One of the stranger trends to emerge from major studios scrambling to remake every past success has been the push to re-imagine Paul Verhoeven films as PG-13 commodities. The recent announcement of an upcoming Starship Troopers re-imagining makes three Verhoeven remakes in the past few years that seemingly are determined to strip the iconic director’s work of all the satirical cruelty that made it successful in the first place. Did the world really need a version of Total Recall with no Schwarzenegger and no trips to Mars? It’s doubtful. I can’t imagine a modern version of Starship Troopers’s war propaganda satire will fare much better and it’s starting to feel like only a matter of time before we get an updated version of Verhoeven’s Showgirls with all of the camp and the nudity surgically removed. The biggest disappointment in this trend so far, though, might just be the 2014 remake of Verhoeven’s privatized police force satire RoboCop, arguably one of the greatest films ever made. The PG-13 RoboCop reboot is especially frustrating in the context of modern, sanitized Verhoeven remakes because it threatens to actually be a decent film with its own interesting ideas for its opening half hour. No other Verhoeven bastardization so far has ever had a chance of being half as interesting as the recent Robo-reboot did, which makes it all the more tragic that the film crashes and burns in such a dull, uninspired manner.
I’d forgive anyone for being fooled that the 2010 RoboCop “gets it” based on its opening sequence. Samuel L. Jackson kicks off the film as the host of a primetime news shoe that’s half CNN, half Dianetics DVD. There are no comedy sketches interrupting this opener as “commercial breaks” like in the Verhoeven film, but the satire in the sequence is still palpable. Jackson’s fake news show profiles a private American company that makes billions of dollars selling weaponry to the military. In demonstration of the power & efficiency of the company’s military-grade robots, which include past RoboCop villain ED-209 working in tandem with Star Wars prequel-type droids, a Middle Eastern terrorist cell is dismantled by American troops. The raid bleakly concludes with the execution of a child, a detail the news program conveniently cuts from its live feed. Jackson’s host then asks his audience why a “robo-phobic” America is so cautious about bringing these private sector androids into urban law enforcement, needling, “What’s more important than the safety of the American people?” This opening efficiently conjures modern concerns of trading freedom for safety, the morality of drone warfare & the surveillance state, and the terrifying business practices of privatized military & police forces, all while maintaining at least some of the sly humor of Verhoeven’s source material. Unfortunately, its minor successes are short-lived. There’s a national debate about the ethics of a roboticized police force that, of course, eventually leads to the titular cyborg solution of a half-man/half-machine (all cop) compromise. The movie remains mildly interesting as RoboCop is built by a futuristic prosthetics company and adjusts to his new Robo-body, but immediately crashes into a wall of modern PG-13 action tedium as soon as he blossoms onto his complete Robo-self. It never recovers.
The hard-R violence of the 1980’s RoboCop feature meant that each bullet, every blow delivered by RoboCop or his supercriminal enemies were significantly brutal. In the remake, the violence is much less impactful, much easier to shake off. The film’s CGI-aided fantasy violence doesn’t help that point much either. RoboCop leaps weightlessly like a superhero in this version, sharply contrasted with the limited mobility in his heavy hydraulic systems of the past. Outside of a couple production details like RoboCop having one human hand and one Robo-hand to accentuate his dual, self-conflicted nature, the film more or less runs out of ideas as soon as its titular hero is actualized. It’s an aggressively conventional work that fully loses track of why it even exists, to the point where callbacks to the Verhoeven classic in lines like “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar,” feel absurdly out of place. With the violence muted and the satire almost completely drained, this RoboCop rehash feels entirely devoid of a sense of purpose, as if it were a down-the-line sequel of a Jason Statham or JCVD property that surfaced on VOD long after its origins had been forgotten. You can feel it reaching to reclaim its opening spark in its political mockery, which posits old-timey Republicans as the opposition to the RoboCop initiative and forward thinking leftists, including Michael Keaton in full Steve Jobs mode, as the ones pushing for the innovation. By the time Sam Jackson’s news anchor returns to usher in the end credits, though, the game had already been lost and nearly everything in-between feels like a generic 2010s shoot-em-up. Something about that wasted potential feels even more dispiriting than it would if the movie were just bland from the very beginning.
RoboCop is one of those remakes where you could change just the title and a couple minor plot details and avoid purchasing the rights to the intellectual property altogether. That, of course, would have hurt ticket sales, but it would also have lowered expectations of the quality comparisons to the original Verhoeven film, which it seems disinterested in matching in tone or content. The worst part about RoboCop is that the idea it initially presents it is interested in continuing & adopting Verhoeven’s weird vision to a modern context. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure it was interested in saying anything in particular at all, a distressing attribute seemingly shared by all of these unimaginative “re-imaginings” of this great director’s greatest hits.