It's a fascinating experience seeing a film after you've seen the remake it inspired. This totally reverses one's perspective on what was changed and what was retained between the two versions. Instead of being annoyed with a remake for unnecessarily altering some plot points, one might look at the original and question, "Why didn't they explore this like the other film did?"
Some of you might remember that about two months ago, I took in a viewing of the RoboCop remake and noted I had never seen the original. In the months leading up to release, most of the geek press reaction to the new film was a lot of bitching about how yet another timeless classic was being butchered needlessly by a greedy studio system. This amused me slightly because I couldn't really recall many people putting RoboCop on that high a pedestal before the remake was announced.
I would have been seven when the original RoboCop came out, which means that for a lot of my peers, I'm pretty sure the film was something they discovered on video, or even more likely, as something on premium cable that their parents didn't know they were watching. Maybe I'm selling the age 7-11 set short, but I'm guessing the satire eluded them at such an age. Actually, remember the playground in those days, I'm sure of it. The initial affection for this film probably has a lot to do with its brutal violence.
I start there because that's what stands out to me the most about RoboCop - it's very bloody and brutal. It's also brutal in a very 80s way, where's it's both slightly cartoonish and aggressively bloodier than current counterparts. Compare this to an Expendables film, where more rounds are fired there, but the bullet impacts here definitely lead to more gruesome images.
The scene where Murphy is shot to all hell by the gang is ugly and nasty in a way that we don't see in action movies anymore. My gut reaction was complete repulsion, which only made me wonder why I rarely have that reaction to a number of Tarantino's more brutal moments. I'll be honest - I don't really have a good explanation for that.
The film sets the tone right off the bat with the news reports and commercial interruptions that leave no doubt we're in a heightened reality. A lot of this is funny (I particularly liked the Battleship-type boardgame that is basically built around the concept of mutually-assured destruction), but the satire bites differently some 25 years later. The 80s were pretty much the era of corporate badguys and I get the sense that this film was taking that archetype and ratcheting up to what were then-outrageous levels. That's got to be a major explanation for the non-plussed reaction many executives have to one of their own being accidentally shot to pieces by their drone cop.
Or to put it another way, RoboCop fans, I GET that it's satire, but out of context, it doesn't land for me the way it did back then. I can appreciate that it contributes to the film's themes of how the corporation essentially de-humanizes people and profits from that and the chaos it creates. But I don't see myself putting it on the same pedestal as other 80s classics like Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and the Indiana Jones trilogy.
It's interesting how the remake is almost a completely different beast. They took the core idea of a cyborg cop and not only played it straight, but they used it to explore ideas that would not have fit well with the original tone. A very critical change is in how de-humanizing Murphy's initial transformation is in the original. The remake has Murphy critically injured following a bombing carried out by a drug lord he pissed off. This makes him an idea test subject for a company looking to "put a man inside the machine" as a way of making their drone armies acceptable for use in America's worst neighborhoods.
In the remake, when Murphy wakes up, much of his body has been taken away, but his mind and memories are intact. The remake's most horrifying moment might be the sequence when Murphy sees how little there is left of his body. As the film progresses, the scientist played by Gary Oldman is forced to turn off more and more of Murphy's humanity in order to make him an effective tool for the company. I noted in my earlier review that the story is as much about Oldman's character losing his soul as he takes Murphy's away.
In the original, RoboCop's mind and memories are deliberately stripped from him from the start. He's basically treated as little more than salvaged spare parts put to use for the company's own ends. We see through his own eyes as the executives and scientists treat him as a thing, a lab rat. There's no acknowledgment that what was in there was once a person, no noble pretense that what they've done is any way giving a good man his life back. An early scene has a weaselly executive ordering the scientists to cut off Murphy's remaining good arm so that it can be replaced with a more efficient mechanical one. It's colder and harsher than even the more cynical moments in the remake when Keaton plots to capitalize on their hero cop.
Right there, we're telling two very different stories. Because of that, the original film barely deals with Murphy's family. They're hazy memories to him, long forgotten encounters that provide the breadcrumbs back to his real identity. I have to admit, I kind of prefer the remake's take because of how it presents what could have been noble actions and gradually drains them of anything honorable. The original shoves it in our face that executives lack empathy for their test subject. The remake allows Oldman - and much of the audience - to first buy into the delusion that something good can come from this. Oldman wants to help people - he knows his work can do that. But to get the funding he needs, he has to be willing to sell out Murphy.
For me, Murphy's family is a dangling unresolved thread in the original. I understand why it had to be handled that way for the story they were trying to tell, but I actually prefer the remake's take on that aspect of the story. I think what people respond to in the original is that Murphy has everything taken away all at once in a way that seems irreversible, and that tiny spark of humanity still finds a way to the surface on its own. The original presents a world where any kind of morality is basically a joke. Regard for all human life is essentially nil. Murphy recovering some semblance of his identity is basically a tiny burning ember in a whole lot of dark
Your mileage may vary, but I find the world of the remake a lot more terrifying because it feels more plausible in terms of how everyone behaves. The original presents a world of terrible people. The remake shows us how good people can be subverted in the name of a larger machine.
However, this doesn't change the fact that the remake has a weak third act, and one that feels even more deficient when stacked up against the original film. The climax of the remake hinges on Michael Keaton's character suddenly losing all depth and, more importantly, making a stupid mistake that only exists to motivate RoboCop to shoot him. Predictably, Murphy has to overcome his programming so that he can act against it and save his family. That whole climax felt like a placeholder for a better idea.
The original has a much more clever climax where RoboCop bursts into a boardroom and exposes Dick Jones's (Ronny Cox) wrongdoing to the CEO. Jones takes the CEO as a human shield, which complicates matters because RoboCop has been programmed to not take any action against a member of the company. This complication is neatly solved not by RoboCop defying a core element of his program, but by the CEO firing Jones on the spot. With that done, RoboCop is free to blow Jones away.
I'm not sure what it says that the remake basically has to rewrite the rules in order to get a happy ending while the original remains a slave to them and finds a way to resolve things. I do know that for me, the original feels like less of a trite cheat.
There was really no other opportunity to bring this up, but I also enjoyed the parade of character actors in the original. Aside from the aforementioned Ronny Cox, there's also Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrar, Ray Wise (!), and ER's Rocket Romano himself, Paul McCrane! It was a fun movie in places and even if I don't quite understand the pedestal it was placed on, I wouldn't say it's a bad movie.