You don't have to look too hard to see Hollywood distancing itself from the word "remake." They like "reboot," "retelling," and once in a while - particularly with a more sacred piece of reel estate - you'll hear that it's a "reimagining." That last one, of course, is horseshit; if imagination were involved, they wouldn't need to slightly modify an old movie for a new audience.
But let's not just point fingers at the studios here. The reason they don't call all of them remakes is because audiences hate the word. But the reason studios trade increasingly in rehashed movie ideas is because most audiences prefer something familiar. That's why sequels outperform their origin movie, why you hear phrases like "from the makers of..." in trailers, and why remakes, under any name, generate plenty of cash.
RoboCop is a beloved 80s film, mostly out of nostalgia at this point. It's a good flick but it's not exactly Taxi Driver. Yet, fanboys cried foul when the remake was first announced years ago, and it has passed through many hands (including those attached to Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky) before finally gaining momentum a couple years ago. There's nothing inherently special about the 1987 RoboCop; it was fun, mildly dystopic, and pointed an accusing finger at Reaganomics policies that crippled big cities like Detroit that were already on the ropes.
But RoboCop always seemed like a good idea for a remake. It's an easy brand to sell, the concept of man vs. machine mixes easily with man vs. society, and as much as audiences love to pay for the familiar, they love to pay for shoot-em-ups even more.
Refreshingly, though, the updated RoboCop is not exactly the same story as before. With protracted and unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government has partnered with billionaire tycoon Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) to create an army of robotic soldiers and drones tasked with keeping civilians in war-torn countries safe while also going after the enemy. It's fair to say that, stylistically, Sellars probably plays racquetball with Tony Stark from time to time.
His machines are a hit, but the Senate has passed a no-drone policy in the U.S., and that's the market Sellars really needs to hit. His solution is, well, a RoboCop. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) was blown to bits by a local drug lord, but Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) has found a way to keep him alive...or at least his head, lungs, and right hand. Outfitted with a cybertastic exoskeleton and a few chips in his brain, Alex is reborn as the ultimate fighting machine.
To fans of the original, a lot of that will sound familiar. The company that created the robots is OmniCorp, a very close approximation of the original Omni Consumer Products. Alex Murphy was targeted in the original film, too. There's also a condemnation of the media machine here (represented by Samuel L. Jackson as a slightly futuristic Bill O'Reilly). So what are the jumping off points?
There's a heavier emphasis placed on privacy and, more subtly, the growing miasma of interconnected monitoring equipment - everything from unencrypted cell phones to police databases to security cameras. It's all one giant network, the film cautions without explicitly saying it, and our next steps down that path could be fatal.
There are also more characters, giving RoboCop a more robust and human story, but maybe too much of that as the film rounds third and heads for home. But there's certainly more story than violence, which is not altogether a bad thing, either. This Alex Murphy has a wife (Abbie Cornish) and a son. Gary Oldman is, as you'd expect, very good in a fairly one-dimensional role. As OmniCorp's crack security agent and robotics expert, Jackie Earle Haley does a great job in limited duty.
As the man with all the hardware, Kinnaman (AMC's The Killing) is mostly solid. There are a couple moments where he looks stiff even for a robot, but largely, it's an effective performance. The effects that help bring him to life are stunning, one of the many reasons Brazilian director José Padilha ought to line up more work after this. For a well-worn story that had all the trappings of being way too campy, RoboCop is lively and entertaining with the right notes of dark critique.
If the thought of remakes offends you, you're screwed: They're not going to stop anytime soon. In fact, this is one of three remakes new to theaters this week. And if the thought of a RoboCop remake offends you, perhaps there's a more constructive way to channel your energy. It's not the end of the world. In fact, it's far from it. We'd be OK if more remakes let us enjoy the ride as much as this one does.