveals itself to be a hunk of junk, as inert as a robot cop when his plug is pulled.