This Tin Man Has a Heart
If we’re nitpicking, I don’t consider the new Robocop to be a remake of the 1987 movie of the same name. Except for a few general plot elements, it’s more a reboot, differing greatly from the original in nearly every aspect. Whether or not you’ll like it depends on the type of movie you prefer: bloody, darkly-comic and cynical, or bloodless, humorless and hopeful. If you’ve seen the original, you already know which movie is which.
First, let’s talk about the gore. Directed by Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Starship Troopers), Robocop (1987) earns its R-rating due to an orgy of violence. Every gunshot erupts in an explosion of blood, and there are many of them. Directed by documentary filmmaker Jose Padilha, Robocop (2014) is rated PG13 and, while the gunshots are plentiful, they’re oddly bloodless.
As a perfect example of this difference in the level of gore, consider how detective Alex Murphy becomes RoboCop. In Verhoeven’s version, he’s shot multiple times at point blank range and we watch in close-up as his limbs are obliterated. In Padhila’s version, he’s blasted by a car bomb and, when the dust settles, we see him from a great distance lying on the front steps of his house.
The closest Robocop (2014) comes to gore is when it reveals what Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, AMC’s The Killing) looks like beneath his armor. Even that is more creepy than gory, though, as we see his brain and lungs functioning inside clear plastic containers and his one good hand attached to his body via a skinny, metal arm. Those are the only human parts left; however, this version of the story attempts to tackle the subject of what it really means to be human much more than its predecessor.
Next, let’s talk about the humor. Both movies are fascinating reflections of their times and choose to comment on those times through newscasts interspersed throughout the action of the movie. Robocop (1987) uses “Mediabreak” to make fun of issues like the threat of nuclear war in Pretoria, rebel violence in Acapulco and a satellite accidentally firing upon California.
Robocop (2014) uses “The Novak Element” (and Samuel L. Jackson) to emphasize one issue: the United States being the only country in the world to outlaw the use of robots as peacekeepers. It may be too soon to be funny for mock news reports from the Middle East where technology has replaced humanity, although it does take the potential for profiling to a horrific new level.
Since we don’t have war in the streets of the United States, Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier) has spearheaded the ban on robots. But having reached a sales plateau, their manufacturer, Omnicorp, led by fidgety Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), needs the expanded market to please its shareholders.
This is already a lot more exposition than the original, where the action is limited to the crumbling city of Detroit with the subplot of constructing the glamorous Delta City on its ruins. And, in the original, Omnicorp and its lackeys Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) and Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) are more obviously the villains, earning the movie an infinitely satisfying conclusion that the reboot does not.
Finally, let’s talk about the attitude. Expanding on the point about its humor, Robocop (1987) is extremely dark and cynical. The villains reveal more character development than the heroes, of which there is nil. The only thing we learn about Murphy in the original is through brief dreams or flashbacks.
In comparison, Robocop (2014) is all about Murphy and his family. We see character development before his cyborg transition and his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish) remains prevalent throughout the story. She has to sign papers allowing Omincorp to save her husband and speaks out against them when they won’t let her see him, in essence becoming a threat to the organization and its money-making plans.
Although it has its cynical elements, the reboot has much more heart. There’s a major deviation from the original’s story in that Robocop first appears as a “human inside a robot”. His humanity is later turned off by Omnicorp when it becomes a liability. In the original, he’s more robot than human from the offset and the drama comes as Murphy’s personality struggles to emerge.
Overall, Robocop (1987) exists today as a relevant movie. Dated only in appearance, the statement it makes is timeless. Robocop (2014) attempts to do too much. As a result, it’s watered-down. The original is non-stop from start to finish, if not a little too gruesome at times. The reboot runs only a few minutes longer, but seems to drag at times. I can’t imagine enjoying repeat viewings of it.
I suppose I’d summarize by saying that Robocop (2014) is the thinking man’s version of Robocop (1987). There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; however, is that really what you want in your cop-revenge sci-fi thriller? In an unexpected twist, I’m going to say it’s not what I want. However, that’s for only one reason: the original is simply more entertaining.