I’m quite a fan of both Sherlock and Elementary, to the point that I’ve just had to stop trying to compare them to decide which is the “better” take on Holmes – they’re really apples and oranges, each doing something completely different with the same source material*. I decided early on that I’d have to do the same thing with the Robocop remake – it didn’t seem like it was even trying to be the same kind of thing as the original. That was a subversive masterpiece – this one’s just a standard sci-fi action film. I figured if I went in assuming it was just a film in its own right, I’d avoid any comparisons with the original, which would almost certainly be unfavourable. I managed it with the recent prequel/remake to The Thing; surely I could do it for this one?
No, I couldn’t.
…more arsecheeks for us!
There’s a bit in the 2000 Charlie’s Angels film where Drew Barrymore’s angel is trying to tell her boyfriend that the person they’re talking to is actually a bad guy – she does this by surreptitiously spelling out the word “ENEMY” using Scrabble tiles on the table in front of them. Once she’s done, the camera zooms in as she points to the word, and then we hear her say “enemy!” out loud, completely destroying the point of silently spelling it out. The director’s commentary points out that they added her line in voiceover afterwards, on the assumption that people couldn’t handle reading a five letter word in block capitals. This was the clearest example of naked contempt for an audience I’d ever seen, until I watched the Robocop remake.
Everything about this film says “We, the filmmakers, do not give the tiniest fuck about you, the audience – all you are to us is a pair of arsecheeks on a seat in a cinema. Yeah, we’ve pruned away anything controversial to guarantee the PG-13 rating we wanted – that just means more arsecheeks for us!” Christ, I expected them to have sanded the edges off the original, but they’ve buffed it down to a perfect sphere. The one genuinely effective – genuinely shocking – scene in the whole film comes near the beginning when they show Murphy exactly how much of him is left under the Robocop suit (spoiler: not much). If you were of a mind to be the kind of wanker I like to pretend I’m not, you could take it as emblematic of the film as a whole – the façade of Robocop is dismantled, leaving behind fuck all of substance.
The first thing you notice about the film’s PG-13-ification is the near complete absence of blood – people are blown up in bloodless explosions, shot with incapacitating taser bullets or blown away in computer graphic night vision. When an ED-209 drone machineguns a knife-wielding teenager in a Middle Eastern warzone, he just disappears in a cloud of dust. Even the main bad guys, such as they are, are practically dispatched off camera, lest any sort of actual violence appear on the screen.
I say “such as they are”, because there aren’t any decent bad guys to speak of. Where the original had Ronny Cox’s snarling executive and Kurtwood Smith’s grinning psychopath, this film just has a bunch of corporate pricks being corporate pricks, and a bunch of criminals being criminals. There’s no evil plan or anything motivating them – they just want to make money and influence the government so they can make more money, which is something no mundane real life corporation has ever done ever. (According to the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, it was revealed that the corporation’s CEO was working with the criminals – I can honestly say I missed that fact entirely.)**
The film likes to think it’s cerebral and thought-provoking, but it has no decent philosophy beyond fragments of “what makes a man a man?” pontificating that get dropped as soon as it’s inconvenient:
“People don’t like machines – we need to put a man in a machine!”
“Right, the man in a machine’s not as good as an actual machine – make him more like a machine!”
“OK, now he’s a machine in a man in a machine who acts just like the machines that we were trying move away from in the first place!”
“Aaand now he’s overridden his programming – let’s say by magic – and he’s back to being a man in a machine. Let’s speak no more of this.”
It doesn’t help that they never really establish what’s so wrong with machines in the first place – there’s no equivalent of the scene in the original where the dumb robot ED-209 turns an unlucky executive into soup to prove how inferior machines are; it’s just taken on faith that robots that can do a good job without putting human lives at risk must be bad, presumably because the filmmakers know that modern audiences don’t like drone strikes. Indeed, the one attempt at aping the social satire of the original comes at the very end when Samuel L. Jackson’s superfluous Bill O’Reilly rip-off character says something along the lines of “What’s next? Are people going to start saying that maybe we shouldn’t be using drones in overseas conflicts *wink wink*?”
Speaking of aping, I can’t go past the fact that they force in the two biggest catchphrases from the original in ways that don’t fit the context at all – you can practically hear a producer leaning over some writer’s shoulder and saying “Shit, it’s nearly the end of the film and he hasn’t said ‘dead or alive, you’re coming with me’ yet – put that in now! I don’t care – anywhere, just do it!”. Even worse is the bit where a character, unimpressed by Robocop’s early performance, remarks “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar” – but HE USES THE WRONG FUCKING DELIVERY! He says “I wouldn’t buy THAT for a dollar”, matching the intonation of the line from the original, but it doesn’t work the way the line is used – in that context, you’d expect a person to say it “I wouldn’t buy that for a DOLLAR”. I’m not sure why that bothered me as much as it did.
And yet, despite having none of the satire or ultra-violence of the original, it somehow seems more callous. The bloodless videogame deaths mean people just die anonymously as pixels on a screen – they’re not even treated as human beings. Where the original gives him a more-or-less clean break with his family, this one constantly dangles the possibility of a return to happy domestic life, which is never going to be possible – he’s a fucking robot who needs daily transfusions in a high-tech laboratory. By trying to be nicer, it just comes off as cruel. Similarly, while the reveal of Murphy’s remains did come as a genuine surprise, it too felt cruel – even though there’s slightly more of a man there than in the original (I’m pretty sure they establish it’s just his brain in that one – the sequel mentions that even his face is fake), it feels like a particularly low blow to actually throw it in his face (and ours).
That was a horribly mixed metaphor (a low blow to the face?) but frankly, this film deserves no better.
*I enjoyed season three of Sherlock as much as the first two – those complaining about it might be interested in this interview with Steven Moffat. Money quote:
“It’s interesting, when were we that mystery-driven?” Moffat said when asked if he felt that the series had changed its direction this season. “The only totally mystery-driven story I can think of is “The Blind Banker.” I mean, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” which is outrageous from that point of view, has a crime story going for about, what, 25 minutes? Then it’s about a boy and a girl missing each other … As we keep proclaiming to anyone who’s not completely bored of it by now, it’s not a detective show; it’s a show about a detective.”;
**UPDATE: OK, it doesn’t say that anymore – presumably some editor was trying to inject more coherence into the plot than was actually there, which is telling in itself.