Even amid the troubling trend of remaking films that have barely collected a speck of dust, there are still movies that can surprise you. I know quite a few colleagues who were plenty keen on last year’s Dredd, a cohesive reimagining (or whatever) of the character whose first screen outing was an ill-fated, 1990s Stallone vehicle. Most often, however, in recent times, these remakes reek of desperation—evidence of Hollywood’s tendon-stretching reach for anything remotely tied to a known, sellable brand. Yesterday, the trailer for the RoboCop remake hit the web, and anyone born after 1995 probably didn’t even flinch. “Oh, look—there’s Samuel L. Jackson, that guy from The Avengers. And there’s some robot with a gun who kinda looks like a Transformer.” Following Len Wiseman’s banal-as-bathwater take on Total Recall, the new RoboCop (set for release on Feb. 7, 2014) will mark the second re-telling—I’m running out of “re” words here—of a Paul Verhoeven movie in as little as two years. By all evidence, these two films stand as testaments to the hollowness of mainstream cinema’s brand regurgitation, as their inspirations didn’t necessarily gain notoriety for their concepts, but for their director’s knowing, satirical, just-north-of-B-movie sensibilities.
As our own John Semley noted in his Total Recall review, that film’s Philip K. Dick source material doesn’t belong to Verhoeven, but let’s face it: a lot of us know it because of the maestro’s interpretation. And despite Wiseman’s insistence on the contrary, his result, as Semley observed, “[wasn’t] a reimagining of Dick’s story, [but] a redressing of Verhoeven’s movie, in sanitized, soulless textiles spun from the sort of endless CGI spool a $200 million budget can provide.” Enter RoboCop 2.0. If you watch the trailer for Verhoeven’s original (or for any Verhoeven film, really), the camp level is at such a fever pitch that it almost seems best to continue viewing it while clutching wire hangers. The 1987 film sated action buffs, of course, but its greater achievement, always, was that it skewered media and capitalism with Verhoevian tongue-in-cheek-ness. The new clip has no room for sarcasm. It’s too busy watering RoboCop down into a this-century superhero, which is what MGM and Columbia are selling no matter how much director José Padilha denies it.
Played by Joel Kinnaman (who’s admittedly intensely talented), the new bionic officer is an earnest guinea pig, and as his puppet masters debate how best to market him, they go with the old Bryan-Singer’s-X-Men standby, settling on a black suit. (What’s more, the decision is presented by a bigwig played by ex-Batman Michael Keaton, a transparent in-joke that’s ultimately senseless, as RoboCop and Batman don’t even run in the same geek circles.) It’s mildly intriguing that the film is even trying to tie in the global relevance of drone strikes, and it’s whew-inspiring that it’s retained the worse-than-it’s-ever-been Detroit setting. But consider the rudimentary hiring choices behind the operation. In what must have seemed like a brilliant merging of superhero scribe and faux local yokel, script duties went to James Vanderbilt, who’s penning the Amazing Spider-Man cash cows, and Nick Schenk, who wrote Gran Torino, which, ya know, was set in Detroit (also sharing credits is screenwriter Joshua Zetumer). You can almost hear the creak of studio execs’ chairs as they lean back in them, resting easy that the bases are all covered.
The glaring problem here is that a singular auteur’s spirit, synonymous with a now-plundered cult brand, has seemingly been lost in translation. Stallone’s Judge Dredd sucked, and however doomed-to-fail its revival might have appeared, there was ample room for improvement. But why even bother reworking a Verhoeven flick if it’s only going to be sucked dry of its preposterous, yet retrospectively brilliant, personality? And if this specific trend is to continue, to what are we looking forward? A new Basic Instinct with a method-y Amanda Seyfried moving ahead on her Lovelace trajectory? Starship Troopers re-cast with Ryan Reynolds opposite Andy Serkis as a motion-captured space bug? Or, dear God, Showgirls given the Coyote Ugly treatment, with Selena Gomez doing soft-core erotica while chasing her “respectable” dreams? Try to calm your shudders. Meanwhile, here’s the RoboCop trailer: