Before filming even began on the long-awaited reboot of the RoboCop character that director Paul Verhoeven first introduced us to via his own unique blend of nihilistic Kubrickian political satire and ultraviolent dystopian free-for-all in his eponymous 1987 original, the director assigned to the remake called his friend and fellow moviemaking countryman in the form of City of God co-helmer Fernando Meirelles to vent.
Likening the Hollywood studio system of filmmaking by committee to “hell,” the man that had been hired to replace Darren Aronfsky to head up the reboot – acclaimed Elite Squad series and Bus 174 Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha – confessed to Meirelles that he was having “the worst experience of his life” making the movie.
Not ready to throw in the towel altogether – especially given the incredible talent involved, optimistically, he predicted that RoboCop would still be “good” in spite of the challenges.
However, given Padilha’s cinematic background and interest in exploring socioeconomic terrain onscreen, it wasn’t hard to read between the lines of Meirelles’s account of their conversation to understand that the satiric potential of RoboCop to explore timely issues (like corporate defense contracts) that had drawn Padilha to the project were being quickly removed from the final draft.
Yet instead of offering him the chance to navigate the whys and hows that can add shade or dimensionality to the thin line between wrong or right in the film, Padilha was being stifled by suits nervous that screen evidence of a higher IQ might threaten the pleasure (read: box office potential) to be had by viewers just hoping for a Michael Bay-like popcorn picture.
For honestly at times in the CG-heavy explosion sequences, that’s what this new version of RoboCop resembles more than anything else – a lengthy lead-in or teaser (weirdly made by a rival studio) – designed to tie in to Bay’s latest Transformers entry.
Likewise, given his revealing confession that “for every ten ideas he has, nine are cut,” you get the feeling that the prospect of hiring an idea guy (like an Aronofsky or a Padilha) sounded great to the studio in theory. Unfortunately, in reality, they should’ve just gone for a by-the-numbers helmer of the Bay school of film direction to deliver stylish, shiny sequences of spectacle over substance (as men battle machines ad infinitum) without the sophistication of imbuing the movie with so much intellect that we're left thinking about it beyond the final credits.
For unfortunately one of the biggest crimes in taking away Padilha’s creativity was – for all the ideas that they took away – obviously the one that would’ve been the most necessary in making the film work would’ve been in deciding how to best use their charismatic lead (in the form of The Killing and Easy Money’s Joel Kinnaman) effectively.
Of course, this is nothing new and a flaw of the original as well as our one-dimensional police officer turned eponymous hero was pretty thinly drawn – damn near on par with an extra aside from his movie star charm and formulaic sympathy-bait moments that help endear him to the audience early on.
In a gallant attempt to right a Verhoeven wrong, the remake tries to punch up his pre-RoboCop home life a little bit more but an extra moment or two of domestic happiness isn't enough to remedy the problem altogether as we're still left with a bland lead.
Fleshing out his role ever so slightly with some charming scenes that spotlight his relationship with his son and loving wife (played by the gifted but under-utilized Abbie Cornish), unfortunately once Kinnaman’s cop gets his robotic makeover, the overall film fails Kinnaman almost as much as Padilha by giving him very little to do.
Offering some terrific scene-stealing opportunities to its standout supporting cast featuring an impressive array of talents you’d typically find in an Oscar bait fall release, the ensemble cast headed up by Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Samuel L. Jackson class up the picture whenever they’re onscreen.
Namely, with Cornish and Kinnaman also included, the film’s saving grace is in its remarkable company of actors – most of whom would never be included on a typical shortlist of A-list names to consider for a big-budgeted blockbuster.
Therefore, just like with the assignment of Padilha and the initial attempt to recruit Aronofsky to take up the helm, I do need to salute whoever is behind-the-scenes calling the shots as a fan of cinema, even if unfortunately due to studio mandates, they’re unable to allow those they hire the chance to truly be free to make the films they desperately want to make.
Nonetheless, like a painter who’s just been given a new collection of hues, Padilha does have the chance to create some breathtaking images with all of the new supplies at his disposal.
As referenced earlier, the film’s action sequences are particularly outstanding including an inventive shootout that’s filmed like a cross between laser tag and Tron— blending mixed media of CG and real visuals with a triumphant score by composer Pedro Bromfan to ratchet up the pulse-pounding tension.
Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between as in the end, the darkness of the dystopian-tinged picture is way too dominant in its dull lighting, requiring you to crank up your television’s most unnaturally bright picture settings in order to compensate and take everything in, even on this otherwise stellar 1080p Blu-ray high definition presentation (screened on a 240hz television).
Removing the overt crucifixion motifs and religious overtones of Verhoeven’s original, for those just content to turn their minds off and enjoy surface level commercial entertainment that never even attempts to plunge into the ultra timely and ever-topical narrative for greater meaning or depth, you’ll enjoy this capably executed yet immediately forgettable remake.
While Michael Keaton’s character as a brilliant yet opportunistically amoral mad scientist goes way too unrealistically far off the deep end way too fast, it’s still great to see the actor onscreen again, even if you get the feeling that like Padilha, Keaton was perhaps more attracted to the film’s satirical potential than he was in its popcorn movie outcome.
Foolishly timed to a Valentine’s Day release, while it essentially underwhelmed audiences in the United States who were far more interested in relatively original efforts like Ride Along and the surprisingly subversive satire disguised as traditional family fodder The Lego Movie, familiarity sold well overseas as RoboCop garnered more than three hundred million dollars in box office earnings.
Rewarding the taste of comfort food over food for thought, RoboCop is the latest exercise in lather, rinse, and repeat filmmaking that makes me hope they’ll get the knots out before the next reboot (as this follows Endless Love and Carrie for unnecessary celluloid recycling).
While it isn’t guilty of any crimes against moviegoers or cinema at large on its own, the one thing it’s innocent of is using the people it brought aboard to their maximum potential vs. international box office appeal.
For even the cop in Robocop would have to agree that just because you have the right to reboot, it doesn’t mean you should as sometimes you should use the right to remain silent until you have something original to say… provided you’re given the opportunity to say it.
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