The latest soulless remake heading for our screens is the 2014 version of Paul Verhoven’s sardonic sci-fi 1987 classic, RoboCop, the cautionary tale of a Detroit cop sucked into the military-industrial machine who, against the odds (and after being turned into a machine himself) manages to reconnect with his humanity.
Early reviews don’t look good, suggesting (oh so predictably) that it’s another by-the-numbers actioner lacking in its own merits, dependent on its reference points to the original for the thrills that it does contain. It’s yet another lackluster attempt to cash in on our collective memory of a movie that was once worth driving to the multiplex for, and, despite representing some bold counter-programming for Valentine’s Day, is unlikely to knock The Lego Movie off its box office perch.
The original RoboCop delighted audiences with Verhoven’s trademark mix of brutality and eroticism, his attacks on corporate profiteering and media amorality, and his acute understanding of how to make a torture scene both jaw-dropping and emotionally moving. The movie generated a robust franchise, including the usual merchandise, two sequels, a TV show, video games and various comic books. As with all the best speculative fiction, it reflected the times as well as predicting the future. RoboCop took the collective nightmares of Reagan’s America — the Star Wars initiative, consumerism, nuclear Armageddon, inner city no-go zones — and put them through the blender of violent movie entertainment, accompanied by the distinctive thud-thud-whirr of RoboCop doing his trademark moves. Peter Weller found ways of wearing the suit rather than letting the suit wear him, and, despite being hidden behind a metal mask for most of the action and speaking in pre-programmed sentences, had the audience rooting for RoboCop’s eventual triumph.
Thanks to Weller’s subtle definition of the character (and his sensual lips), the range of snappy one-liners traded among the fine supporting cast (“I’ll buy that for a dollar!” “I remember you! You’re dead. We killed you!” “15 seconds to comply”) and the quintessentially 80s score and sound design, RoboCop has been much referenced and parodied in other media, including music and video games. A smart, funny, self-aware genre movie, it has inspired much affection from fans since its release.
Given the continued recognition of the brand, a remake was inevitable. Sony/MGM, along with all the other major studios, have concluded that it is easier to market a property with existing awareness than it is to launch a new one. People tend to know what a RoboCop is — which is more than can be said for a divergent, for instance. So they’ve tossed an estimated budget of $100M into the pot, hired some reliable, if not huge marquee name actors (Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Keaton, and the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson), updated the RoboSuit with some slick Iron Man styling, and, in making it look like every other comicbook movie out there, are hoping for a reasonable return on their investment. Which is missing the point about what made the original so much fun, and so memorable. But they own the property, and, despite what disgruntled fans might be bewailing across the internets, that’s that.
“Well, he signed the release form. And legally, he’s dead. I figure we can do anything with him we want.”
There is hope, however. A RoboCop remake is not automatically a terrible idea. If it was done with Verhoven verve, irreverence, and affection for the source material, then it might just be worth revisiting — which is what a group of more than 50 Los Angeles and New York film-makers have done, splitting the original screenplay into 60 separate scenes and remaking each one in a different style as a crowd-sourced project.
The resulting movie is an anarchic mash-up of live action, animation (computer, hand-drawn and stop motion), modern dance, and a montage of penises being blown apart that will stay with you for the rest of your sentient days. Warmth towards the original, flaws and all, glows from every frame; this is definitely one for the fans. Original story weaknesses (such as RoboCop’s dependence on a nutritional paste that tastes “like baby food”, or his ambiguity towards his wife) are picked up as running gags throughout.
While the quality isn’t altogether consistent, some of the input is surprisingly sophisticated, and, if one film-maker’s approach leaves you cold, you’re only ever a couple of minutes away from the delights of the next segment. A labor of love (available to watch for free to watch or download on Vimeo until the studio figure out their cease-and-desist strategy), Our RoboCop Remake functions simultaneously as tribute and critique — testament to the power of film-making tools put into democratic hands.
Our RoboCop Remake is fresher, funnier and more outrageous than any studio blockbuster could dare to be. Here’s hoping it points to a future when remakes are an embarrassing anomaly of the past, and, rather than spending millions of dollars on persuading us to pay again for something we’ve seen before, studios take risks on new talent and original stories. Like they used to.