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10 Reasons Why The Original 'RoboCop' Can't Be Beaten By The Remake

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist February 13, 2014 at 1:01PM

With the remake of Paul Verhoeven's "RoboCop" lumbering mechanically into theaters nationwide this week, there has been a lot of talk, online and elsewhere, about how the remake simply cannot live up to the 1987 original. But what there's been precious little of is a discussion of why the original film is so highly regarded; instead the deafening pre-release backlash just seems like a general kind of foggy, nostalgia-tinged outrage that is both inarticulate and unhelpful. And, all things considered, the remake isn't all that bad; read our colleague's review here. Still, there's no question that the remake won't manage to have the same kind of impact the original did, so we're taking this chance (having longed for one for a while) to look back to the future of Detroit, and examine exactly why that original film felt so fresh and new.
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Robocop

4. It Had A Heart
Eighties action movies were known for a lot of things, but an overabundance of emotional depth was not one of them. There is, however, a quiet sensitivity to "RoboCop," and one that Neumeier admits on the commentary track, often comes across during the movie's less violent scenes. It's a movie where a literal unstoppable killing machine has crises of conscience, and feels bad about being a shitty husband and father. (On one of the disc's documentaries, Weller notes that, "The linear thought process is gone but the sense of humanity is there.") By comparison, similar action heroes of the period, portrayed by people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, seem positively robotic and the movies they starred in felt aloof and detached. "RoboCop," for all its sly winking, was also a deeply felt, highly emotional piece of popcorn entertainment. A rarity for the time and one of the reasons, all these years later, it's so special.

Robocop

5. It Was Pornographically Violent…
Given the current state of big budget action movies, where PG-13 is desired above almost all else (and, indeed, the new "RoboCop" is somewhat toothlessly rated PG-13), it's almost inconceivable that so many huge action movies in the eighties and nineties received R-ratings and still managed to achieve a phenomenal level of success. But "RoboCop" took things even further—pushing the violence into over the top, very nearly pornographic levels. The MPAA initially awarded the movie an X-rating (these were the days before the NC-17), based solely on the gory violence, mostly concerned with the sequence where Murphy is murdered and another where an OmniCorp suit is blasted into itty-bitty pieces by the hulking ED 209 defense robot, which served to inadvertently defang one of the movie's very best jokes. Unlike most of the action movies at the time, the violence served to reinforce the movie's satiric underpinnings, both mocking and celebrating the genre that it was playing inside. On one of the new Blu-ray's documentaries, producer Jon Davidson described the movie as having "a liberal viewpoint but in the most violent way imaginable" and dubbing it "fascism for liberals." There is something cathartic about the violence in "RoboCop," particularly in the now unrated version, with the splatter of it all making the story even more impactful. 

Robocop

6. ...And Yet Still Marketed Towards Children
What might be even more shocking than the violence in "RoboCop" was how the film was still marketed towards children, after narrowly avoiding an X rating. This is another thing that seems downright unfathomable in the current cinematic landscape (and even was something of a rarity back then). As early as 1988, television commercials ran for a toy line called "RoboCop: Ultra Police," that recreated scenarios and characters from the movie (including ED 209), but in the mold of Saturday morning cartoons. These toys were pretty edgy, though, with the toys firing caps (the commercials made a lot of these tiny explosive charges), and certainly didn't discourage children from watching the incredibly violent movie. A few years later, a similar deluge of toys would be aimed at children who weren't supposed to be seeing "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." A half decade after "T2," another Verhoeven joint, in some ways even more extreme than "RoboCop," would inspire a line of kid-friendly toys, in the shape of "Starship Troopers." 

Robocop

7. It Blurred Binary Gender Divides
Another thing that the original "RoboCop" doesn't get nearly enough credit for (and is very much missing from the remake) is its nearly revolutionary attitude toward the gender divide. In an early sequence, Murphy walks into the locker room of the Detroit Police Station where he's just been stationed, with both male and female officers changing openly in front of one another. There's no sexualization of the scenario, and Murphy doesn't bat an eye. As Verhoeven says on the commentary track, "We tried to introduce gender neutrality into the locker room. But it went by so fast." (Verhoeven and Neumeier would return to the co-ed locker room idea in "Starship Troopers." And that time, Verhoeven was allowed to linger.) Even more powerful, in terms of its depiction of gender neutrality, is the character of Lewis, played by Nancy Allen. The character is introduced kicking a thug's ass, and since she's wearing a helmet, her gender isn't even revealed until the end of the sequence. She's slightly bulkier, with a short, androgynous haircut, and never, either before or after his transformation into a metallic crime fighter, is there any hint of sexual tension or implied romanticism. It's a "just the facts" ma'am relationship, through and through. In fact, some of the only implied sexuality in the movie (besides the somewhat sour attempted rape sequence) comes in the form of a near-liaison between Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer in the men's room, something that is highlighted on the movie's commentary track.

This article is related to: RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven, Peter Weller, Features, Feature, Jose Padilha


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