Oh, RoboCop, it would have been so much easier if you were terrible.
I couldn’t help think that after leaving the theater last week, because no matter how skeptical I was of Jose Padilha’s remake of Paul Verhoeven’s brutal 1987 film (which, I admit, is one of my favorite movies), I had to admit that, well… it wasn’t bad at all.
In fact, the biggest problem I had with the film was that it just wasn’t the RoboCop that I know.
Given the general response from audiences – it’s currently hovering around 50-percent approval on RottenTomatoes.com and 67-percent approval on MetaCritic – my own, uncertain feelings about the film seem to echo the general consensus, too. And after talking about it with a few fellow movie geeks and an enthusiastic nephew who thought the movie was positively “awesome,” it’s beginning to feel like Padilha’s RoboCop offers a pretty decent conversation starter when it comes to “reimagined” films and what determines whether they go over well with audiences.
On the studio side, it’s no secret that the reasons for remaking a movie begin and end with the potential profit a popular franchise or proven story can generate when it’s reintroduced to audiences. But what’s the common factor that “successful” remakes share? For me, it’s the reasons that the movies seem to offer for being remade.
The simplest, most frequent rationale for remaking movies these days seems to be a belief that the original film would benefit from modern filmmaking techniques – especially when it comes to special effects. And for some films, that’s been true. Movies like David Cronenberg’s The Fly, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers all come to mind as benefiting from the fresh coat of paint that modern FX techniques provided. The same could be said of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which breathed new life into the classic creature feature with some help from Andy Serkis’ motion-capture artistry.
To some degree, that feels like one of the cases Padilha’s RoboCop makes for itself, too. While the 1987 original featured some groundbreaking FX work at the time, it’s difficult not to see some room for improvement now – especially when it comes to the jittery, stop-motion animation used for the chicken-legged ED-209 robot. The way the new film offered a chilling peek at the sparse remnants of humanity underneath RoboCop’s armor showcased yet another way modern digital effects were able to add an extra, emotionally resonant layer to the story.
Still, the addition of some flashy effects shouldn’t be the only justification for a remake, and when that’s the only reason the final product offers for its existence, it shows. Pretty effects couldn’t distract from the mess of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for that matter), and neither 2008′s The Day the Earth Stood Still nor Joe Johnston’s recent remake of The Wolf Man benefited from the significant visual-effects upgrade they received when compared to the original.
And that brings me to the other reason many projects seem to give for being remade: the idea that the basic story at the heart of the film could benefit from a change in setting – whether geographically or historically.
It’s hard to argue with the success of films like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, which were both, essentially, remakes of films by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa that transplanted the source material to America’s rough-and-tumble Western frontier. Similarly, horror movies Let Me In and The Ring remade popular Swedish and Japanese films, respectively, by setting them within the U.S. While some of the cinephiles I know lamented the “Americanizing” of the original films, I know I’m not alone in enjoying both the originals and the remakes, and I can’t help feeling as if the subtle cultural differences between each version of the film – from the setting to the characters themselves – make each film unique.
Still, even a change in setting isn’t enough to save some remakes, as evidenced by the slew of forgettable American horror films based on Japanese projects that flooded theaters after the success of The Ring. While some were relatively decent (i.e., The Grudge), most – like 2008′s One Missed Call – were nearly unwatchable.
In many cases, not even a combination of updated effects and a modern-day spin could save some remakes. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla spared no expense when it came to digital effects and brought the famous, city-stomping lizard to Manhattan, but most fans of the Godzilla franchise would enjoy seeing prints of the 1998 film burned to ash in a wave of atomic breath. Both Godzilla and the aforementioned The Day the Earth Stood Still remake also seemed to lose some of their appeal when they were removed from the historical and cultural periods that first brought them to the screen. (Apparently, allegories of the danger posed by the Atomic Age are a hard sell for modern, microwave-dependent audiences.)
And maybe that’s where my conflicted opinion of Padilha’s RoboCop is rooted. As someone who grew up during the ’80s, I can’t help having a nostalgic connection to that weird time in Hollywood when every urban city was portrayed as a postapocalyptic playland for roving gangs and vigilante justice – assisted by some wildly overpowered weaponry – was our only hope of surviving the night. It was a time when Cannon Films was raking in profits by churning out low-budget films like American Ninja, Missing in Action and Masters of the Universe, and the newly minted Fox Network was making a name for itself with a bawdy show called Married… with Children.
Basically, it was a time when the surreal, ultraviolence of Detroit circa 1987′s RoboCop seemed like the natural evolution of everything I saw in movies and television.
And that, I guess, is the most elusive element that can play into a remake’s success or failure. Nostalgia is a powerful force, but in order to harness it, a remake needs to find a way to tap into that intangible, unquantifiable magic that turns a movie into a touchstone for our memories. It’s not an easy trick, and few remakes manage to pull it off.
That’s why I’m having so much trouble wrapping my head around the new RoboCop, I guess. On one hand, it’s a fun, entertaining sci-fi film that features some great action sequences, impressive FX, and some compelling questions about what makes us human at a time when our lives have become increasingly augmented by technology. It’s the sort of movie that’s right up my alley, really.
On the other hand, though, it’s a pretender to the throne. I can’t help missing the over-the-top, completely unnecessary, gory violence that blended with the various other, heavy-handed themes of corporate greed and media sensationalism that Verhoeven crammed into the original film. It was a product of its time, just like I’m a product of that wild, weird time, too.
And maybe that’s the secret to a good remake: making the new film connect in the same way the old film did, but with a new audience.
After listening to a teenage nephew rave about the film this weekend, I can’t help wondering if Padilha’s film managed to do exactly that – and the fact that I’m so conflicted about Padilha’s RoboCop might actually be the best evidence that this remake is one of the good ones.
And hey, at least it wasn’t terrible.
Question of the Week: What are some of your favorite (and least-favorite) movie remakes?
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He’s been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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