RoboCop (1987) dir: Paul Verhoeven, starring Peter Weller
What’s it about?
Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi action satire is set in the city of Detroit of the near future, where crime has spiralled out of control and the police force has been privatised by a huge corporation called Omni Consumer Products (OCP). Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) relocates to a precinct in a rough part of the city, where he is assigned a new partner in the shape of Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen).
Meanwhile, in another part of town, an OCP board meeting is being presided over by the company’s CEO, “The Old Man” (Dan O'Herlihy). Two projects are discussed. The first is Delta City, an ambitious new construction project intended to breathe life into old Detroit. The second is ED-209, a hulking and heavily-armed security robot which is intended to function as the futuristic city’s automated police force. The Old Man’s second-in-command, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), gives a live demonstration. Unfortunately, a glitch occurs which results in a hapless young employee being turned into Swiss cheese by the robot’s twin machine guns. In the wake of this disaster, an ambitious young subordinate named Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) presents an alternative project called RoboCop, which involves reanimating dead officers in a metal cyborg shell.
Back at the ranch, Murphy and Lewis ride out on their first assignment together: to pursue the psychotic master criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) in the aftermath of a bank robbery which he has committed with his gang. The two officers pursue the crooks to their hideout in the hulk of a rusting factory. However, the pair of them are overcome by the gang. While Lewis gets off relatively lightly (she is incapacitated after being pushed off a raised walkway), Murphy is almost playfully shot to shreds and spends the last moments of his life expiring on a hospital operating table. Since he makes an ideal first candidate for the RoboCop project, Morton has his body rebuilt and turned into the half-man, half-machine law officer. As part of the process his memories, and thus his humanity, are erased.
The project initially seems to be a roaring success as Murphy, in RoboCop form, bests one violent criminal after another. However, bit-by-bit, he starts to realise that he was once a human being and, moreover, that he was murdered.
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Why is it significant?
RoboCop was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s second Hollywood production after Flesh & Blood (1985) and the first to be a major box office hit. It is now considered by many to be his best film. Ironically, he nearly rejected the script out of hand due to its B movie-sounding title. However, in the event his wife decided to pick it up and read it through - and was impressed enough to persuade him to sign up to direct it. Orion Pictures (who co-funded Flesh & Blood) produced. Verhoeven’s regular leading man Rutger Hauer was considered for the title role. However, he was ultimately rejected as his frame was too large to be practical for the robotic suit. In the end, the slender Peter Weller was cast.
Despite being set in Detroit, only the opening credits flyover shot was actually filmed in the city. Most of the exteriors were, in fact, shot in Dallas. The production was a difficult one, beset with considerable scheduling overruns due to disagreements over the way in which the robotic suit should look and operate, coupled with the challenges Weller had to overcome when wearing and performing in it. It was so hot inside that the actor reportedly lost 3 lbs per day due to perspiration - ultimately resulting in it being fitted with an air conditioner. Interestingly, cult director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) was brought in to perform some uncredited second unit work in order to get things back on track.
RoboCop was part of a 1980s dystopian SF action cycle which also included the first three Mad Max films, Escape from New York (1981), Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Verhoeven’s subsequent Total Recall (1990). Indeed, one of the film’s original screenwriters, Edward Neumeier, took inspiration from Blade Runner by turning that film’s core idea of a human cop hunting robots on its head, by instead having a robot cop hunting humans.
Contemporary reviews were generally positive but not universally so. The beloved British critic Barry Norman lambasted it for being “appallingly violent” and listed it as one of the worst films of its year. The violence is notable for being some of the strongest and most gruesome to feature in a 1980s action film, even considering that the original release was cut by about 40 seconds to secure an R rating in the US. This same version was released in UK cinemas. However, more recent DVD and Blu Ray releases feature the uncut print. Five scenes in total received cuts, the most extensive of which were applied to Officer Murphy’s protracted death sequence. Oddly enough, the most memorably extreme moment (involving one character melting after being covered in toxic waste and finally disintegrating after being hit by a speeding car) survived the censors intact.
The film received two sequels (in 1990 and 1993 respectively), a short-lived TV series in 2001 and a remake in 2014. None of them are held in high regard as they are considered to be misrepresentative of the original’s core themes and distinctive Verhoeven-driven style. However, the Irvin Kershner-directed RoboCop 2 has found a minority of defenders over the years. It was the only one to retain actor Peter Weller and the gore-splattered approach to violence.
How does it hold up?
As with any science fiction film, some aspects (in particular, those surrounding the technology used and some current affairs referred to in the scene-setting mock news advertisements) do seem a little dated. On the other hand, the underlying themes are as relevant now as they were back then and the depiction of a bankrupt Detroit with a spiralling crime rate has proven eerily prophetic.
Paul Verhoeven has managed an incredibly neat trick with RoboCop: creating a genre film that both positively revels in its own genre-ness and slyly subverts it. The shot framing and focus on dynamic mayhem are unashamedly comic bookish traits. The camerawork is constantly on the prowl, making the proceedings feel slickly exciting even outside of the many action sequences. There’s that pure Dirty Harry visceral satisfaction to be gained from various scumbags being vanquished. There are also comedic sketch interludes as mock adverts promote mechanical replacement hearts or Battleship-style family board games representing nuclear conflagration. The violent scenes are outrageously over-the-top in the levels of blood and offals shed onscreen. So much so, in fact, that they practically mirror the slapstick custard pie gags featured in the daft show which plays endlessly on this future’s TV screens - the one with the host’s iconic catchphrase:
“I’d buy that for a dollar!”
On the other hand, there’s a cutting satire here of the 1980s legacy of privatisation, one which has sat hand-in-glove with a semi-deliberate perpetuation of violent chaos as another exploitable opportunity to make a buck. The early boardroom scene featuring the disastrous demonstration of ED-209 is a mini-masterpiece of sly corporate satire surrounding a startling piece of ultra-violence. In the aftermath of a subordinate being blown full of countless bloody holes, The Old Man expresses concern not about this unfortunate guy, but about the millions of dollars he’ll lose from the setback to the project! As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that this less of a straight vigilante potboiler about various street-level criminals getting their just desserts and more a clever polemic about how their brutal world is uncannily parallel to, and interlinked with, the ruthless opportunism of America’s cutthroat corporate environment. Dick Jones’s motto says it all:
“Good business is where you find it.”
There’s also a core theme of Murphy rediscovering his own humanity and soul - even when most of his body has become a machine. This is explored quite touchingly through the simple platonic relationship between Murphy/RoboCop and Lewis, as well as a heartbreaking scene where the metal-encased central character walks through the now-derelict interior of what was formerly his suburban family home. While we never learn what happened to his bereaved wife and son (who are merely featured in flashbacks from Murphy’s POV), their conspicuous absence from the now-unkempt house which is on sale points to a somewhat bleak fate for them. Basil Poledouris’s orchestral score covers these moments with a lamenting beauty, in contrast to the stridently rousing military march which plays over the violent action.
The film is also notable in that it features a string of great performances by actors who, while familiar, never quite became major stars. Most of the cast play it straight and commendably restrained - especially Weller who, in Murphy form, plays his part more as a regular, likeable man next door than some monosyllabic generic tough guy. As a result, his early onscreen demise is a genuine shock to the system. His work in his RoboCop incarnation is equally impressive, his every gesture feeling like it is being conducted by well-oiled machinery. However, his best scenes come when his two versions come in conflict, a classic example being the tense convulsive moment when he learns about the mysterious Directive 4 which has been built into his programming.
Nancy Allen has a down-to-earth charm as his tomboyish partner. While her part is very much a supporting role, she provides an effective emotional centre to the film as she helps to guide our main protagonist back to humankind. Ronny Cox is superb in the antagonistic role as a corporate boss - a ruthless lion of a man hiding under a steely-eyed professional veneer. Miguel Ferrer (who sadly passed away in 2017) plays his young upstart role with a certain cocksure spunk that initially draws the viewer towards him, even though it is clear that he’s not much nicer than some of the older sharks surrounding him in the boardroom. Kurtwood Smith provides the most comic bookishly overdone of the main performances, creating a truly deranged, cackling villain which seems to have inspired both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s turns as The Joker.
RoboCop is one of the defining films of its decade. It encapsulates its cultural excesses and pinpoints an era when capitalism and the almighty dollar became less a function of improving the life of the average Joe and more of an asset-stripping exercise geared towards the empowerment of those who already have more than enough. It’s a legacy which has only accelerated since then, albeit sometimes cloaked under the guise of “neo-liberalism” rather than the naked me-first mentality of Reaganomics/Thatcheromics.
Runtime: 102 mins
Dir: Paul Verhoeven
Script: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, Felton Perry, Paul McCrane