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Robocop 1987 Vs 2014
Robocop has been one of my favorite movies since I was a child having seen it at the cinema when I was seven. I taped a heavily modified version off TV a few years later, rented it multiple times from the video store and purchased the director’s cut on DVD when it was released. It would easily be a film I know shot for shot. So I wasn’t too impressed when I found out they were remaking it.
The cinema release of the remake came and went with little interest from me, but curiosity recently got the better of me and I rented it on DVD. As a movie unto itself it is watchable but ultimately inferior to the 1987 original.
With RC-1987 and RC-2014 we have two very different movies about the same idea.
The first look we got from production photos saw a drastically different suit for Robocop, black had replaced the familiar grey. To me this took away some of the believability that this is part man and part machine. It just looked like an actor wearing battle armor.
The over the top level of violence that made the original so infamous has been replaced with a PG-13 rating, which makes it a lot harder to tell a story about a cop killed in the line of duty and his remains used to create a cyborg. It’s a grisly subject and should be treated as such. In fact, the remake has been dumbed down so much Alex Murphy doesn’t actually die. Also, the word cyborg isn’t used in the remake. Okay it’s certainly an eighties term, but Robocop was originally marketed as ‘Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop’. Instead, the transformation is portrayed as a cure, a wonder of advanced medical technology, a gift rather than a curse.
Robocop’s memory isn’t blanked and his family are present throughout, adding a new dynamic to the character of Murphy / Robocop but taking away the driving need of the protagonist in the 1987 version to uncover the cause of his nightmares and the memories of the life he’s lost. Therefore draining the remake of the idea that the human spirit will shine through regardless of what befalls upon it.
The 1987 version contained four main groups of characters.
- Robocop / Murphy, his family and his partner Lewis.
- OPC, and its various levels within.
- Clarlance Boddicker’s gang.
- The police force.
Peter Weller’s performance is often cited as what made Robocop so believable. The physical movements while walking, getting up or when in pain, not to mention the way he delivered dialogue, made you truly believe he was a machine. In contrast Joel Kinnaman, who had a lot to live up to taking on such an iconic role, seemed more restrained by the costume, almost as if he was fighting against it. Plus, his face is shown often throughout the movie, making him more human that the mysterious RC1987 – we were kept guessing just how much of his face remained before the mask came off.
In terms of shot design – curious friend or distressed wife – who should be right up in Robocop’s face?
Anne Lewis, Murphy’s partner and the spark that helps Robocop find out who he really is, has become the victim of a gender swap, becoming ‘Jack’ Lewis. This takes away the strong female role actress Nancy Allen portrayed. Not only could she kick some serious ass when needed, but she also cared for her partner. Jack Lewis does vow to not rest until the people responsible for the attempt on his partner’s life are brought to justice, but remains largely inactive in his limited screen time until the end of the film. In contrast, Anne Lewis keeps pushing to find out who Robocop is, and helps him when things get bad.
Perhaps by including Murphy’s wife in the remake the film-makers thought it was best for Lewis to take a gender swap, but Jack Lewis’s character is so underused you have to wonder if he was initially intended to be killed off at the beginning of the film and then they decided to bring him into the final act to assist Robocop, so he was quickly added to a few additional scenes throughout the film.
While bringing the family into the remake seeks to heighten the emotional impact, most of the scenes within the family dynamic are subdued and sad. It was a lot more powerful in the original when we discovered, as Robocop does, an old photograph of a loving happy family and see what he’s lost.
The remake introduces Murphy’s son suffering the trauma of seeing his father almost killed, but this is not explored any further, and serves as nothing more than a motivating factor for Robocop to solve his own murder.
And now, ‘The bad guys’. The remake contains a criminal who organised the attempt on Murphy’s life - Antoine Vallon. Later we discover some low level corruption within the police department, which took away from the camaraderie the cops had in the original. Vallon’s limited screen time takes away any development of menace or threat. The charming smile Kurtwood Smith brought to his performance as Clarence Boddicker is more menacing than a consistently one dimensional grimace on Antone Vallon’s face.
There’s missed opportunity for story development too. The bad guy knows Alex Murphy has returned as Robocop. Alex Murphy’s attempted murder was at his house. It never occurred to this ruthless criminal to threaten the cop’s family? (Yes, I know. Bad guy goes after cop’s family – cliché, but hey it’s a remake it’s all cliché. ) Not to mention the dirty cops that worked against Murphy who could have easily given up Murphy’s address to Vallon.
Led by Kurtwood Smith’s terrifying, yet playful, portrayal of Clarence Boddicker, young actors such as Paul McCrane, Ray Wise and Jesse D. Goins each brought a unique and distinct character to the screen. They all had personality, but you wouldn’t want to run into any of these guys for real.
Vallon’s known associated in the 2014 version, the ‘stock standard bad guys’, are remarkable only by their ability to remain unremarkable and hardly appear in the film at all.
OCP / OmniCorp
OCP – The chairman (Old Man), Senior President Richard Jones, Bob Morton, Donald Johnson. Four key characters within this corporation ripe with their own agendas and corruption, tightly structured within the Bob Morton ‘over-stepping his position on Richard Jones’ sub-plot, which is brought into the story as a whole with Jones’s dealings with Clarance Boddicker. Even peripheral characters like the Old Man and Donald Johnson had their own agendas.
I’ll take nothing away from Michael Keaton’s portrayal of OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars, but just what was motivating the character? Money, fame, notoriety, a genuine concern for humanity or just wanting to be able to say ‘I told you I could do it?’ With his 1987 counterpart, Richard Jones, it was obvious – power. There’s no real criminal corruption on Sellars part – morally, sure, but enough for him to be considered a real threat? Jones’s dealings with Boddicker and the murder of Bob Morton ultimately leads to his downfall (pun intended ;-) ). What was the motivating factor for Sellars wanting to kill Robocop? Robocop unveiled police corruption? That affected Sellars how? Sellars hadn’t been completely truthful with Murphy or his family? There was always the ‘off’ switch that had been built into RC-2014, and he was planning to build an army of Robocops wasn’t he, you could argue that other than the need to have a final act for the movie, why did Sellars want to kill Robocop?
The idea of taking the remains of a human and placing them within a machine raises all types of questions about life, soul, morality, etc. The loss of life, rebirth, a second chance, what makes us human, the effect of being stripped of your body and kept alive by a machine would be devastating to anyone. In RC-2014 we are shown Murphy being stripped of his Rococop machinery and find out all that is left is a face, lungs and a hand. Kinnaman’s performance here is noteworthy considering he would be acting against blue screens required for the special effects but that’s what killed this scene for me. My reaction was just that - cool effects. RC-1987 shows Murphy removing his helmet to see the face of who he once was – Alex Murphy. The less is more approach, and the constraints of effects available at the time do nothing but heighten the belief that there may actually be parts of a human inside a machine.
In the 2014 version after Murphy encounters the initial shock of seeing he has no body left, he really doesn’t seem too fussed by it. Whereas in the original version Robocop is haunted by dreams and memories of his death and slowly uncovers what happened to him and what he’s lost.
For all the violence within the original film Robocop is governed by three prime directives. One of which is ‘Uphold the Law’. As much as he’d like to, he can’t kill Clarence Boddicker yet RC-2014 blatantly shoots (ok, to wound not kill) a soldier guarding OmniCorp.
‘Well, give the man a hand.’ - Is this where the idea from maintaining a human hand came from for the remake?
Social Commentary / Satire
This is probably where the remake has its best ideas. In our modern world were technology is dominating everything it could be just a matter of time before its possible machine will be able to perform at least some of what was only a few years ago thought to be just science fiction. The debate that a machine doesn’t know what it is like to take a life is the main theme of the remake and leads to the interesting idea of Robocop maintaining his human hand.
The remake does lose the criticism of the eighties ‘bigger is better’ mentaility, which is a shame in this modern world where most corporations have brought up many of the little guys. RC-2014 does little to question the systems and ways of modern living, when there are so many questions that could be raised and explored.
The tone of the remake is less bleak, and with the exception of solving his own murder and shooting a wanted criminal at his unveiling, we don’t see Robocop actually prevent any crimes in the remake whereas RC1987 had a whole sequence where he started to clean up Detroit.
The original movie clocks in at 102 minutes and achieves a lot more than the remake does at 118 minutes. There’s too much emphasis on ‘cool special effects and pointless scenes, and an overall need to be politically correct. A film with this subject matter really needs a director with some guts.
Superman, I mean Robocop, can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Cool. What does any of this have to do with the story? Does it foreshadow anything? Does it prove useful to him later in the movie? Nope. Is it a cool effect? Sure. However, 1987’s Robocop has a story device of him spinning his gun, which let him maintain a spark of his humanity, and was the catalysis for Anne Lewis realising who Robocop was.
The scene where a guy with robot hands plays guitar looks great, but how does this move the story forward? And there’s no mystery as to how this effect was achieved when we all own DVD special editions with features on how the movie.
The tactical training scene did little to move the story forward and could have been cut completely. The original achieved much more with the sequence of Robocop in action within Detroit.
Another thing that brought the original to life was Basil Poledouris’s score which is familiar to any fan of the film. The remake has an unremarkable score by Pedro Bromfman and the addition of rock songs such as Focus by Hocus Pocus and The Clash’s cover of I Fought The Law, taking away from the ‘future’ setting of the film. The 1987 version has a scene in a disco, with ‘heightened’ eighties style music. Not exactly what is around today, but not exactly what was around then either. At least they tried.
I’ve seen worse remakes and I’ve seen better, but this one will always be personal for me because I’ve grown up with Robocop. For all intents and purposes the remake had some interesting ideas but to me it ultimately fell short of a lot of potential. Yes, they’d be criticized if they’d made the same film, (What was the point for the remake of Psycho?) but like many modern films it falls victim to need for dazzling visuals that overshadow basic story telling. Going back to watch the 1987 version again in order to write this feature it occurred to me just how tight the screenplay for it is. There is a passing line of dialogue in the police locker room scene where an officer says ‘we should strike.’ What happens in the second act? The cops strike. This is just one example of set up and pay off within the film. As the old saying goes – ‘If there’s a gun on the mantel piece in the first act, it must go off by the third.’