This is, of course, the kind of film criticism that the world has been waiting for, yeah?
We live in a world of remakes and reboots but we tend to judge the remake and reboot with how it compares to the original, or how much homage it pays while doing something different, or how completely and perfectly it remakes it in a shot for shot kind of way. We sort of refuse to let films stand on their own, which is understandable. I mean, when you have some heavy hitting films from decades gone past and then you make a film and market it with the exact same title, you’re probably asking for trouble, and most people can’t dissociate them.
Most people just get angry.
Like, seriously angry.
Anyrate, both RoboCops are on Netflix, which is why I watched them. Me and my landlord do this thing when we have nothing to do. When he doesn’t have hockey and my fiancée doesn’t want to hangout. We usually get takeout or delivery and some beer and we watch something that we think will be awesome, whether it’s something kitschy and sort of completely bad, like Starship Troopers, or something completely insanely awesome, like The Legend of Drunken Master, one of Jackie Chan’s finest. Sometimes we even watch a few of these films. One time we watched the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy. We’re kind of planning on watching Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the Indiana Jones Trilogy.
Anyrate, it was on one of these nights last week that we decided to watch the RoboCop remake. We both knew we had seen the original but neither of us remembered a single thing about it. We decided we probably caught it on television about fifteen years ago, which is kind of the same thing as never having seen it.
So we watched RoboCop (2014), and I have to say it was kind of awesome. It’s an odd film, for sure. For one thing, the actor who played RoboCop is like seven feet tall. He seriously towers over everyone in the film in a way that actually distracted me. Every time he stood next to someone I was like, That dude is a giant. But maybe more strange than casting a giant in a film with humans is that Samuel L Jackson is in it with straight hair. Maybe that’s not so surprising since he’s in every other film it seems like. The other surprising things were seeing Michael Keaton and Gay Oldman in it. The night before, we watched Birdman, so I wasn’t really equipped to see him in anything for a long time, since I hadn’t seen him in anything besides Birdman since like 1990 or something. And these two performances couldn’t be more different, but, yeah. It was just kind of odd.
I liked this version of the film. It kind of surprised me that I enjoyed it so much. I checked out the Wikipedia page, because that’s usually what I do after I watch something I like, and I kept seeing reviewers talk about how it didn’t live up to the original. The original has a pretty high rating on Rotten Tomatoes too, and this has a pretty average one. So, of course, I had to see the original too.
We sat down to watch RoboCop (1987) and we found a whole new level of oddity. First, the quality of the film is pretty poor. It looks like it was filmed as a homevideo. Also, Red Foreman from That 70s Show was the bad guy, and seeing him is always strange. I don’t even know his real name and I should look it up for this article but I don’t want to ruin the magic of the moment. He’s one of those actors that exists as a single entity in my brain, and that entity is Red Foreman.
Perhaps most shocking was how violent the film is. Like, ruthlessly violent. I was honestly kind of grossed out in a way that even George Romero’s never made me feel. Maybe that’s because zombies are more like being murdered and ripped apart by a force of nature. But there was something disgusting about the way RoboCop was torn apart at times, like when he’s a human, pre-RoboCopiness.
Anyrate, it surprised me a lot that this was meant to be some kind of dystopian earthshaker of a film and that people remember it in such an overwhelmingly positive way. So positive that they consider the remake incredibly bad.
Maybe it’s because I watched the remake before the original so I got to see it untainted, but I think I prefer the new version. There are a few reasons for that.
For one thing, it chooses to pay homage to the original while telling a completely different story. It plays with the same techniques, too, but updates it to our age of punditry.
Both films use news reels and talking heads to set the stage and do some of the heavy worldbuilding. In the original, these talking heads are your every day newscasters. The kind you see on NBC or whatever your local television station is. In the remake, we have Samuel L Jackson as a heavyweight pundit. He’s kind of like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly rolled into one and ramped all the way up. What’s funny, I think, is that it wasn’t hard for me to believe that Hannity or O’Reilly would do this kind of outright fascist frothing at the mouth sort of news. They basically do already, yeah? So the new RoboCop gives us the world we already live in but calls it a dystopia in the not so distant future. We’re at war with Iran and Detroit is a chaotic mess. The issue here is about drones, which is a hot topic now.
We’re already using mechanised soldiers in the middle east (in the film) and the manufacturer of these drones, OmniCorp, wants to unleash them within US borders, but there’s a bill that keeps drones from being allowed on US soil. Blah blah blah, they get around the legal parameters by sticking a person into the drones, basically. Or, rather, they turn a human into a drone.
Before this happens, we actually come to know RoboCop. We meet his partner, we see him fight crime, we see him interact with his family. We see how being a cop is hard on his son and wife, how he’s always drained, overworked, throwing his life into danger.
And then he dies.
His wife is sort of coerced into letting OmniCorp save his life by turning him into RoboCop. From there we see his transition from human to RoboCop and how he gradually loses agency through the tinkering of the researcher who does this because of corporate pressure. We then watch him take it back.
So what we get with the new RoboCop is a pretty personal story about a man who loses everything. His life is taken from him, and so he fights his programming to get them back, though, I mean, he’ll never be human again.
The original is a bit different. We never really know our RoboCop as a human. We watch him die pretty quickly and then all of a sudden he’s RoboCop. He’s much more robot than human in this version and we don’t see him grapple with this issue. It’s only late in the film, as his programming begins to go a bit haywire, that he remembers his humanness. So, in a sense, he goes through the reverse progression that happens in the reboot. Here we have basically a faceless protagonist who just follows orders for most of the film until he unloads hell on the people who made him into this.
It’s more of a revenge story, I think.
There’s also a subplot about corporate intrigue and ladder climbing, which is, like, the most 80s thing I’ve ever seen. In general, the original is super 80s, just as the new one is super 2014. We get lots of bad lines of dialogue that are probably meant to be catchphrases and that kind of thing. The special effects are surprisingly good though.
But now let’s shove them together.
They’re both very similar. They deal with the decade they exist in and they play with politics and corporatism and the satire plays off what news has become, or rather how it’s degraded and kind of meaningless. How it serves corporations and public opinion rather than giving facts and examining the world as it actually is. The original touches on a wider spectrum of topics, from gentrification to Reaganomics to authoritarianism. The new one is mostly about corporatism, greed, authoritarianism, and it touches lightly on foreign policy and American exceptionalism.
I think the satire works in both reasonably well, so we come out pretty even here.
The trajectory of the protagonists is much different, though. In the original, nothing is even remotely personal until 2/3rds of the film are past. In the remake, things are pretty grounded in him as a person and human. We even get more personality in the tertiary characters. Oldman’s character has a real arc that’s worth looking at, a subplot about how science is perverted for antisocial purposes and how funding for advancement usually comes from the people you don’t want tampering with your research. In the original, the only subplots are about corporate politics, which is hardly personal.
So, for me, the stories at the heart of the film definitely goes to the remake. For one thing, you actually care about what happens.
That being said, the original is probably more fun to watch because it doesn’t seem to give a shit. Honestly. It’s a B movie that’s splattered with blood and kitsch and ridiculousness. There’s a moment where a guy gets toxic waste thrown all over him and then hit by a car. When he gets his by the car he explodes, as if he was made of soup. It’s completely disgusting but also hilarious and awesome.
In terms of diversity, these are both pretty much white people running around. This is even more strange since they take place in Detroit, which is not exactly the same thing as Connecticut, though it often looks like they could have been filmed there. Especially the new one, oddly enough.
To put this to a rest, I like both but for completely different reasons.
RoboCop (1987) is one of those perfect encapsulations of what we think of as the 80s. It’s ridiculous, over the top, steeped in Reagan, and it’s awful in all the ways we love to see.
RoboCop (2014) is also sort of a perfect encapsulation of popculture today. It’s grittier, sleeker, more psychological and introspective, and darker, while being less violent.
So it just depends on what you’re looking for in your robot cops. I think both succeed and it’s fun to watch them together because they try to tell the same story, but just from completely different directions and perspectives.
I’ll be in China for the next two weeks, so I won’t be doing these during that time.
See you in a few weeks.