I remember always being behind the times as a kid. I never saw the Rambo or Indiana Jones movies when they were new. I didn’t get the newest pop music or know anything beyond what showed up in “Weird” Al Yankovic or Kids Incorporated. BUT…I distinctly remember the first time I saw a RoboCop movie.
It was actually RoboCop 2, which is slightly inferior but in the same spirit as the original. I loved the action, the big robots, and the stop motion. You saw little glimpses of Officer Alex Murphy’s previous life as a person, enough to make his current state as a cyborg meaningful, but it was mostly shoot ‘em up robot fun with some funny parts and just a dash of character development.
I didn’t see the first film until the 2000s and despite its decidedly 80s vision of crime and the future it held up very well; and I can say that honestly as I didn’t have any youthful attachments to it. Bad guys were wonderfully bad. Robo had an established personality but was a great cyborg. His partner, Anne Lewis, was one of the best tough female characters this side of Vasquez from Aliens. And the story had an excellent progression and a fantastic “oooh gotcha!” conclusion.
The Real RoboCop
THEN they did a remake.
The original RoboCop series established certain demands on anything trying to call itself “RoboCop.” He-is-go-ing-to-talk-like-the-computer-in-War-games. He’ll spin that gun like a he’s in a 1950s western. He’ll call someone a “creep. “ Tell them to freeze. Then lots of shooting will occur.
That’s what RoboCop means to those of us who care about the series and, to be totally honest, would be the audience for a remake series.
Here’s what I don’t watch RoboCop movies for: To see his family life. To get to know him as a person for hour. To have a strong female character turned into…a dude… To see RoboCop CRY. And have Alex Murphy talk like Marky Mark Circa 1991.
Nearly half the remake is used building Alex Murphy’s character. He’s an honest cop, a devoted family man, a good partner, a decent person, a tough guy, a badass, a rebel against corruption. For an hour we see this in story, exposition, and flashbacks. Even after he becomes RoboCop we see more character exposition, as he copes with his new status, trains to become RoboCop a la Batman Begins, and fights against corporate prejudice (from one of the many rather good performances in the film, this one by Jackie Earl Haley. Other great performances include those of Sam Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Gary Oldman).
This is some strange RoboCop…thing
Less than half an hour into the original film Alex Murphy is RoboCop. Out RoboCopping it up with Old Detroit’s street trash. Before he gets all Robo’d, he’s introduced as a rookie to the precinct, which means other characters have to get to know him naturally and thus the audience gets to know him in an organic process. He’s cocky and arrogant, but in less than five seconds of dialogue we see how he’s developed and achieved a rapport with Lewis. He spins his gun because his kid likes it (and maybe he does too…) establishing he’s got a family he cares about, and we see that family in staccato flashes after he’s attacked (actively I’ll say by the bad guys, not in a BS car bomb). All of his character is built in about 10-15 minutes. His transition into RoboCop is done via first-person montage. As he’s switched on, sees something new, and is switched back off again. Time passes, he’s advanced to a new state of Robo, time passes again. Never wasting time so we get to the main story as soon as possible.
RoboCop does a lot of this blow stuff up stuff…
Where Apes updated the premise while making the story fit to a new audience and changing times, 2014’s RoboCop is a near-Clash of the Titans-level farce. The Corporation plot is senseless and muddled. There was a needless “military drones should be legal in the US” angle. Robocop was Strong Sad in an exoskeleton. His wife and child just WOULDN’T GO AWAY. And none of it had to be done.
An hour into the movie RoboCop 2014 makes his first bust (35 minutes passes in the original for RoboCop 1987 to accomplish this) and the corporate mouthpiece comments that Robo ID’d the bad guy after only 60 seconds on duty, and says how impressive that is. Why then, may I ask, did it take the movie 60 MINUTES to get us here?
And none of this “what have they done to me?!” stuff…
Now many of you may start shouting, “But wait, wait, wait, Apes updated its story, was dramatic, and deep, and you showered it with praise!” True. I did. BUT. The original Planet of the Apes movie was a sci-fi drama. Designed to have social commentary, make observations on human hubris, and still wrap it up into a terse, excellent sci-fi movie. That’s exactly what the two new Apes films did.
What was the original RoboCop series? An outstanding, fun, sci-fi action movie with more Dawn of the Dead style tongue-in-cheek commentary on consumerism, economic Darwinism, and social progress seen in the periphery and through action, rather than exposition. It was not a DRAMA. It was NOT a personal introspective look at the life n’ times of a homie from the block who became a robo cop. And how it made it him feel. And what does it mean for society.
The new movie was a product of a film industry that seems not to know how to have much fun anymore. It either makes dreadful and derivative Scary Movie style “fun” or it makes action movies that have to show consequences and emotions rather than just the cartoon style blasty-blasting we saw in the 80s and 90s movies. Even action movies, have to try to hit you in the feels rather than just show a half-dead robo-man blowing away street scum.
More importantly either filmmakers don’t know what kind of movie they want to make, or want to make a cross-genre thing that, as Jim Sterling would say in a mocking, whiny voice, “appeals to a wider audience.” Before making any film the question needs to be asked, “What is this movie about?” And stick to THAT. A movie like RoboCop can have social commentary, the original certainly did. But it shouldn’t shoehorn it in at the expense of the real plot. We shouldn’t spend more than half the film establishing character. We shouldn’t spend an equal amount of time on drama. We shouldn’t waste even more screen time getting into the mechanics of how RoboCop robo-works. We shouldn’t go down the plot-rabbit-hole chasing military drone legalization and political debate. A movie that tries to do everything at once accomplishes doing nothing much in the end.
In a scene that packs more emotion in three minutes of activity than the 2014 remake did in an hour of exposition, Alex Murphy lies to his wife in RoboCop 2 saying, “They made this…to honor him.” They certainly didn’t make the new RoboCop to honor you, Alex. So Hollywood, the fans are taking away your remake privileges. Dead or alive they’re coming with me…
Next week will be a bonus wrap up with a pair of movies about the same character, one from the 90s one from the last couple of years, that both succeeded in making fun movies but in totally different ways.