At a glance, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and RoboCop 2 would seem to have everything in common. Both were high-tech sequels to huge hit movies about nonhuman creatures that run amok. Both seemed to be commercial sure things. And both belly flopped in theatrical release.
The truth is, these two 2’s couldn’t be more dissimilar. Gremlins 2 is the rare sequel that learns from the mistakes of its predecessor, while RoboCop 2 slavishly imitates its original to the point of self-parody.
In films as different as Innerspace (1987) and The Howling (1981), director Joe Dante has shown his love of animation’s physique-bending exuberance — he shoots everything with exclamation points. In Gremlins 2, he abandons the original film’s lumpy black comedy and cuts loose: The gremlins’ takeover of Clamp Centre and its cable-TV station is simply an excuse to lob satirical cherry bombs at a jillion of the media’s favorite targets. Colorization, New York real estate, Hulk Hogan — you name it, Gremlins 2 has a gag or two about it, and they zip by at a speed that makes a video viewer thankful for the rewind button.
Indeed, the movie plays much better on the TV screen than it did in theaters. Dante’s pell-mell energy seems right at home in the medium of manic cereal commercials and Saturday morning cartoons. That doesn’t mean this film is merely kids’ stuff, though. Like its title critters, Gremlins 2 has sharp little teeth and doesn’t hesitate to use them.
RoboCop 2, on the other hand, is as toothless as sequels get. What made the first RoboCop an original was the acid wit that director Paul Verhoeven brought to it; nihilism has rarely been so charismatic. But Verhoeven went off to Total Recall, and the producers of RoboCop 2 needed a new cynic on board. They found one in comic-book writer Frank Miller, the man credited with bringing superheroes into the modern age with cinematic pessimism (it was his Dark Knight ”graphic novels” from which the 1989 Batman movie took its cue).
The choice turns out to have been a disaster. Miller’s plot simply rehashes the first film with a predictable drug subplot, but what finally kills RoboCop 2 is his dialogue. Lines like ”I know every inch of him…Every circuit…His pain centers are alive!” may seem groundbreaking in the confines of a comic book, but in a movie they sound like, well, a comic book.
Worst of all is the way the script trades in Verhoeven’s wit for the cheapest kind of postadolescent doom-mongering. A Little League team on a looting binge is played for big yuks, and when RoboCop gets reprogrammed not to shoot first, we’re meant to see due process as the province of gullible fools. Miller knows the audience expects bloodshed, though. In interviews, he has given much lip-service to creating a ”dark vision,” but RoboCop 2 is basically about bullets ripping through flesh in loving close-up. The movie is precisely what it pretends to condemn — it’s an ugly, soulless piece of machinery.
Gremlins 2: B+
RoboCop 2: F