Thursday, July 10, 2014

DVD of the Week: Robocop

It's often cited as a sign of Hollywood bankruptcy that we are are living in age of sequels and remakes, compared to perceived earlier ages when we didn't. Like most "ohhhh back in the day" arguments it does't really hold that much water, and largely comes along over the summer when the most visible things in the multiplex's are franchise fodder, and it's largely from people of my generation, who are seeing their youth remade and rebooted. I'm not totally sold on the idea of these sorts of films being safe bets anyway; nostalgia is a dangerous thing, and there is always the risk of a backlash before a film even starts shooting, especially once they start sliding down the ratings towards the PG-13 (12A) rating and perceived "watering down".

So in that regard, I think the best thing that the recent remake of Robocop does is earn the right to be judged as it's own movie. The original is rightly regarded as a bit of a classic; some need effects work, a lean script and a strong central concept put together with bite and verve. In many ways, however, its also very much of it's time, reflecting the 80s fear of social breakdown and urban decay in the face of corporate-political power. Whats that you say? That happened? Perhaps, although our inner cities (mostly) aren't gang-infested free-fire zones and todays feared future is a little different. Any update needed to address that; after all, if you're remaking a thing and not changing it, whats the point?

Right from the start Robocop wants to be it's own thing in a way that is pretty admirable. It wants to use different ideas, and maybe talk about different things, and in some ways tells a slightly different story on the same core concept, with a few nods to the original but really a strong self of sense. The story is pretty straightforward - good cop Alex Murphy is nearly killed after investigating corruption, and transformed into a cyborg - part man, part machine, all cop - to try and bridge the gap between human judgement and machine speed of reaction. The central conflict in the movie then becomes a question of where that balance is, as the company behind him battles to control him.

The corruption and corporate shenanigan plot lines are pretty straightforward, to be honest, and the film feels more interested in the moral and ethical questions than in the it's larger world-building. There isn't a lot of satiric bite here, and to be honest not a huge amount of action, although what there is nicely enough staged, if a little CG heavy, lending a slight unreality to all the metal crashing and banging around. I'm trying hard not to make too many comparisons, but the originals stop-motion may have had its flaws, but did have a solidity in the frame that it's modern counterparts sometimes lacked.

The more central questions, about free will, and about bio-ethics, are more sensitively played, and Gary Oldman's performance as a man whose morality is at odds with the need of his corporate backers is well played out. Micheal Keaton also turns in a great performance as the head of Omnicorp, a reminder of what a fun screen presence he can be. The ultimate denouement does let it down a little, lacking any real surprises or, if I'm being honest, particular emotional payout despite (or perhaps because of) falling back on the old "wife and cute child in peril" tropes, which also underline the films lack of decent female roles.

I'm going to have to file Robocop as a decent enough movie that makes a solid attempt to engage with it's core ideas. It doesn't quite stick the landing, but it has a lot going for it, and makes me feel that the filmmakers really made an effort when the project came across their desks. I also think it may have got an easier ride from some quarters if it's name had been different and wasn't being judged to a higher standard; taken on it's own merits its an interesting and well make piece of work for the most part.