Wednesday, February 12, 2014

ROBOCOP (2014) - A Review

To start with, I should state that I have a pretty firm anti-remake policy when it comes to films. Remakes generally have little behind them other than a naked profit motive - especially in modern Hollywood.

I also will go on record as saying that I think the original Robocop (1987), with Peter Weller as the title character, is a nearly perfect film, a great film, and, dare I say it, perhaps even kind of an important film. It was lightning in a bottle, one of those times where a story, script, director, cast and crew all came together to create something special.

Having said all that...I have no problem at all with the idea of doing a remake of Robocop. I've been thinking a lot lately about how films are really our modern folk tales. (How many of us have sat around an open fire telling stories lately?) With that in mind, it actually makes sense for certain cautionary tales to be retold, refashioned for an evolving society. Think about the continued relevance of the Frankenstein story in a world with skin grafts, limb transplants, artificial organs and other medical advances. Add a layer of robotics to the Frankenstein story and you've essentially got Robocop.

So I went into the screening tonight with an open mind. I knew the early reviews of this remake were very mixed. But I was prepared to like the film. I also knew that I could wind up leaving the theater angry and offended.

Well, I'm home, and I'm not angry. I'm not delighted, either, but I am glad to at least not be upset by a total travesty of a film. Do I need to see it again? No. Will I watch the original version again? You bet.

Fair or not, the two versions will be compared - and the new one will come out the loser pretty much every time, every way. Where the original (in the best sense of the word) Robocop managed to be at once both an intelligent and dark black comedy and an action film that would please action fans, the remake is much more like a standard-issue action film with a few bigger thoughts and ideas added for ornamentation. The edge of the original, while acknowledged, is dulled way, way down.

Some may say I'm crazy, but I think that Robocop (1987) is a black comedy that surpasses Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and is still much more relevant as a story. It was a bold and bleak melding of comedy with tragedy - and it worked. Robocop (2014) doesn't even really try to compete in the black comedy department, though there are a few lines thrown in that are clearly intended to get laughs from the punters.

As for the action set pieces, the remake settles (a word chosen intentionally) for a by-the-numbers approach that I found to be the most disappointing thing about the film. The Robocop visor comes down, the gun comes out, and cue the generic hard rock on the soundtrack. How many films have we seen that in at this point? Indeed, with this approach being so generic now, what is the point?

The general outline of the story in the remake is pretty similar to the original: Honest Detroit police officer Alex Murphy is very nearly killed in the line of duty, and is brought back to cybernetic life through the profit-driven efforts of a multinational corporation (OmniCorp) that has partnered with the Detroit Police Department. Robocop is pitched as a supercop with a human heart and experience to the public, while being regarded as a prototype of future profits by the corporate bigwigs. When his mission/programing begins to conflict with what's left of Alex Murphy, problems arise.

I applaud the new film for actually trying out some new ideas, in addition to the expected technological upgrade. Some of the new ideas work, and some don't. But the one that I would call a crucial mistake was that, in the remake, Murphy's family not only know he's Robocop, it's his wife who signs his remains over to OmniCorp to "save" him. In the original, Murphy's sense of loss of his family - who are only seen in flashback - provides an ongoing and effective reminder of all that he's lost. So far as they know, he's dead. The best he can do is visit their empty house and remember. Weller made Robocop/Murphy's impotent rage at his loss clear and very affecting.

In the new film, with his wife and son still in the picture, that sense of loss is itself lost. In its place there are some cheap attempts at sentimentality, a few new plot twists, and a none-too-believable happy ending. The change very much lessened the emotional weight of the story for me (though, in fairness, my wife thought the change worked well enough). But having a very nearly destroyed Robocop/Murphy tell his wife at the end that things will be fine, just fine, totally lacks the impact of the scene in the original where a nearly destroyed Robocop/Murphy tells his badly injured partner not to worry, because "They'll fix you. They fix everything." It's a line that, as written, conveys some sort of hope. But as delivered by Weller, with an air of exhaustion and defeat, it comes across as more of a threat than a promise of better days.

I'd also say that the decision to have all of Murphy's face visible once he becomes Robocop was a misstep. Given that he's a hormonally controlled cyborg with limited emotional output, Joel Kinnaman (who plays Murphy) has to put on a sort of cartoonish frozen tough guy face for a number of scenes, and it just didn't work for me. It seemed ridiculous, frankly. In the original, pretty much all we see of Murphy once he becomes Robocop is a his mouth. Having his eyes literally, physically blocked from view was, in my opinion, a much more effective method of conveying the distance and remove of the hard-wired but struggling Murphy.

I also found the TV cop show style handheld camerawork to be a distraction. In action scenes it merely made things even more confusing; in quieter scenes, it just draws attention to the fact that you're watching someone being filmed. During quiet scenes, I found myself wondering if the actors find it harder to concentrate with the camera operator swaying from side to side in front of them. Needless to say, these are not thoughts that kept me deeply focused on the story unfolding in front of me.

From script to direction to pacing to acting, the remake fails to approach the original, despite some nice touches and good performances. In short, the remake comes up short. Not embarrassingly so, but still. Then again, it's a remake of a film that got it right the first time, so that's a tough assignment. If nothing else, I thank the makers of Robocop (2014) for at least not embarrassing themselves, and for not sending me out into the evening angry. Faint praise, perhaps, but...It's the best I can do. It'll be interesting to see if the film is successful, or strikes a chord with the public.

In the meantime, go watch the original Robocop, and see how well it holds up. As satire, as social commentary, and as a straight-up action film, it's still a powerhouse.

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