Friday, July 11, 2014

Dual/Duel Review: Robocop (1987) vs. Robocop (2014)

Dual/Duel reviews are an online smackdown between two books, movies, games, podcasts, etc. etc. that I think are interesting to compare, contrast, and comment on. For a list of other dual/duel reviews, go here.

The temptation is too great to have a fight between the new Robocop directed by Jose Padhila released in 2014 and the old Robocop directed by Paul Verhoeven released in 1987. I cannot resist! I watched the new film on the plane trip back to America from the UK and I saw the original back in the theater in the 1980s.

The story in both films is the same. In a futuristic and corrupt Detroit, local cops have a hard time enforcing the law on the streets. Military company Omnicorp wants to introduce robotic law enforcement but it's not too popular since it's not too human. When police officer Alex Murphy is severely injured during a drug investigation, Omnicorp takes what's left of his body, puts him in a suit of electrical armor, and calls him Robocop. He fights crime with ruthless efficiency but has a human face (or at least a human chin) that makes him more welcome to regular citizens. When he investigates his own murder, he begins to regain his humanity and comes into conflict with the Omnicorp execs (and their military hardware). The main points that bring out the differences between the two films are the overall tone of and the satire in each film.

The original Robocop's tone is clearly the product of the 1980s action film milieu. Schwarzenegger and Stallone were cranking out loud, violent R-rated action films that had lots of jokes, bad puns, and bloody violence. Robocop is an extreme example--cartoonishly violent with a nasty, brutal edge that often crosses the line of good taste. When main character Murphy is attacked by the bad guys, he's shot to pieces in front of the camera with gory details. The story moves along at a lightening-fast pace, leaving viewers little time to breathe or think about what they are watching. At first glance, the movie seems like just another over-the-top '80s action movie with an unrelenting passion for excessive violence. Interesting ideas are in the film but they don't come forward without some reflection.

The new Robocop is more sedate in tone. The story moves quickly enough but leaves plenty of time for viewers to think about the ideas it grapples with. The violence is nowhere near as graphic as in the original, but the depictions of what's left of Murphy and especially some of his brain surgery give it enough gore to make the PG-13 rating surprising. The movie spends more time looking at Murphy's wife and family and his struggles to maintain his humanity. Interesting ideas are front and center in the film, as if it wants to be more cerebral than its predecessor.

The old Robocop is a social satire. During the movie, various future commercials are shown, advertising things like a family board game where the winner nukes all the other players. The commercials reinforce the cynicism and roughness shown in the main story. The corrupt corporate culture of Omnicorp reflects capitalism at its worst--just about every worker is a greedy backstabber. Working with criminals by providing them products (i.e. weapons) is good business even if it is bad for Detroit. The old movie makes fun of both capitalism and crime run amok.

The new Robocop is a political satire. It starts with a Fox News-style report on the use of heavily armed robots to pacify a Middle Eastern country. The show's host is a pastiche of conservative talking heads played with gusto by Samuel L. Jackson. Omnicorp's greedy executives work to repeal the law that prevents them from selling law enforcement robots in the United States. Bribing politicians, manipulating the media, and exploiting fickle public opinion are all good business. The new movie makes fun of both media-driven politics and business run amok.

So which is the better film? The new version clearly aims at having big ideas along with big explosions and tones down the violence quite a bit. The results are a bit uneven, though. Samuel Jackson's character appears at the very beginning but is gone for a good deal of time, so much so that I thought he was just an early cameo. He shows up in the second half for more commentary on the situation. The human rights of Murphy and his family are mentioned though they are used more as plot devices than as philosophical points. The movie isn't as deep as it wants to be. The unevenness is best shown at the end--the credits start with a high-energy version of "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)" which is oddly incongruous with the sentimental last moment of the film. For all its flaws of excess, the original movie is a much tighter and well-told story, ending crisply on a triumphant note. If you can get past the excessive gore and violence, the original is a much better film.



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