I’ve spent an almost unhealthy amount of time thinking about the new “RoboCop” movie. I saw an unfinished cut of José Padilha's remake in early December, and I only mention this to illustrate that I have had two months to let this movie sink in -- which is either not enough time or way too much time. When discussing the merits of the film alone, it’s way too much time. But digging deeper –- in a “why in the world does this movie exist?” kind of way -– well, that’s why I’ve been thinking about "RoboCop" so much. Are there any valid reasons, really, for another movie called “RoboCop” to exist?
See, this isn’t to say that the new “RoboCop” is a bad movie. It’s a fine movie and actually does have some interesting statements to be make on the subject of drone warfare. Well, sort of. At least it pretends like it has some interesting things to say about drone warfare before it becomes Just Another Action Movie. Whatever. That’s not the point. Of course this movie has a right to exist as a perfectly fine February action movie. But does it really need to be titled “RoboCop”?
I fully contend that if the name of this movie were “RobotCop” or “Robot Police Officer,” people would see it, think to themselves, that was okay, then move on with their lives. But this 2014 version of “RoboCop” has had a target on its back since the first set photos “leaked” (it now appears this was a planned photo release by Sony) from the Toronto shoot back in 2012.
This “RoboCop” is very different than Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop,” which seems to have been almost a rallying cry for the production as opposed to being a fairly obvious reason to just call it something else. This RoboCop (played by Joel Kinnaman) -- as opposed to the original movie -- remains, for the most part, human after an assassination attempt that almost took his life when he was named Alex Murphy. This “RoboCop” doesn’t offer the biting satire of the original. There is satire, which is pretty much Samuel L. Jackson’s entire purpose in the film, but that seems to be there just because there was satire in the original and someone said, “Well, we have to include some satire in some sort of way here." So, again, why is this movie called “RoboCop”? Why couldn’t this very movie exist with a different title?
Paul Verhoeven’s original “RoboCop” is still a beloved movie. And it truly does have something to say. If Sony had dumped the marketing budget for this new “RoboCop” into a re-release for the original instead, I promise it would have made a lot of money.
I spoke to Verhoeven during the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2013. I asked him why he thought a "RoboCop" remake was happening, Verhoeven replied, "It's to make money. It's like washing fluids: You add some mini changes, give it another color and you sell it again. You know, it's the same. That's what it is. It's like cookies: You change the form and the box and put more modern colors around it and say, 'We have new cookies.'"
To be fair to the new "RoboCop," it's different enough where I wouldn't say it's the same thing only with a new color. But it gives me even more reasons to question why it's titled "RoboCop."
The original “RoboCop” was released on July 17, 1987. To have been old enough to see “RoboCop” without a parent or guardian (I once tricked my mom into taking me to see “Action Jackson,” I spent most of the movie with her hand over my eyes; there’s no way she was taking me to see the ultra-violent “RoboCop”) that person would have had to have been born in 1970 or before. Meaning, today, the youngest people who saw “RoboCop” in a movie theater (without the benefit of a cool parent) are 43 years old.
So, here’s what you’ve got as an audience when it comes to the new movie: Diehard fans of the original who have little interest in seeing a remake and people who have no idea what a RoboCop is in the first place. What’s the point? Why reboot a film that’s considered a classic? Again, why not just make the same movie, call it “Robot Police Officer,” and avoid the built-in scorn? In this case, the built-in scorn seems to outweigh the built-in name recognition.
This also touches on the fact that, at least culturally speaking, the difference between 2014 and 1987 is a lot closer than the difference between 1987 and 1960. (This goes back to Chuck Klosterman’s “Back to the Future” theory.) Speaking of “Back to the Future” -- a movie studio would be absolutely nuts to reboot “Back to the Future,” even though its first installment is two years older than “RoboCop.” (It should be noted here that “Back to the Future” has two beloved sequels while “RoboCop” has two kind-of hated sequels. Regardless, I would argue that “Back to the Future” is the much more popular movie between the two, but “RoboCop” fans are more devoted.)
Anyway, it would be nice if we could set some ground rules for rebooting culture. You know, maybe there should be a handy guide for people with the decision-making power to actually get movies made. So, let’s say it’s late at night, your latest would-be blockbuster just bombed and you’re looking through the vaults of which rights you own that you can use to score a quick buck on name recognition alone. Here’s a guide for when you should reboot a cultural touchstone:
1.) Don’t do it.
Just don‘t do it. How about, instead, creating something new that someone else shouldn’t reboot someday? But, if you must ...
2.) Did the original movie come out in 1975 or after?
Specifically, the release of “Jaws” started to change things. Specific instances in movies became more and more ingrained in everyday conversation and didn't go away. And well done movies from this era, going forward, all have a specific look to them that still looks good. The model effects in the original “Star Wars” trilogy don’t look dated, but George Lucas’ CGI updates in the 1997 Special Editions look terribly outdated today.
“Are you saying that movies before 1975 should be rebooted?” Good grief, no. But I am saying that this is a date in which popular culture changed, and it’s a dumb idea to reboot any successful movie that came after this date (with a couple of exceptions). These movies are too ingrained. If you must put a movie called “Jaws” back in theaters, just give us the original.
1968’s “Planet of the Apes” is a classic movie, and the special effects are certainly endearing, but they are outdated in a way that something like “The Empire Strikes Back” isn’t outdated. Maybe there’s something to be added by remaking the movie with modern technology? Regardless, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was smart enough to incorporate the original –- a little less obviously as “Star Trek” did, but still -- as opposed to the 2001 reboot that was rejected. (And, yes, a movie that nobody seemed to like still made $362 million worldwide.)
So, was the movie you want to reboot released after 1975? Then you need to ask yourself ...
3.) Is it a superhero movie?
This gets a little trickier for a couple of reasons. First, we’re talking about a medium in which the source material reboots all of the time, so audiences seem okay with that happening theatrically as well. But if it happens too soon, like with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” audiences will complain even while still showing up. And there are those pesky rights issues that you have to maintain and that usually means making more movies before a certain date. So, if it’s a superhero movie, you’re probably in the clear as long as the movie is worthwhile.
4.) Was the original movie good?
This is the most important question. Because if it was, what’s the point? The original “Ocean’s 11” has kitschy value, but it really just was an excuse to parade The Rat Pack across the screen. Sure, Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 update was an excuse to parade modern-day stars across the screen -– but this was a legitimately good heist movie. A new version of “Oceans 11” added value.
There’s no reason to remake “RoboCop” because the first one did everything it was supposed to do. (Again, I’m not saying this new movie shouldn’t exist, just that it shouldn’t be called “RoboCop.”) Having said this, if someone came along and said, “You know, I think it would be a good idea to remake ‘The Last Starfighter,’” well, that’s not a terrible idea. Even though it came out in 1984, the special effects aren’t up to par with the good movies from this era (or even the not great movies like “Krull") and I’m sure there are many fans of “The Last Starfighter” out there (okay, me), but this is a movie that could probably benefit from an update.
Look, the new “Dredd” didn’t set the world on fire, but it was certainly better than the Stallone original. The same could be said for this year’s “Godzilla” remake: The originals are so old that maybe an updated telling is warranted and Roland Emmerich’s 1998 monstrosity is so bad, we deserve a better version.
I don’t know how many times I can write this, but I didn’t hate the new “RoboCop.” I just don’t understand why it was titled “RoboCop” -– it’s a completely different movie that’s trying to do completely different things. The first movie is a classic. This version is an okay February action movie.
But why couldn’t I just watch it under that condition? Why did I have to watch it and compare it to a great movie that came out in 1987 that has absolutely nothing to do with this movie? Why burden a brand new movie -- with a talented director in Jose Padilha -- with that kind of unneeded pressure? Regardless, “RoboCop” is an okay movie ... but you’d be doing yourself a much greater service to just watch “RoboCop” instead.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.