Two weeks ago I watched Robocop 2014 (my review for it can be found at this link) and last weekend I watched Robocop 1987. Many reviews of the former are written from the perspective of the latter, and so I thought it would be fun to do the opposite. There will be plot, characters and polish before I assign a grade.
I found the 2014 plot to be tighter than the 1987 plot.
In the 1987 version, you have many plot threads: (1.) There's the Old Man wanting to make Delta City on the decayed ruins of Old Detroit, (2.) Rick Jones promoting his 209 series, (3.) the rivalry with Bob Martin's RoboCop program, (4.) the hedonism of Boddicker's gang, and 5.) the non-sequitor news segments all in addition to (6.) RoboCop's war on crime and (7.) struggle to regain his humanity. All together, it makes Robo feel overshadowed simply because there is so little time focused on him. I like it, make no mistake about that, but the 2014 plot line is more streamlined and so it feels more put-together.
In the 2014 plotline, everything relates back to Omni Corp's desire to sell robots in America. (1.) The Novak Element is about making robots look good and humans look bad, (2.) Robocop's war on crime is about proving robot effectiveness and (3.) his balance between human and robot is a deliberate PR move to warm people to the idea of robot law enforcers. (4.) Antoine Vallon's gun smuggling business is used to demonstrate the "Human Cops Are Corruptible" angle vs. the "Soulless Robot" angle.
There's satire and political commentary on both sides but, as with the plot, the 2014 version is more focused. It takes the mocking stick and pokes it directly into corporate political lobbying. Robocop is exclusively used by Omni Corp as a Public Relations stunt in order to sway public opinion and enable them to sell their purely robotic law enforcers on American soil. The point is selling these robots to fight crime in America, instead of the two step "clear out crime and then start an urban renewal project" with its corporate rivalry and backstabbing.
The 1987 version has many more targets. There's consumerism from all those commercials, criticisms of those that enjoy ultra violence (the gang's torturing of Murphy and blowing up cars while gleefully laughing), and corporate corruption shown best in the "bitches, leave" scene which involves snorting cocaine from a prostitute's breasts and culminates with Boddicker blowing him up because Rick Jones paid him too.
The criminals (corporate and otherwise) are also focused on different targets and both times they create a parallel.
Back in 1987, Robocop crushed a cocaine factory in pursuit of his killers and he was originally killed chasing bank robbers. The corporate side of things had Bob Martin snorting cocaine and Dick Jones planning to sell a white elephant that needed lots of service and spare parts, i.e. robbery. ("Who cares if it works!?")
In 2014, the focus is on selling weapons. Alex is blown up because of a sting he did on illegal guns that he traced to the evidence bin in the police department, pointing to corrupt cops. On the corporate side, we have Omni Corps (possibly) bankrolling the Novak Element to give them good press and twisting the arms of politicians to influence legislation. Both sides talk about their need to push "product" and their product is weaponry.
It's worth noting that the cops in 1987 version were only "corrupt" in so far as they were owned and operated by OCP.
In both films there's the issue of robot replacements for police officers. In the 1987 version, the police are afraid of that happening and yet they go on strike, which causes anarchy. In the 2014 version, this is explicitly what Omni Corp plans to do but with pure robots instead of more Robocops. There's no talk of a strike, but perhaps that's because the police aren't privatized in the remake and "public servants can't go on strike".
Considering the twenty seven year difference between the two, there's a case of Technology Marches On between them.
In the 1987 version, you have wonder how Robo Cop arrives Just In Time to stop crimes like the convenience store robbery, the attempted rape in the alley, and then the robbery at the Gas Station. It's too quick for a police radio. The 2014 version resolves this problem of narrative necessity by giving him surveillance feeds. There are cameras all over the city and so RoboCop can monitor large sections of it at once and cycle through all of them quickly.
On the other hand, this means he doesn't need the data spike which means he doesn't get the data spike. After watching the 1987 version, I was disappointed that I didn't see it in the 2014 version. In addition to accessing data, it can stab people like a dagger and flip the bird to other people. It's a multi-purpose tool.
I believe these differences are based in the different times they were produced in. When the first one came out, I wasn't old enough to talk so I can't speak for that era. However, the 2014 version's talk of the War on Terror, laws governing the use of unmanned drones, and mouth piece news programs, is much more familiar to me than Detroit's crime problem, privatized police forces, and abandoned steel mills.
Also, a story about a robotic policeman is naturally going to make more sense in the era that has more advanced technology.
On a minor note, there's in-universe reasons for his differing levels of robotization. It's minor because it's a small detail but I've seen it brought up in reviews and Tvtropes so I'll address it here.
In the 1987 version, the scientists were excited about saving his left arm but Bob Martin, who wants a robot, insists on removing it for a full body change. In the 2014 version, Peter Sellers insists on saving the right hand because he wants a human effect for the PR Boost. In a deleted scene, he says, "you can tell a lot about a guy by his handshake." This fits the tone of both movies: impersonal product vs. appealing PR spectacle.
In 1987, Murphy has the TJ Lazar gun twirling trick. It may have come from a children's show but it is a distinct and more importantly "humanizing" thing. It was something only he did and he did it because his son thought it was cool and "I get a kick out of it." It remains after his mind was wiped and connects him to his memories as a family man.
Murphy 2014 has no such trait, but he compensates by spending more of the movie as himself instead of as RoboCop. Indeed, he is only called "Robocop" in a "Good Cop Bad Cop" joke by Lewis. Thus, we see more of him as he was/is and how his persona responds to increasing levels of robotization.
The portrayal of Murphy's family are polar opposite.
In the 1987 version, we only see them in memories. They've long since moved away. This is a great sense of loss for Murphy personally and means he has fewer people to interact with. More of his identity is gone because they are gone.
In the 2014 version, they are a more substantial presence. It is his wife that signs the consent form that transforms him and she helps him make the initial adjustment. It is also his wife that triggers his "reboot" so to speak after his dopamine levels are artificially lowered.
In the 1987 version, the people who transform Alex Murphy into Robocop are background characters. They have no names and disappear once Robocop begins investigating his own murder. We learn nothing about them. The corporate guys take center stage.
In the 2014 version, the transformation team is condensed into Dr. Dennett Norton and his assistant. Dr. Norton is one of the main characters because he is the one programing Robocop and he is the lynchpin between Robots-Fighting-For-Justice and Corporate-Bottom-Line. I place him in the top three with Peter Sellers and Robocop himself.
There's no doubt that 2014 version looks better. Even with nostalgia goggles, it is impossible to state that its special effects are inferior to 1987 version. The 209 in the original looked silly but they look sinister in 2014. The battles between them and Robocop are thrilling as opposed to funny.
Personally, I prefer the 2014 version but they're both great movies. B+