Recycling the Reagan Era: Remakes and Hollywood’s Eternal ‘80s

By  · Published on February 18th, 2014

Few years in the history of recent Hollywood have gone by without a sizable pile of ’80s remakes. Typically, those remakes are at least somewhat spread out. But this Valentine’s Day weekend greeted us with a grand total of three remakes, all bearing (with the exception of a conspicuously absent ellipsis) the titles of their predecessors: RoboCop (original: 1987), About Last Night (original: 1986), and Endless Love (original: 1981). So many ’80s clones haven’t opened wide the same weekend in two and a half years, when Footloose 2.0 battled the prequel to re-re-make of The Thing.

Recycling the ’80s is hardly exclusive to cinema. Indie and mainstream pop have been revisiting the era of New Wave and post-punk for years. Sometimes this results in uncanny synergy, like two singles from the past few months referencing the opening sequence of The Hunger. And, of course, in the political sphere the ’80s are ever present, as the exponential concentration of wealth to the very rich have forced a public conversation rethinking Reaganism and neoliberal economics. Few films used popular culture as a platform for exploring this political climate quite like RoboCop and About Last Night.

So rather than taking to task whether these remakes are “worthy” or “necessary” or not (is any?), I’d rather mine how the subtle differences between these revisitations and their originals betray our complicated relationship to the era of “Just Say No” and “Where’s the Beef?”. Perhaps we keep recycling the ’80s because that decade in particular, invited or not, constantly reminds us of its existence.

RoboCop vs. RoboCop

Said co-writer Michael Miner about the script that became 1987’s RoboCop:

“Because we were in the midst of the Reagan era, I always characterize RoboCop as comic relief for a cynical time. [Economist] Milton Friedman and the Chicago boys ransacked the world, enabled by Reagan and the CIA. So when you have this cop who works for a corporation that insists, ‘I own you,’ and he still does the right thing ‐ that’s the core of the film.”

Where director Paul Verhoeven saw a story about a specifically American Jesus, the film’s writers perceived an opportunity to explore cathartic justice against ever-more concentrated centers of economic and political control. The drug runners who brutally execute Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy are only RoboCop’s top layer of villains; the all-powerful corporation that reassembles what’s left of him to the purpose of commerce at the expense of public safety constitutes an enemy worthy of a bloodier climax.

That RoboCop is created through a private industry, Omni Consumer Products, rather than a publicly-funded defense organization is essential: RoboCop takes to task the increasing and conflicting role the private sphere came to have in public life after massive deregulatory measures, and its outrageous commercial interstitials lampoon a populace so enamored by consumer culture that it remains blind and complicit to the megalomaniacal forces around it.

RoboCop is an ultra-violent, scathingly funny film that embraces B-movie tropes in order to execute the unlikeliest of biting satires ‐ a product befitting the ’80s on the surface with some insurgent ’60s rebellion rumbling underneath (co-writer Ed Neumeier, it’s worth mentioning, was formerly an anti-Vietnam protester complete with an FBI file).

José Padilha’s PG-13 update pays lip service to the former’s satirical edge, but does so rather perfunctorily, using Samuel L. Jackson’s blustering O’Reilly-type TV personality to communicate the film’s topicality while damn near winking at the audience. But the film is surprisingly devoid of humor, preferring instead a Nolanized dark, brooding protagonist that, despite Joel Kinnaman’s best efforts, is robotic before and after he gets his gear.

The result is a film that takes corporate power to task in every way the original did while also displaying reverence for the technology that the corporation produces.

In RoboCop 1987, the ED-209 Enforcement Droid is a woefully inadequate instrument, mistaking a corporate boardroom as a target and hilariously meeting an ugly fate when earnestly attempting to take the stairs. In Robocop 2014, the aptly-updated droids-as-drones are highly efficient, against whom Kinnaman’s RoboCop is the defective model. The problem with these machines, as illustrated by the film’s incisive and promising opening sequence, is that they are too efficient for their own good and thus require human intervention.

RoboCop’s hero status in the 1987 film is troubling enough despite the film’s sharp edges ‐ he’s at-best a vigilante cowboy and at-worst a Dredd-like fascist wielding The Law, but either way he’s presented as a “good machine” amongst many bad ones. Yet the new film asks that we trust technology in human hands to know right from wrong, for that technology is capable of executing a precise moral code despite how it’s been programmed. It’s a contradictory message, but perhaps one apt for a populace less comfortable with projections of an impending robot apocalypse now that we carry around computers as extensions of our eyes and fingers.

About Last Night… vs. About Last Night

Often when news of a remake hits the trades, a nostalgia cycle begins that can sometimes make an original seem more beloved than it actually was. While it’s certainly a well-remembered film, Edward Zwick’s About Last Night… is certainly free of sacred status, and rightly so. The film’s two central male characters make for a toxic on-screen presence. Rob Lowe’s Danny is prone to incredible confidence in one scene that swings to thick, seemingly unmotivated passive–aggression or aggressive-aggression in another (the years since have done great things for Lowe). Jim Belushi’s Bernie, meanwhile, plays that guy in the bar that delivers a punchline to a sexist joke by repeating it over and over as loud as he can (I am seriously surprised by the constant yelling throughout this film).

Their opposites don’t fare much better: Demi Moore’s Debbie seems to enter a relationship with Danny only because she, like us, is just taken away by how beautiful sex between herself and Rob Lowe appears, and Elizabeth Perkins’s Joan somehow manages to find a compelling character beyond Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue’s (read: David Mamet’s) conniving stereotype.

Mamet’s 1974 play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” on which the film is based, was an exegesis on dating in the post-liberation era, depicting a generation attempting to navigate an age in which the trajectory towards marriage and monogamy was no longer assumed or even desired. In transporting its characters from the working-class to yuppiedom, the 1986 film picks up on the effects of sexual liberation in an era where its politics had been forgotten. Thus, the film and its impetuous characters suggest a hypocritical, conservative denouncement of their behavior by the film, an implicit insistence that their lives would be much easier if they only followed an older generation’s rules.

It’s all too fitting then, that Michael Ealy’s Danny and Joy Bryant’s Debbie in Steve Pink’s About Last Night watch the original About Last Night…

Despite the potential for this moment to make the cinematic universe implode, it marks a point of departure in which hook-up culture after the free-love ’60s and the epidemic ’80s led to a relatively normalized, stratified approach to the sex-before-commitment trajectory: characters don’t suffer in this film because they can’t navigate a looser approach to monogamy, but because relationships can be difficult. About Last Night is the rare film that takes the near-exact formula of the original and improves upon it.

About Last Night’s box office success (following Ride Along and Best Man Holiday) is also further evidence of a Hollywood gradually shifting away from seeing films headlined by black actors as films for niche audiences (despite the trades’ oh-how-shocked insistence otherwise). Contrast this to About Last Night…, whose Chicago is oddly devoid of persons of color: when the film became a sleeper success, Soul Man would soon be a hit, and Song of the South would be re-released in theaters for some reason.

But while strict codes of whiteness may have eased in Hollywood’s past 28 years, About Last Night’s class dynamics haven’t. Mention is made in the 2014 update to a difficult economy but, as in the former film, the struggling business that Danny loves (an Irish bar here, a diner in the original) only succeeds when the benevolent young man full of expendable income is able to reform it himself and fund his nostalgia for an era that supported small business. Yet, unaware of his own complicity in the centralizing economic landscape, Danny frequents a hip, Wal Mart-sized bar instead for special occasions like New Year’s Eve. Class remains a bubble in which one can comfortably reside.

When Danny realizes that the small, downtown Los Angeles pub has been running tabs, he revealingly asks the owner if he thinks it’s still the 1970s. But no, Danny, it’s still the 1980s.