Remaking Robocop: The Positive Inevitability of Repetition in Hollywood

Author’s Note: I think it’s appropriate that, in a thinkpiece about re-makes, this is actually the second time I’ve written this, after WordPress lost my first draft. Thanks WordPress!


If you believe the current caucus, Hollywood has an originality problem. Of the 10 highest grossing films in 2017, 2 were remakes or soft reboots, 6 were sequels to existing properties (only 2 of which were from original source material in the first place), and 2 were introductions of Superhero characters that had previously been seen in film or TV. Not a single fully original concept.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that no original scripts can be found – I defy anyone who claims the industry isn’t producing new and exciting work to go see 2018’s Mandy or Border and get back to me – but these smaller independent films are not what’s driving the industry. As with any populist art form what succeeds reflects the current society, and at the moment we have a society driven by three things: fear, abundance, and the desire to return to less difficult era.

This explains the constant gush of superhero movies we’ve had in the last decade: the good guys always win, they look shiny and pretty while doing it, and we already know their names from our childhood. This also explains the glut of 1980s remakes we’ve seen recently, most notably since the 2016 election. While an onslaught of protests and revitalization of youth political culture led many to think we were seeing an era similar to the 1960s, the world in 2018 looks a lot more like the drug soaked, culturally vapid, bougie business empire of the 80s. The current American president is less orange Nixon and more bloated Patrick Batemen. And no – that doesn’t mean we should remake the near flawless American Psycho; 2001’s American Psycho II already did most of the work of ruining it’s legacy for us.

The issue most people bring up with these remakes is their failure to live up to the quality of the original films. Some of this is due to visual presentation – films of the 1980s tended to heavily rely on grisly practical effects that gave them a lot of their iconic style, a style that becomes lost with the clean computer effects of today. More of the failure comes, however, from an attempt to transpose allegories that made sense in the 80s to the sensibilities of now. Our times are similar, but they are not the same. 1987s Robocop, for example, aimed to use ultra-violence and black comedy to poke fun at corporate America, seen most obviously in the “urban” (read: minority) pacification robot ED-209 shooting up the boardroom after a minor malfunction. The message is clear: corporate America has immense power, and absolutely no control over it. When this idea is put into a high-budget 2014 production, however, the allegory is completely undermined as the corporate system itself has their hands in the production and distribution of the film. What was once a subversive and tounge-in-cheek take on violent cinema and modern society essentially became a flashy superhero flick, neutered of all that made the original such a classic. Oh, and they made what was one of the most violent films of the 1980s – a notoriously bloody film decade to begin with – PG-13. You know. For the kids.

Despite all of this, a quick peek through IMDB reviews show there are still ardent supporters of the new Robocop, and in fact the majority of these flashy remakes. As a film critic, arguing that the original incarnations are far superior is obvious and easy, but inferior does not necessarily mean superfluous, nor does it hearken the slow decay of the film industry. To understand why I feel this way, it’s relevant to compare filmmaking as a an art form to the wider world of creation.

In the world of art, if painting and sculpture are the wizened old great-grandparents, filmmaking is still young enough to be legally terminated. The start of film as and art form specifically created for an audience likely came with the Lumiére Brothers, who began holding public and private screening of films made by them and other filmmakers in 1895. This means that film as a medium is barely over 120 years old; you can buy kitsch antiques older than that in your average New England pawn shop. While traditional art mediums have had thousands of years to develop, film in many ways is still finding its footing, despite its meteoric rise in popularity and economics. This comparison puts into perspective how we view originallity in film versus older mediums. It becomes helpful to break down the sub-categories of art and where they become “remakes” rather than just fellows.

Using painting as an example, we can see that both painting and film-making have established “genres” within which most creators work. For example you have landscape paintings, where in film-making you may have action. Within genres you can have a further narrowing into theme or concept – landscapes of rivers for example, or action films with an “anti-hero” narrative. Moving one step further into specificity, however, is where the public concept of originallity begins to break down between the two mediums. In filmmaking multiple films dealing with the same story or character fall into the “remake” or “reboot” category, and are seen as “unoriginal” or “untrue” to the original presentation. In painting, however, there is a long history of dealing with identical subjects over and over again without arguments of origniallity. Perhaps thousands of artists have attempted to capture the Seine in Paris, sometimes from an identical angle, but we don’t consider these paintings to be “remakes” as they are expected to distinguish each individual artist’s eye and emotion. Each iteration is as valid as the previous.

But ok, you could argue that a film using identical characters, settings, and stories is much more specific than a river and therefore justify the critique, but this point is also found in traditional painting. Are there not thousands of paintings of every single story in the Bible? Do we compare Correggio’s  Nativity to Fra Angelico’s Nativity and say “Correggio’s remake completely misses the point of the original, it’s all about Jesus being a weird man-baby; you just can’t transpose a late Medieval concept into the 16th century, they need to come up with their own ideas!” No. We don’t say that – we value each on their own individual merits as icons of a shared story through the changing lens of time.

At this point you may be saying to yourself, “But Sissy, biblical stories have such weight and history as to be beyond belonging to an individual writer or time period. You can’t compare Robocop to the birth of Jesus!.”

To a certain extent this is a fair critique, but it’s also worth noting that there are certain stories told time and again in film that are not ancient, but are still seen as practically common property. While most stories originally told in film are too young for this treatment (with some exceptions – we have produced 5 iterations of A Star is Born for example), a multitude of example are found in film’s aged cousin, the stage play. Hamlet has been produced in film literally hundreds of times in dozens of languages, settings, and eras. The productions run the gamut from traditional – such as the incredible Branaugh helmed 1996 production; to modern – take a look at the 2000 adaptation starring Ethan Hawke; to truly goofy and divorced completely from the source – I’m looking at you Hamlet 2. Even further, these adaptations sometimes use Hamlet as a theme; The Lion King is famously inspired by the tragic play, and a 2010 filmed production used Larry-King style interviews to tell the tale. All of these productions are seen as original conceptions, each with varying quality and reviews, but none are seen as “remakes” of the original stage production, nor each other.

Shakespeare’s productions, and other great plays that have found a new life in film, have had thousands of years to be considered, re-thought, transposed into different mediums, and used as a jumping point for a myriad of eras and directors specific themes. So too have the classical mediums become characterized by the stealing and rethinking of others’ ideas, almost as rule. Is it not too much of a stretch then to imagine that as film ages beyond a fetus art movement the stories and ideas created therein may also be allowed to evolve and be reshaped as ongoing idioms of our human condition? May we not someday look up Robocop to see adaptations spanning hundreds of years, just as we see with Hamlet, or the Nativity? And if we reach that point of creative expansion, will we be able to say any longer that there is no value in remakes, or that they serve only to tarnish the original productions?

None of this is to say I am in support of the glut of remakes filling our theatres in the last 10 or so years. I would much prefer original productions, new metaphors for our collective struggles that better reflect the current era and serve to expand the medium’s oeuvre. The point I am making, rather, is that remakes are not only inevitable, but a normal part of the evolution of an artistic medium. Film is still young and learning where to find its footing; even the manner in which we experience or see films is shifting with the growing popularity of dinner theatres like Alamo, an emphasis on gimmicks or multi-format tie ins, even new forms like VR challenging what film means. With all these changes it will become even more natural to tread back over territory previously explored and find new and interesting ways to tell the same story over and over again.

Instead of rejecting the idea of remakes entirely, the responsibility of the audience is to see each re-iteration as its own concept, its own retelling of a common mythos, just as we do in other art genres. We may not have yet seen the best possible version of something, and may not for hundreds of years. Enjoying and appreciating art requires an open mind and a willingness to compare art to itself, not to everything that came before. Ultimately, Hollywood may not have as much a “remake” problem as it does an “attitude to remakes” problem, both inside the studio and inside the theatre.