I recall when I saw Total Recall at the cinema. The remake, not the original. I remember emerging blinking into the day, and wondering what on earth I had just seen.
Despair of remakes is not new, either generally or me. I generally hold it as a badge of unoriginality, a symptom of the malaise afflicting the film industry wherein spinning out an old success once again as a certainty of money is more important and worthwhile than taking a risk on something new.
Enter, then, another 80s SF remake: Robocop. I’m late in the day seeing this, and honestly wouldn’t if the well of new releases had not run dry in the post-Oscars lull. The original was an important film, if a bit — well, a bit 80s. Remaking it isn’t encouraging, for the Total Recall reasons above, and yet there is something a little more timeless about the story of a robot policeman.
RoboCop was actually fairly good. I don’t mean that to be ironic, to be a variation on “…it could be worse” — though, of course, it could. It was good enough to stand on its own two — metal — feet.
The basic story is unchanged. Police officer Alex Murphy is horrifically injured in an explosion, and is taken into an experimental programme by the head of OmniCorp Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) and cybernetics prosthetics researcher Doctor Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). He is, predictably, transformed into a robo-cop. They want Murphy to be the beachhead for rolling out robotic police and security across the US, and as such try to repress the human part of him in favour of the more rational robot.
Whilst the story isn’t terribly changed, the underlying themes have been updated for a new age. Robots and humanity — do we want to automate such vital parts of society as our security? It’s a classic heart vs. head dilemma, and RoboCop plays it out well. The opening scenes in US-occupied Tehran (yeah…) are chilling rather than reassuring, particularly in terms of the present day debate about the use of unmanned drones.
It is also given a present day feel — odd, given that it’s set in the future… — by the role of Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak the shock-jock style presenter of a current affairs TV programme. These interludes could feel forced, and they are indeed heavy handed, but as anyone who has seen clips of Glen Beck or any of Fox News’ content the other side of the pond, they are not at all out of place. It’s nice to see such a level of cultural awareness.
Michael Keaton is on fine form as Sellers, eclipsing the almost-unnecessary inclusion of what seems like a discount Jeff Bridges as the first bad guy. Gary Oldman is also excellent (does that still need saying?) as the conflicted scientist, struggling in the moral and ethical quagmire. Sadly I wasn’t as enthused of Joel Kinnaman’s performance, though really sticking an actor inside a tin can probably isn’t the best way of extracting a winning performance (though, John Hurt in The Elephant Man). And the addition of Abbie Cornish presents me with a further dilemma — I struggle, for some reason, to tell Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson apart, and now have to add her to that list.
The question with remakes, I think, is why are they being remade? In the case of Total Recall it was because Len Wiseman said so. This is a bit different. There is relevance to AI and automation in our lives today, and it manages to go beyond the ideas of its predecessor. The idea of humanity and the machine is not a new one, and really the only thing I can fault about its execution here is the sunny optimism that human nature (the good parts) will prevail and the descent into “some things aren’t meant to be understood” mysticism at the end.
But that’s Hollywood for you. And the reveal of what was left of Alex was a visceral hit with a similar impact to the reveal of Jake Gyllenhall’s character in Source Code. So it had guts. Well, Alex didn’t, but you get what I mean.
I enjoyed RoboCop. It was a fun film, with the right amount of seriousness, carried by a strong cast. I don’t think it had to be done as a remake of the 80s RoboCop — it was strong enough to stand on its own two feet — but I understood why it did. In the apparently-endless tide of remakes here is actually one where I can nod and say “Yep, there was a good reason for that”.
Which is high praise indeed, from me.