February 10, 2014

Robocop (2014)

When should Hollywood make remakes? Never? Occasionally? Or should it be an open season? Studios I suspect are fully for the latter. They make a lot of sense, since one of the biggest challenges in marketing a major motion picture is developing a large enough brand awareness that a mass audience will go and see it. If they already know the property - the title, the tone, the characters - then the studio has won half of the battle.

If you're a hardcore film geek, your answer is probably the first one. There's an understandable snobbery about remakes, since many of them turn out to be awful. Of course very few of those geeks ever step back and consider that, if we're being honest, most films turn out to be awful whether they're original, sequels, adaptations or remakes. It's just more noticeable with a remake, because there's a reasonable chance that we the viewers have fond memories of the original film.

Robocop is a case in point. The original was a commercial hit and has developed into a cult smash. Its fans quote lines of dialogue. You can still buy collectors' action figures of the title character. It spawned two TV series, a cartoon, a pair of sequels, some computer games and a bunch of comic books. For MGM to remake such an iconic film is understandable, since its brand remains very strong, but it's also foolhardy because much of their target market are going to despise the film on principle.

So how does this new version fare? To be honest it reminded me an awful lot of Total Recall, another recent remake of a Paul Verhoeven science fiction film. Both remakes are technically competent, reasonably enjoyable and distinctive enough to stand or fall on their own merits. Again in both cases, however, they are enjoyable while also being immediately forgettable. 20 years from now it will still be Verhoeven's originals that people remember, rather than the remakes. They are wholly commercial products, driven by studio mandate rather than a mixture of commercialism and a writer or director's artistic interests.

In the case of Robocop there's been a valiant effort to give the film some integrity. The cast, for one thing, is remarkably impressive. While I wasn't familiar with star Joel Kinnaman (big in Sweden, apparently), he is supported by Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbie Cornish, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Zach Grenier and a bunch of other familiar actors. It's the Superman: The Movie approach: you can hide a film's pulp roots if you cover it in prestigious actors. These actors all give great performances as well, particularly Michael Keaton's energetic portrayal of Omnicorp head Raymond Sellars and Gary Oldman's conflicted and fallible Dr Dennett Norton. On a sillier note, this film is a bizarre superhero-fest in terms of casting. There is more than a little geeky fun to be had with a film whose cast includes a former Batman, Jim Gordon, Rorschach and Nick Fury sharing conversations.

Like the original, this Robocop makes a solid attempt at social satire. It's certainly more focused as less scattershot than Verhoeven's film, but it does this by loading the satire heavily into the film's beginning and denoument, and saves the bulk of the story for a straight-forward revenge thriller. Walking out of the cinema, I felt like the satirical elements in the remake were stronger, but upon reflection that's just because they're hammered in so heavily before the credits roll.

Jose Padilha has directed a solid, entertaining science fiction film, but it's clear this is a studio product. Hopefully with his next Hollywood film (assuming he wants to make one - his career is doing perfectly well back in Brazil) he gets a bit more space to find his own story and aesthetic.

It's important to stress that Robocop isn't a bad movie. It's actually rather enjoyable. It is, however, almost entirely redundant, and certainly rather forgettable. I'm not averse to remakes, personally. If a remake can either do a good job with a concept that wasn't handled well the first time around, or bring something new to the table with a fresh or distinctive take on the material, I am all for it. The Wizard of Oz was a remake. Ben-Hur was a remake. The Departed was a remake. I love all three of those films. Robocop, however, does an okay job with a concept that was originally done very well, and it doesn't really add anything to it. I'd buy it for a dollar, but I'm not sure it's worth spending $20 to see it at the cinema.

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