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Joel Kinnaman in RoboCop.
Photo: Sony Pictures

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RoboCop and its remake show how much our visions of the future have changed

The 1987 original and 2014 versions differ in telling ways

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

An easy way to see how our predictions of the future have changed is to compare iterations of the same story told at different points in time. The future looks different depending on where — and when — you’re standing, and the works of art made at any given time will become time capsules for those moments in time. What did we think the future would look like in the past? What do we think now?

Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, which premiered in 1987, painted a grim vision of the future. The movie’s color palette is predominantly grey, with future gadgetry boasting a distinctly ’80s boxiness. Other science fiction of the time, like Escape from New York, The Terminator, and, to a certain extent, Blade Runner, all sport a similar industrial griminess.

Robocop points a gun
Peter Weller in RoboCop.
Photo: Orion Pictures

The 2014 remake of RoboCop, perhaps unsurprisingly given the way tech has recently eschewed chunkiness, was much sleeker, and all around more colorful than its predecessor. There’s even a joke about making RoboCop more stylish by painting him black (thereby also making him more visually distinct from his 1987 counterpart). Director José Padilha followed Verhoeven’s lead by setting his film in the near future of 2028. Aside from the giant robots that occasionally stomp through the scene, the biggest indicator that any time has passed are holoscreens straight out of Iron Man.

The distinct visions for the future go deeper than just the visuals. Verhoeven’s film is rife with commentary on the era it was made in, levelling veiled criticisms at the Reagan administration and satirizing the ever-looming shadows of capitalism and nationalism. Padhila’s remake touches on some of the same points, beginning with a Samuel L. Jackson tirade against “fake news” though he is clearly manipulating the news for his own ends, and featuring scenes of robots being sent into the Iraq War.

However, whereas the satire never lets up in the 1987 film, the 2014 remake hinted at the way superhero movies have come to dominate the media landscape. Rather than focusing on corrupt corporations and what people will do to turn a profit, the story was more about Detective Murphy regaining his humanity and being the strongest guy in the room. His family, absent except in a flashback in the original film, are also much more prominent, as is the idea of emotions being real or manufactured in a robot subject. The narrative of RoboCop in both cases involves a quest for justice, but the 2014 version skewed closer to being a quest for vengeance.

robocop 2014 remake: joel kinnamen talks to his wife on video chat Image: Sony Pictures

By developing Murphy as a character, the 2014 remake put a new spin on the age-old question of when artificial intelligence becomes real intelligence, centering on a lead who is half of both — there’s a man inside the RoboCop suit, but just barely (only a face, brain, lungs, and a single hand remain), and his humanity can be overridden. The willingness of the people around him to mess with his brain in order to make him more sellable is also remarkably cruel, and a striking point as to how corners are sometimes cut for the sake of making more money more quickly.

The original film didn’t spend so much time on Murphy, barely introducing him before sticking him in the RoboCop suit, and didn’t focus on the ethics of A.I. so much as making Murphy’s self-actualization a case of getting over memory loss. However, the relative lack of character development wasn’t a bad thing given how rich the world around him was. The 1987 RoboCop was less a character study and more a commentary on the times. The 2014 version tried to be both, and failed at both as a result. Focused on Murphy, the political undertones of the pieces get forgotten, and the superhero-esque turn ends up making Murphy boring.

Instead of revealing how our visions of the future have changed, the two RoboCop origin stories have more to say about how popular storytelling has changed. Modern blockbusters skew towards crowd-pleasing elements over the grunginess (and bluntness) Verhoeven was going for. But the 2014 RoboCop, in its focus on Murphy, hinted at what we now know about artificial technology that we didn’t (or just didn’t think about) in 1987. We have clearer expectations as to what the future holds, and any stories about the future will have to become accordingly more granular to deal with them.