By Vincent Abbatecola
Starting in the ‘80s and through the ‘90s, Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven appeared on the scene in American cinema, and among his films, he made some notable contributions to the sci-fi genre. These films include “Starship Troopers,” “Total Recall” and “RoboCop.” What they all have in common is that they are films with ideas.
“Total Recall” was remade back in 2012, and now, “RoboCop” receives the same treatment, 27 years after the original was released. Directed by José Padilha, he takes his own experience with his Brazilian cop thrillers and uses it to update Verhoeven’s gory, satirical classic. Although this remake does have some new ideas to offer and has a promising start, the main problem is that this version, in its entirety, just isn’t as engaging as its source material.
It’s 2028, and OmniCorp is at the head of military technology concerning robotic soldiers. CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and scientist Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) have a goal to create a new product in law enforcement that will combine man with machine, and they aim to look for a critically injured police officer to become their prototype.
Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is an officer for the Detroit Police Department, and has a loving wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan). After crossing paths with local crime boss Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), Alex sustains severe injuries from a car bomb that was set up on Vallon’s orders. With his wife’s approval, Alex undergoes an operation to outfit him in a state-of-the-art RoboCop suit. Once he hits the streets to protect Detroit’s residents, there’s the question of if he still has any of his humanity left, or if he’s completely under control by this new technology.
Taking the acting of Kinnaman in this version to that of Peter Weller in the original and comparing them is rather unfair because the role of RoboCop calls for both to act robotic for a majority of the film. In both versions, however, they are each given small moments here and there to display some emotion, allowing the audience to catch a glimpse of the humanity behind the machine.
Both “RoboCop” films have OmniCorp as a villain, as well as a second villain outside of the corporation. The remake has Antoine Vallon, an arms dealer, while the original has Clarence Boddicker, a drug dealer who was played by Kurtwood Smith. One problem with the remake is that Vallon is a very underdeveloped character. Boddicker was a fun villain, but Vallon only gets a couple of quick scenes that show him in charge of his illegal operations. Vallon might as well have been at the level of his henchmen, as far as characterization is concerned, because he is not at all as memorable or deviously enjoyable to watch as Boddicker was.
The screenplay by Joshua Zetumer suffers from a particular pacing problem because the film takes about an hour of its nearly two-hour running time to actually have Alex complete his transition into RoboCop. A significant portion of the first hour is dedicated to Alex being rebuilt and trained as his new self, whereas the original was much more evenly paced.
What the film does differently is that it switches out much of its commentary on consumerist culture for a main focus on the issue of replacing soldiers with drones in combat overseas. I commend that the screenwriter took a new approach to the story, but his new themes are missing much of the darkly funny and satirical edge to them that was given to the themes of the original.
With this change to the focus, the film asks the question of whether or not machines should be allowed to take the lives of enemies, seeing as machines don’t have a sense of judgement and can’t feel. Although this alternative theme makes it sensible to spend time with Alex as he goes through his changes, both physical and emotional, the part of the story where he actually starts his duty as RoboCop takes too long to get started, and we spend a bit too much time with Alex’s family as they cope with these changes. His family isn’t even that interesting to begin with, and is written in such a way that has his wife and son waiting on the sidelines during most of the film’s events. This all tends to bog down the few better aspects of the story.
Another big difference between the two films is that the original showed more of the crime in Detroit, giving us a reason for RoboCop’s existence and an idea of how dangerous the city had become. Yes, there is an intense gunfight towards the beginning of the remake, as well as a couple more in indoor facilities, but the remake doesn’t come close to displaying the sense of anarchy that was erupting on the streets in Verhoeven’s film. That could be attributed to the remake’s PG-13 rating. I can’t help but think that if Padilha’s version had been rated R, like the original, he could have employed more of the sense of grit that he brought to his previous cop films, “Elite Squad” and “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.”
Even though the film as a whole isn’t great, one portion that’s done well is the opening scene. The sequence takes place in a neighborhood in Tehran, where mechanical soldiers have been placed to enforce the law, and violence soon ensues. The scene, which is being broadcasted on television, also subtly comments on how the media can sometimes spin the truth when reporting the news. The look of these robots in this tension-filled area brings to mind what can be found in Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi commentary films, “Elysium” and “District 9,” both of which display something of a downtrodden, hopeless future.
Although there is quite a bit that’s absent from the story, we can see that Padilha has the ability to shoot scenes that can thrill, as evidenced by his two “Elite Squad” films. One such scene in the remake that comes to mind is the sequence in which RoboCop goes through a shoot-‘em-up exercise in an OmniCorp training facility.
With the two “RoboCop” films, however, the original should stay on the force, and it would be best for the remake to leave it.
Final grade: C