Remakes, by their very nature, draw a whole lot of scrutiny. Does this new vision live up to the original film? Did it stray too far from the source material, or is it a complete copycat? Things get even trickier when a filmmaker remakes a classic like The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), King Kong (2005)…or RoboCop (2014).
While it’s universally agreed Paul Verhoeven’s 1986 original is the superior film, many critics grudgingly admit Jose Padilha’s sci-fi flick is a “much more interesting product that anyone expected." (A few even went so far as to say it was a “pitch-perfect, badass update.”) Of course, we’re not here to decide if the remake is worthy of the RoboCop (1987) legacy. Instead, we’re going to look at the major differences between the two films, and see how they compare, plot-wise, character-wise, and stylistically.
Right off the bat, you’ll notice a few surface level differences. For instance, the original RoboCop sports a bulky silver suit that gives him the appearance of a futuristic cyber-knight. In the remake, our hero starts off with the trademark look but is eventually equipped with a sleek, black tactical outfit that’s been compared with Batman’s suit in The Dark Knight (2008).
Two other big differences are RoboCop’s mode of transportation and his weapon of choice. In the 1987 film, the protagonist drives a Ford Taurus while taking out bad guys with a Beretta 93R Auto 9, a machine pistol that fires three-round bursts. In the 2014 version, RoboCop prowls the streets atop a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle. And when it comes to firepower, he’s loaded down with two sub-machine guns and a Beretta that fires both bullets and tasers.
In the fact, the taser is RoboCop’s preferred way of dealing with crooks, and that leads us to one of the most important differences between the two films. The original RoboCop was a 1980s gorefest while the remake is incredibly tame. Why? Well, studios undoubtedly pushed back the blood quota so the film could earn the money-making PG-13 rating. (That’s probably why Alex Murphy dies in an explosion as opposed to dismemberment by gunfire.) But in the remake’s defense, RoboCop ’87 was also satirizing the action genre and American bloodlust. Robocop 2014 isn’t all that interested in poking fun at America’s obsession with guns and guts. So what is the remake interested in?
Well, whereas Verhoeven’s film took aim at big business, the Reagan White House, and 1980s culture, Padilha’s film is more concerned with issues like the use of drones and government surveillance. Sure, RoboCop 2014 takes a few shots at corporate culture and lobs a few bombs at the audience, accusing the American public of being easily manipulated and obsessed with buying the newest, shiniest products. However, the film is primarily concerned with national security and, by extension, America’s military influence around the world. In the film’s opening, we’re immediately plunged into a not-so-distant future where the U.S. military has declared martial law in Tehran. Only instead of relying on combat troops, the government has sent in an army of robots, programmed to assess threats and take out hostiles.
But as we quickly learn, these unmanned drones definitely have their drawbacks, and in the world of RoboCop, the American public is sharply divided over whether or not they should use the droids at home. (Nobody questions whether or not the U.S. should use them overseas, but then, that’s one of the movie's more interesting points.) The film also creates a world where every house is equipped with a CCTV camera, allowing RoboCop to immediately construct crime scenes. Sadly, the movie never really follows up on this Orwellian angle, but it does add quite a bit to the atmosphere of the film.
Another huge difference is the character of Alex Murphy. In the original RoboCop, Murphy (Peter Weller) is a new transfer. After he’s paired up with the street-savvy Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), he patrols the city, looking for crimes in progress. In the remake, Alex (Joel Kinnaman) is an experienced detective working with friend and partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) to bring down a local druglord. In both films, he’s murdered by the bad guys and then resurrected courtesy of an all-powerful company (OCP in the original, OmniCorp in the remake).
In the 1987 film, the Dr. Frankenstein character is Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), a smarmy, white-collar weasel who plans to use RoboCop to gain power within the company. In the 2014 movie, the complimentary character is Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a scientist who helps amputees with the use of robotic limbs. Unlike Bob Morton, Dr. Norton starts off as a caring, concerned individual. He wants to use his know-how to help people, not create weapons. As Murphy puts it, he’s a nice guy. Only as OmniCorp puts more and more pressure on Norton to succeed, the scientist starts making unethical decisions, turning Murphy into an automaton and slowly losing his own soul to the company’s demands.
His descent into corporate bad guy parallels Murphy’s transformation into mindless zombie. In the original film, Alex’s memories are erased from the get-go. When he comes back to life as RoboCop, he’s the monotone character we all know and love. However, as the film progresses, Murphy slowly regains his humanity, remembering his past life, his family, and his own murder. But in the 2014 remake, when Murphy awakes as RoboCop, his memories are completely intact. There’s even a scene where he’s allowed to leave the OmniCorp lab and visit with his family. (In the original, the family is pretty much absent. After Murphy is murdered, his wife and son leave Detroit, unaware he’s come back to life. In the 2014 version, Murphy’s wife—Abbie Cornish—plays a critical role in both turning her husband into RoboCop and resuscitating his humanity.) Basically, he’s normal, complete with feelings...only made of metal. However, as the film progresses and Dr. Norton tampers with his brain, he slowly devolves into an emotionless machine.
Another notable difference between the films is their portrayal of the media. Both movies are pretty critical of the men and women on TV, but their intended targets aren’t quite the same. RoboCop ’87 satirizes television news as a whole, portraying TV anchors as indifferent idiots who smile their way through grisly news stories. However, in the remake, the broadcasts are replaced with a politically-charged talk show called The Novak Element. Hosted by Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), this thinly-veiled parody of The O’Reilly Factor presents an incredibly skewed view of the world. Guests who agree with Novak are given lengthy interviews while those who oppose his opinions are immediately shut down. Truthfully, you could turn on the TV right now and see the exact same thing.
But perhaps the biggest—and most disappointing—difference between the movies is their bad guys. Sadly, RoboCop 2014 just doesn’t really have any strong villains while RoboCop ’87 introduced us to a whole world of sickos and creeps, most notably the ever-so-quotable Clarence Boddicker. But then, maybe director Jose Padilha knew he could never top RoboCop’s original baddies so he perhaps he didn't even try. After all, nobody can beat Kurtwood Smith.