Thursday, January 28, 2016

Robocop: An Exploration of Reboots (A Fake Academic Paper Based on Pseudo-Scientific Techniques)


I am Robert Cop
Are reboots really always worse then the originals? Do we only think that because they're now remaking movies we remember from our childhoods? Read on as I take you on a fake scientific journey into the mind of the modern American film viewer.


It started as it always does, with an argument on Facebook. In March of last year I posted that I liked the Robocop reboot. This comment was met with great derision from friends and family alike. I often find myself alone when it comes to liking sci-fi movies and comedies. Not because my friends don't like sci-fi or comedies, but because my standards are pretty low sometimes. All I want is to be entertained for 90 minutes, usually while doing something else at the same time.
"DMJ: You can like it. You just can't claim that it was in any way A) necessary or B) better than the original
RS: Nothing ruins the original. If you like the original you can still watch that. I think both are interesting. I thought it was a different take on how they stripped him of his humanity, doing it over time instead of all at once. I don't think many remakes or reboots are necessary. And no, it's not better, it's different."
For a long time I maintained that the reason so many adults didn't like the Star Wars prequels was because they weren't eight-years-old when they saw them. My belief was that if you could control for nostalgia and age you would find that the second trilogy was just as good as the first. (My opinion on this has shifted with the release of Episode VII. I'm now just as bitter over the crappy prequels as the rest of you.) This logic led me to see if I could do just that.


Like any worthwhile social scientist I decided to experiment on the people close to me. It turns out that my dear wife had not seen either Robocop movie before watching the reboot with me.
"RS: T is great because not only did she watch this with me last night (she hated it) but she's begrudgingly agreed to watch the original with me tonight. This is a great opportunity because she's never seen it, so she can determine if one or the other is better, worse, or just different, without the interference of expectation or childhood nostalgia.
AM: Yes!!!!! Best experiment ever. Please do a full write-up!"
Then T decided to taunt me by proving that having not seen Robocop in the 80s was perfectly normal (it's not). Instead she got me thinking that I could turn this into a full fledged (fake) scientific study. If you're not familiar, this is the kind of study I do as a linguist/general academic, but applied more haphazardly and without institutional review. So basically it's just like most of the crap research you read on Facebook. (I so FLS.)
"Science y'all!"

"RS: Dude, y'all. T inadvertently found me a pool of people who had never seen either movie. Some of them are agreeing to watch them both and then report back. Science y'all! Science!
T: OMG. This was supposed to be "See, I am not that unusual, plenty of people have never seen Robocop," not "Here you go, I found you some lab rats!"

 So in full pseudo-science style I asked a pool of willing friends who had not yet seen either movie to watch both the original and the reboot within 72 hours. I counterbalanced the order they should watch them in to negate ordering effects. I asked them to answer four questions:
1. Was either one a "good" movie?
2. Was one better than the other, or were they just different?
3. Any other comments?
4. Can you fly Bobby?

I had six respondents, five female, one male, all in their 30s. None of them had seen either Robocop movie prior to the experiment.

1. Was either one a "good" movie?

None of the respondents asserted firmly that either movie was good. Five of the six stated that the original was not good with just one saying, "I found both movies relatively entertaining." This respondent did not state relative to what standard. Other reviews of the original included,
1. "The 1987 version was decidedly bad."
2. "The original was so bad that pretty much anything would have been better."
3. "I give it an "F." How's that?"
A few respondents had positive comments about the reboot, though it still fell short of being a "good" movie. One respondent did give it a B while saying, "I was surprised by how much I actually liked the 2014 version. I wouldn't purchase it or anything crazy like that, but I would probably watch it again." Others noted:
1. "I would say 2014 was approaching good."
2. "The second one was actually pretty good but that could also be that watching it right after the first one skewed how good it seemed."
3. "I didn't think either movie was particularly good, but the remake was certainly more complex and was clearly trying harder."
2. Was one better than the other, or were they just different?

As noted above all of the respondents agreed that the 2014 version of the film was better. The reasons mostly dealt with issues of plot, gore, and character development. Respondents did not like the amount of blood in the original, and found the character development weaker. While many respondents noted that both films tried to address problems with mass media and sociopolitical issues of their times, they felt that the reboot did a better job connecting those issues with the plot of the film.
1. "2014 was better. The story was far more developed and cohesive; the emotional thru-line was existent, for one, and it had a more clear (though not totally clear) political POV. " 
2. "The reboot was better. The original? I hated it. Hated it so much that I was a little bitter over the time I spent watching it when I could have been doing absolutely anything else. It was unnecessarily gory, had no discernible plot. It just...stopped. It just stopped at the end. I wasn't sad, but it was still pretty abrupt, like they ran out of red corn syrup and had to stop filming."
3. "Another big factor in why 2014 was better was Joel Kinnaman -- he's a solid actor and that makes a huge difference when you're dealing with cyborg characters. I liked that there was romance and a little sex in it, which, unlike the gore in 1987, wasn't gratuitous -- the bedroom scene served to underscore what Murphy lost when he became a cyborg."
4. "I didn't think one was much better than the other; I don't think the original has passed the test of time very well, but I don't think the reboot will either. They're both basically moral panic time capsules."
There was one fantastic deconstruction of how the films are just different that is shared below in its entirety.

3. Any other comments?

This section primarily explored the themes of the two films and how they related to the sociopolitical issues of times in which they were made. Respondents also explored the differences between the films that related to aspects other than which was better, or whether either was "good."

1. "Several things popped up about race and culture, like how the reboot stated with middle eastern suicide bombing. I couldn't tell if the point was these were "good" guys standing against invasion by foreign rule via the robots or if they were just stereotyped middle eastern suicide bombers thrown in an American film. All the people of color were bad or secondary in the reboot. So there were more Black people in the reboot, but the one "good" guy, Alex's partner, is still just the partner and of course he gets shot. Then the Black female chief turns out corrupt. Still seems, in both films, it's the "strong white male" who saves the day. I feel like, in Detroit especially, it would have been more than believable to have Alex Murphy be an African American police officer. The original did have the female partner and there were no real strong female characters in the reboot, the wife just plays the wife. I even thought that Dr Norton could have been female or a person of color, but nope, still a white guy. It just struck me that both films were "white guys have all the power and money" kind of movies. I am glad I have seen them and see why the original was so popular even though the blood was a bit much for me."
2. "The original relied on a fairly simple plot structure and more gratuitous violence, while the remake presented itself as a more serious drama. It seemed to be sort of drinking from the same cup as the Manchurian Candidate remake, but with less to work with.
Other differences I noticed: The reboot was overall much more heavy-handed and delved into more explicit detail on issues that were only touched on in the original (like unethical experimentation on human subjects). The reboot relied much more heavily on the family, on the importance of emotion, and on neuro-chemical determinism (although with some degree of not quite knowing what to do with neuro-chemical determinism). The emphasis is on the limits of technology and the importance of human relationships and neuro-chemistry (to what end, I'm not sure), while the original more straightforwardly depicts technology as an improvement on human abilities. Conversely, the original was much more heavy-handed about the soulless villainy of both street criminals and weapon manufacturers, so it might even out. 
Actually the reboot seemed to scrap all of the criminal-gang plot and replace it with family drama and science angst, which seems like a wise choice, since when watching the original, all of the criminals' scenes had me thinking "Why am I supposed to care about this? Oh, right, because it's an "80s Street Crime Moral Panic Movie." The use of news show intervals in both movies was also somewhat different; in the reboot they were a sort of expositional device, while in the original they were some sort of meta-commentary thing that's very of its time and wouldn't carry over to a current audience that well."
 4. Can you fly Bobby?

Only one respondent answered this question, which was disappointing. "No, but Kurtwood Smith's performance was one of the few decent things about the original."


 When controlling for nostalgia remakes can be held as being better than the original films. Remakes can achieve their goal of bringing an older story to a new audience by effectively updating the peripheral aspects of the narrative to better resonate with modern film goers. This study provides a small toe hold for the notion that the poo-pooing of remakes may well be the purview of nostalgic fanboys.


This study had several limitations. The sample size was small. The participant pool was heavily skewed towards one gender. All of the respondents were in their thirties. This study used only one film and its remake as source material. This study could be expanded to include more, and more varied participants in order to give a more holistic picture of how movie goers juxtapose original works and their remakes.

Other valid questions brought up by reviewers of this project include, "If you're controlling for nostalgia, are you also doing anything to control for advances in film making technology in the last 20 years?" And, "

It's a fake academic paper. You have three children, right? How do you have this kind of time on your hands?"

To the first question the answer is, no. However, few of the comments from respondents included commentary on things like special effects or other aspects of film making that have advanced. One participant specifically noted that they were discounting those differences in their analysis.

To the second question, um...I don't really. But here we are.


Appendix: Participant's Deconstruction of How the Movies are Just Different

Overall I think they are very different films with different motivations as far as their place within the culture and era during which they were released. I felt like the reboot had more planned propaganda dealing with the USA and its global role and the problems many of us see with America playing "daddy" to the world with our troops in way too many places. The Pat Novak character was sort of the voice of this issue. There is also more of a sense of the issues presented in "1984" and the ethics of robotics and their role in a human world. I found the Novak scenes a little odd.

The original was very much an "80's" film to me with  the language (could they say "fuck" more? Called each other "buddy" and "mister" in a way that was comical) and gore/violence that was noticeably absent in the reboot. It didn't seem to have as big of an agenda, but more reminded me of a comic-book-turned-movie sort of film. The killing and shooting of people was gross to me - from the first time the ED 209 kills that office guy when it glitches near the beginning - bleck! And how Alex is injured is so much more gruesome in the original. The acting of the "bad guys" is almost comical with the forced laughs and loud declarations of much of what they say. It seemed more a film to just entertain with 80's language and violence, which seemed more prevalent in films then (Terminator, etc). I liked that as far as its seeming intent, but it was just so much shooting and blood. I did also like that Robocop didn't know he was Alex and part of the plot was him figuring that out. I suspect, if I had seen the original when I was young, I would have been irritated by how the reboot didn't do this.

There was the idea of corporate greed that I think was a part of 80's politics more than some of the global issues that are more focused on now. I missed Alex having someone that was "there" for him in the original - like Dr. Norton in the reboot. I didn't like nor dislike his female partner in the original. I just didn't buy their relationship so her being the one human that helped him at the end had kind of an "eh" factor to me. In both films, I didn't like how no one explained what was going on to Alex when he was first "turned on" as a robot. I felt, in the reboot, that scene was less than believable because they just turned him on and unlocked him and let him go without explaining what had happened. I did like in the original how the audience got to see from the robot's perspective as he was created and turned on.

So they were just really different to me. I liked less 80's gore in the reboot (and less of the word fuck to be honest). Novak's string of expletives at the end seems to show his zeal for using robotics and anger that it wasn't happening. But then he supports America even as Americans have denied what he obviously wants. So it seemed contradictory - his desire for robotics with his undying devotion to America