**Warning: Minor Robocop (1987 and 2014) spoilers and a long post! I’ve broken it up into sections, I hope this helps**
For the last few years Hollywood has been awash with remakes and reboots of classic 70s and 80s science fiction films. This year is no different with the reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coming to our screens this summer and the reboot of Robocop gracing our screens this last month.
I grew up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is why I’m so worried about this reboot, but I’d never seen Robocop. So this reboot was a perfect excuse to watch the original a week before seeing the new film. Just as the general rule is that the book is always better than the film, the original is always better than the reboot. The reboot of Robocop is not necessarily worse than the original, it’s just different which makes it a lot more interesting than the other reboots around.
The general idea is the same with both films. Sometime in the future, Detroit is awash with crime. Omnicorp are building defence robots but there is an obstacle in the way (which differs in each film). Alex Murphy is a Detroit cop who is severely injured by the biggest criminal in the city. He is given a new robotic body and becomes Robocop. He is the answer Detroit has been searching for until he overcomes his programming and starts to solve his own murder, uncovering greed and corruption along the way.
Although the general plot is the same in both films, the details differ and the themes are wildly different resulting in two quite different films.
The original from 1987 is an 18, and rightly so. It’s also a lot shorter than its 2014 reboot, but more on that later. While both films focus on the ethics of the situation (because how could they not), the original’s ethical theme is a lot stronger. Murphy does not consent to being made into Robocop in either film. But in the 1987 version, he is declared dead which takes the film in a completely different direction to the 2014 version. His family do not feature because they move on and Murphy (Peter Weller) was new at his precinct which means he’d only made one friend, his new partner. No one knew him and he returns to the world as Robocop with no one any the wiser to his identity.
That is where this film is so clever. While it looks at the ethical issues raised by turning a man into a machine without his knowledge, the main theme is identity. Murphy loses knowledge of himself during the transformation where he becomes more robot than man, he is programmed to not remember his past life. But then he starts dreaming and somehow scrambles his programming. One or two people recognise him causing him to look up his own files. He then starts to solve his own murder, which was bound to happen anyway given that he was murdered by the biggest crook in the city. In doing so, he rediscovers himself, realises what has been done to him and goes about setting up his new life.
The 2014 reboot, set in 2028, echoes a lot of 1987 film. Certain phrases and scenes pay homage to the original, including Samuel L Jackson’s news reports, the inclusion of a dream sequence and a twist on the ‘I’d buy that for a dollar’. The main difference is the technology used. The 2014 Robocop is set in a world where robotic prosthetics have progressed to the extent that a person can be fitted with a new robotic limb, wired into their brain (which isn’t far-fetched, it’s already starting to happen). These prosthetics are created by who also build defence robots which are not accepted by the American people who don’t trust robots with their security and children’s lives. The law prohibits the use of organic matter in the robots, so what is Omnicorp to do to widen their product portfolio and take over the homeland security market? They decide to take a severely injured cop and fit him with robotic prosthetics.
Both films share the themes of greed and power, and the ethics of how that power is used, although the original is much more subtle about exploring this. The biggest difference is that in the reboot Murphy’s family are aware that he is still alive and they are still a part of his life. This brings a new dimension to the story that is sadly predictable and is proven to be unnecessary. Naturally, there are acceptance issues and, of course, the ending is changed to fit this new detail in an unchallenging and contrived way.
Horror, humanity and robots
When Murphy first wakes up, he is devastated and appalled, and for good reason. The 2014 remake is classed as a 12A because it is not as violent as the original. It may not be as violent, but this particular scene is harrowing. It leaves the viewer was a creeping uncomfortable feeling that was enough to make me want to stop watching. In this sense, it echoes Frankenstein; the rebuilding of a man, the ethical validity of these actions and the deeply disturbing physical manipulations that Murphy is subjected to.
One of the great aspects of the original film is that at the beginning, Murphy is not well developed as a character. He hasn’t become human to the viewer other than glimpses at his relationship with his son, before he is attacked. Instead, the viewer discovers who he is along with him, after his transformation. This means that we learn about Murphy’s humanity when he is essentially a robot, answering the question that appears in both films about when a robot becomes a human.
This is lost in the reboot, as we discover the full character of Murphy before his body is destroyed. Although this does mean that we can emphasise with his reactions a little more, is also means that there is no difference for the viewer between human Murphy and Robocop Murphy. The theme of identity is lost and replaced with the bigger, ethical questions of an organisation using a human and taking over his mind for the purposes of greed.
On the subject of the robots, let’s talk about ED209. In the original, this is the machine that fails due to a programming bug. This robot contains no organic matter, there is nothing human about it, and yet it can’t follow Robocop down the stairs and that immediately anthropomorphises it, adding it into the debate about when a robot becomes human.
In the reboot, these machines are simply machines. There is nothing clever or ‘human’ about them. They just fire lasers and bullets at Robocop in long battles which cause no bodily harm, allowing for the 12A certificate, but are more than capable of sending the viewer to sleep.
Another small change that I noticed was that Murphy’s original female cop partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) is replaced in the reboot by Jack Lewis (Michael K Williams), a black male. While this gives the film a tick in the box for ethnic diversity, the good, brave female cop character is replaced with the stereotypical strong mother/wife character. It’s a shame we couldn’t have had both diversity and an original strong female.
The bad guys
Which brings me nearly onto the bad guys. In the original film, there are a number of antagonists, namely certain employees in Omnicorp, and there is a villain, the main criminal in Detroit who murders Murphy. The antagonist situation is blurred. The man who creates Murphy is an arrogant, horrible man who actually becomes quite likeable as the film goes on. It’s not that he cares for Murphy, but he is protective, given that his career rests on Robocop’s shoulders. The real antagonist is the man vying for the top job at Omnicorp, while the head of Omnicorp is actually a seemingly nice man.
The villain, Clarence J. Boddicker, is a wonderful mixture of evil, intelligence and charm. As I’ve previously mentioned, these traits are so important in a good villain. It makes them easy to watch but incredibly dangerous. Kurtwood Smith plays this perfectly. He makes your skin crawl while at the same time being interesting.
The antagonists in the remake are a little different. The creator of Robocop is Doctor Dennett Norton, played brilliantly by Gary Oldman. His developmental arc is not as subtle as his equivilant character in the original, but it is arguably better. This is a man who wants to do good but is tempted away by funding and the potential to advance his technology. Antagonist is therefore the wrong word, everyone makes mistakes and as a doctor, it can be argued that preserving Murphy’s life was not a mistake.
The real antagonist and villain is the head of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) who is sadly not given enough scope. Although Keaton acts his socks off and despite his decisions showing him to be intelligent, the character remains flat and boring, meaning that you’re not left caring about what happens to him.
An additional antagonist is weapons/droid expert, Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) who acts as the prejudice against Murphy. This is a character you care about, because you want Murphy to hurt him. Saying that, he isn’t clever or evil which leaves him only with a smattering of arrogance and charm. But this is still more than Sellars gives you. I wouldn’t say that Mattox is a villain, however, which sadly leaves Robocop 2014 villianless.
Despite the issue of the ‘bad guys’, the reboot of Robocop is a good watch. I came away from it only mildly disappointed (due to the ending and last scene with Samuel L Jackson which was a little uncalled for). However, the main issue I have with this reboot is the same issue I have with a lot of today’s film. The writers and directors are not giving the viewers any credit.
Yesterday I read a conversation on Twitter that said similar things about books. Has today’s society really got so lost that it can’t put two and two together? That it can’t draw its own conclusions? What has happened to our imaginations, that we must now be spoonfed?
This was the biggest difference between the two films; Robocop 1987 was subtle and clever, it allowed you to take from it what you wished. Robocop 2014 explained everything. Every tiny little detail, just in case you ‘didn’t get it’. It’s why the film is so long, it’s why I left feeling a little braindead, whereas 1987 Robocop left me inspired and deep in thought.
I recommend Robocop 2014, but please be aware of certain, horrific scenes that may frighten children (and creep out adults), but it isn’t a mark on the original Robocop 1987. So the original is dated now (blackboards in a police station?!), but the issues are still relevant and the story is told with integrity and intelligence. The ending alone is enough reason to watch this film over the reboot, unless you like your endings predictable and unoriginal.