The Robocop Factor

So there’s a new Robocop movie coming out this weekend.  Well, not new.  A reboot, a remake, a re-imagining, whatever you want to call it.  I know next to nothing about it, but this is the internet, where ignorance doesn’t prevent one from commenting on things.

I couldn’t be less interested in it.

The original Robocop is one of my favorite films for a lot of reasons.  It came out in 1987, when I was 14 years old, and at the time, a good violent science fiction film was something of an original.  It featured a cyborg hero, who isn’t technically a robot, but close enough.  And it’s a subtle nod to distopian science fiction, corporate culture, and the nature of identity.  There’s also a giant killbot.  To say that Robocop is a product of its time is correct, but it has also achieved a certain level of timelessness because it has a larger scope than a lot of other 80’s flicks.  Is it weird to say that I would call the film surprisingly intelligent?

Not if you know me at all.

Robocop is a very violent film.  It’s bloody, gory, and takes place in a bleak future (though I think it’s technically an alternate past at this point).  Even by current standards, the film remains surprisingly brutal.  People get shot, stabbed, blown up, and, most memorably, a guy gets doused with toxic waste and literally splatters into  goo when hit by a car.  It’d be easy to hear all this and dismiss the film as an exercise in 80’s excess, and, indeed, I’m sure there are people who still do that.

But having watched the film recently, I see it as having aged very well.  While it is violent, there is an intelligence at work as well as some surprising story choices.  There’s a sinister corporation at work here, but the corporation isn’t entirely evil.  There’s no doubt that profit is their motivation, but they also are not completely heartless.  The world can be brutal, but there are indications that, despite it all, life goes on.  Robocop himself is clunky, slow, and very robotic.

Some of those choices were quickly forgotten in the sequels, where the more generic storytelling assumptions popped up.  In Robocop 2 and most media beyond that, the corporation (OCP) goes from ambivalently evil to outright malicious.  The dystopian elements get cranked up, and the science fiction elements, relatively minor in the film, get more prevalent.  At one point, Robocop gets  a freakin’ jetpack, which always felt a bit strange for a character defined by his clumsiness.  In the process, Robocop and his stories became more generic, losing a lot of the film’s original charm in preference of things we’d already seen a hundred times before, done better in other stories.

Knowing nothing about the new film, I can only assume these sort of changes will remain in place.  This is to be expected.  The longer something lasts, the more generic it tends to become.  This is especially true of any shared property or idea because it will inevitably fall into the hands of someone who either wants to make it more commercial or, even stranger, thinks that they’re improving the idea by making it more generic.

Here, I might be tempted to point out that, after years of trying, someone managed to finally jam Superman into the generic Tragic Mopey Sacrificial Dark Hero category he wasn’t designed to be, but we’ve all heard enough of my rants about that, haven’t we?  All I’ll say is that Man of Steel, the new Trek films, and even the new Star Wars films all managed to rob each of their original creations of much of their originality and charm in favor of an updated (i.e. generic mold) version.  That this so often succeeds shows that the majority of people want something they’ve enjoyed before.

That’s the truth.  I’ve wrestled with this dilemma for years, and though I wish it weren’t so true, I believe most people prefer things safe and predictable.  That’s a harsh belief, and I hope I’m wrong.  But, year after year, I see it pop up.  Every remake removes the unique elements, replacing it with the most generic equivalent. 

Psycho is terrifying because it’s about a seemingly normal guy who kills people.  You don’t know why.  You’re never supposed to know why.  Then along comes Bates Motel to tell you why he went crazy, and it’s the most generic reason you can imagine.

Every Alien film is about how the unknown could very well be filled with terrifying monsters that will devour you as you watch in helpless terror.  Prometheus decides that the whole reason for that is a generic ancient aliens plot that doesn’t add anything to that terror.

And now the new Robocop takes a clunky, clumsy cyborg who is chiefly known for his slowness and ability to shoot bad guys in the face and turns him into a generic, agile, super warrior.  Yes, the original Robocop is a strange creation.  He’s imposing, but also, slow and, under the right circumstances, easy to get the drop on.  But he’s Robocop.  That’s part of what makes him unique, compared to so many other science fiction heroes.

Not having seen anything of the new film except the occasional TV commercial, the character seems swift and deadly.  It isn’t a terrible change, but it is a generic one.  Just like choosing to make Superman feel conflicted about using his powers is generic.  Just like filling the Star Wars universe with hundreds of flipping, slashing jedi knights makes it feel more generic.  Just like having Khan go from a genetic superwarrior to a superpowered, supergenius, immortal blood-producing Mary Stu feels more generic.  In each case, I have little doubt that the people in charge of such decisions thought they were improving upon the original, even while stripping them of their unique qualities.

And, yet…

I can’t say they’re wrong for doing so.  I’ve seen enough people commenting on how a generic Superman is exactly the Superman they were waiting for.  There are no doubt those who hate the original Robocop who will find this new, more agile version more acceptable.  The audience is far more likely to reject something for being different than being more of the same.  No judgment on that.  Just a truth I have a hard time denying anymore.

There are exceptions.  Man of Steel has plenty of detractors for straying so far from the version of the character a lot of fans love.  It didn’t keep it from being financially successful, but it did put Warner Brothers in a weird position of having a successful film with an uncertain future.  Occasionally, a story comes along that dares to be different and succeeds because of it, but it’s always a gamble.  Then again, playing it safe is a gamble, too.  There are no guarantees when creating a story, and you can’t always predict how the audience will react.

All I know is that a Robocop who can leap through the air like a ninja isn’t something I’m interested in because the ponderous tower of strength with the monotone voice is such a great character, and if we lose that in favor of a more generic version, that’s a real shame.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    The guy getting doused with toxic waste is still one of those moments where I have to look away from the screen.

    Overexplaining simple things is a large part of why I hate prequels. There aren’t many reboots so far that I’ve liked more than the original. I’m sure the new Robocop will have the same problem as a lot of newer movies where CGI makes it so he can move around like he isn’t a thousand pounds of metal, which while people might think it looks cool also loses a lot of the credibility. In 1987 it was actually Peter Weller in a big heavy suit, which made it look REAL. Now it’s just some guy in a motion capture suit probably 75% of the time. Whoopee.

    BTW, did you ever watch the series of CTV TV movies? They used to be on Netflix a while ago. Some of those were better than the theatrical sequels, not that the bar was that high.

  2. R.A. Malek
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I think risks are something that Hollywood is taking less and less of these days. As you’ve probably noticed, nearly every popular and highly marketed film is just a recycled idea, either from a previous franchise, or from a successful media property or bestselling book. Transformers, Lord of The Rings, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc…
    There were scores of iconic horror characters created during the 80’s like Chucky, Freddy Krueger, Jason, Michael Myers, Leprechaun. Now who do we have? The old guy from Saw dying of cancer? Wow, that’s what I want to dress up as for Halloween.

    They Live and Big Trouble In Little China, are strange, quirkly and original works of art that would never see the light of day in today’s highly forumulaic, rigorously audience tested market. Would they even dare make something like Back To The Future today, if it hadn’t already proven its marketability as a novel, comic book, or video game? I highly doubt it.
    What it all ultimately comes down to is money. With 200 million dollar budgets, risk is not an option. Fortunately we still have books, and creating the environments of Middle Earth costs exactly the same as writing The Bridges of Madison when it’s all done with a keyboard.

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