It has been 27 years since one of the seminal 80s sci-fi films, RoboCop, blasted onto cineplex screens. By today's Hollywood formulas, it's the perfect age for a remake that can bring the franchise name to new viewers and cash in on an audience eager to see an updated favorite. Too often, this results in a disappointing flop like 2012's Total Recall, a development that wouldn't have surprised with Jose Padilha's modern take on the Verhoeven blockbuster.
It is impossible not to compare the two versions, for better or for worse. Verhoeven's movie had a signature gritty, steely dystopian feel that contrasts against Padilha's sleek modern curves and smooth black gloss. As the first set photos from the new RoboCop made their way to the internets, angry fans denounced the insectile look of the black armor that replaced the familiar brushed steel. Fortunately, a more familiar steel uniform does appear, and the black suit is explained away, eliminating this minor quibble. Drastic changes in the look of the film are surprising given the casting of relative unknown Joel Kinnaman, whose greatest talent appears to be a strong chin resemblance to Peter Weller.
The differences in this remake go far beyond visuals, however. Joshua Zetumer has adapted the original script into something with a vaguely similar plot but drastically altered themes. A PG-13 rating ensures the remake, while more marketable, has lost much of the hyperbolic action. Padhila's version is also entirely sanitized of the satirical advertising used so effectively by Verhoeven in scene transitions, confining overt political commentary to Samuel L. Jackson's appearance as host of an O'Reilly-esque conservative news program.
I mentioned altered themes, and the most significant concerns the title character. Verhoeven's RoboCop was a machine that begins to remember it was once human. Padilha's RoboCop is a human struggling with the horror of being placed in a machine body and fighting the programming that seeks to strip him of his humanity. This reflects the fundamentally different approach where Verhoeven's film satirizes the unreliability of technology, Padilha's celebrates its ability to perform better, faster than the human brain.
So what works well? There is the presence of Basil Poledouris' iconic theme, a nice if minor touch. There is the integration of modern technological ideas to make Robocop more effective, such as wireless networking and traffic camera footage. But the best thing Padilha's movie shares with the 1986 original is an excellent cast of supporting character actors. Samuel L. Jackson is a bottled storm waiting for his eventual release. Jackie Earle Haley and Jay Baruchel each provide some much-needed comic relief in their roles, and Michael Keaton is something like a slightly older, much more sleazy Elon Musk. Even among this venerable crowd, however, Gary Oldman is a standout.
Oldman's talents, however, can't rescue the audience from wanting something more out of the film, particularly a more interesting and believable conflict resolution at the end. The biggest mistake was the studio's decision to create such a watered-down remake, perhaps proving that a PG-13 RoboCop is a No-goCop.