Trailer Trashin’: The Future of Law Enforcement Lacks Substance in RoboCop
We’re in a bit of a lull as far as movie releases are concerned right now, as we wait for the award season films to start rolling in. Of course, this also means we’ll start getting trailers for the movies coming out in 2014. In this week’s installment of Trailer Trashin’, I take aim at the first trailer for next year’s remake of the 1987 Paul Verhoeven masterpiece RoboCop.
Premise: In 2028, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp is at the center of robot technology. Their drones are winning wars around the globe and now they want to bring this technology to the home front. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a loving husband, father, and honest cop doing his best to fight crime and corruption in Detroit. After he is critically injured by a car bomb, OmniCorp utilize their knowledge in robotics to save Murphy’s life, turning him into RoboCop, a part-man, part-robot police officer. OmniCorp envisions a RoboCop in every city and even more billions for their shareholders, but they never counted on one thing – there is still a man inside the machine pursuing justice.
My take: A lot of people who haven’t actually seen it would probably be quick to dismiss Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) as nothing but another violent 80s action movie. While it certainly is a violent 1980s action movie, it’s also so much more than that. RoboCop was packed with razor-sharp cultural commentary on 1980s America, and touched on themes regarding the media, gentrification, corruption, privatization, capitalism, identity, dystopia, and human nature. And all of this was backed up by smart writing and a great cast, including a career-best performance by Peter Weller in the title role. I love the original RoboCop, and I’ve been uneasy about the idea of a remake ever since it was first announced. Apart from the brief time when Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct, this remake has been a project I’ve mostly regarded with dread. Now the first trailer for the remake has arrived, and unfortunately it looks like my fears may very well have come true.
It’s really a shame that the film looks so mediocre, because the cast is pretty awesome. Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman, best known stateside for his leading role on the AMC series The Killing, has the lead role of Alex Murphy/RoboCop. Kinnaman is a good actor, and I’m sure he’ll do the best job he can here, but I doubt he’s going to get material worthy of his talent. Gary Oldman plays Dr. Dennett Norton, the scientist who creates RoboCop, and he’s always great to watch even in terrible movies. Michael Keaton, who we really haven’t been seeing enough of recently, plays Raymond Sellars, the villainous CEO of OmniCorp, and I’m sure seeing him as a bad guy will be fun. Samuel L. Jackson plays Pat Novak, a charismatic media mogul, and is probably the only hope this remake has of retaining any of the original film’s satirical edge. We briefly see Jackie Earle Haley as Maddox, a military tactician responsible for training RoboCop. Abbie Cornish plays Clara Murphy, Alex’s wife, who seems to have a much more prominent role here than she did in the original. Michael K. Williams, best known as Omar Little on the HBO series The Wire, plays Alex’s former partner Jack Lewis, the counterpart to the character of Officer Anne Lewis from the original film. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Secrets & Lies (1996), plays Karen Dean, the Detroit chief of police. Jennifer Ehle, who I will always know as Elizabeth Bennet in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice TV miniseries, plays a character named Liz Kline. And Miguel Ferrer, who played RoboCop’s creator Bob Morton in the original film, here plays someone named Vallon.
While the action and visuals here don’t look bad, there’s also nothing that really makes it stand out from any other recent sci-fi film. The look of the setting is indistinguishable from numerous other near-future movie cityscapes, and certainly doesn’t have the grit and grime of Old Detroit from the original. The hovercraft gunship plane looks cool, but it also looks like so many other made-up future aircraft I’ve seen in films. Of course, the biggest visual element is the actual RoboCop suit itself, which I have warmed up to a bit since the first spy pictures. The suit looks great when it’s in its classic silver-blue color, which just highlights how unnecessary the “tactical” black re-coloring really is. Right now, the thing that really irks new about the new suit is the fact that the visor flips up and down so easily. In the original movie, after Murphy was turned into RoboCop, all we saw of him until the third act was his mouth and his chin, which allowed the removal of the mask to coincide with RoboCop’s rediscovery of his former identity. The design of the RoboCop suit from the original film was pretty much perfect and also incredibly iconic, and I don’t see any reason why it needed to be altered.
I’m also not happy with all the changes that have been made to the story. The fact that Murphy is “killed” by a car bomb instead of being shot firing-squad style just seems like a nonsensical alteration to me; in the original film, Murphy died while performing his duty as a police officer, here he could be just any ordinary guy getting into his car. If Murphy lost an arm and a leg and was badly burned but still alive, why would his wife agree to let him be turned into RoboCop, instead of, say, artificial limbs and skin grafts? I know I’m far from the only person who’s brought this up, but it really bothers me that it looks like Murphy’s mind is fully conscious in the RoboCop body from the beginning. If RoboCop doesn’t have to struggle with rediscovering his former identity as a human, then what the hell is the arc of his character? And then there’s the cringe-worthy moment of the newly-created RoboCop saying “What the hell did you do to me?” and trying to strangle Dr. Norton, which just smacks of “look how dark and edgy we’re being!” Another element of the original film that really helped drive the drama was that RoboCop was prevented from taking direct action against the main villain by a hidden directive written into his programming. But if he can just “override the system’s priority” by sheer force of will or something similarly cliché, what’s preventing him from be able to stop the evil plan as soon as he finds out who’s behind it? I can already imagine that the third act of the film will involve having to retrieve some contrived MacGuffin from OmniCorp headquarters which will expose their dirty dealings. I try not to be a person who has a knee-jerk negative reaction to any changes made in adaptations or remakes, but if you’re going to change something, it had better be for a reason and in a way that doesn’t weaken the material. By contrast, the changes made here only seem to be stripping away the elements that made the original RoboCop work so well and stand out from the crowd.
Another disappointing thing we get from this trailer is how sanitized the film looks compared to the original. Paul Verhoeven’s films were always brutal in their depiction of violence, and RoboCop was no exception. Blood and gore splashed across the screen as people were shot, stabbed, and killed in myriad other ways. None of that film’s visceral nature is in evidence here. While the remake doesn’t have an MPAA rating yet, the fact that we only see RoboCop fighting and shooting other machines makes it clear that this was shot with a PG-13 rating in mind. The fact that Murphy becomes RoboCop after being caught in an explosion rather than riddled with bullets is also indicative of this, because it’s much easier to get away with lower rating this way. On a similar note, while fourth degree burns do exist, they are much more gruesome than what we see in our glimpse of post-explosion Murphy. Fourth degree burns extend through the entire skin and into underlying fat, muscle, and bone, and are charred black in appearance. If they couldn’t depict the proper look for the burns without jeopardizing their precious PG-13 rating, why didn’t they change the dialogue to better match the look of the makeup? This film looks like it will be a textbook example of something we see all too often in studio filmmaking today, where content that should demand an R is either watered down or excised completely in order to make a movie available to a larger – more profitable – audience.
Ultimately, the way I feel about the new RoboCop at this point is much like how I felt after seeing the first trailer for last year’s remake of Total Recall (1990) – which was the subject of the second-ever Trailer Trashin’ column, as longtime readers will hopefully remember. The difference here is that RoboCop is much closer to my heart than Total Recall. There’s a great cast full of talented actors, but nothing else here looks like it will rise above the level of being competent. I can definitely imagine how a good new take on RoboCop could have been done, but what we’re getting here is not that movie. It really is a true shame to see a brilliant, subversive film that has stood the test of time being remade into what looks like a forgettable, generic action flick. In the end, unless the rest of the promotion is a hell of a lot better than this, I will almost certainly be giving RoboCop a miss when it opens next year.
Release Date: February 7th, 2014
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jay Baruchel, Aimee Garcia, John Paul Ruttan, Jackie Earle Haley, Miguel Ferrer, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Michael K. Williams, Douglas Urbanski, and Zach Grenier
Director: José Padilha
Writers: Nick Schenk, Joshua Zetumer, and James Vanderbilt, based on characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner