I recently contributed the following review of Robocop to Natalie’s excellent blog Writer Loves Movies. At the moment Natalie is posting a series of reviews where other bloggers write about personal connections to their favourite films, which is well worth checking out. I’ve switched off comments here so if you like this review or have something you want to discuss please comment on the original post on Natalie’s blog. Cheers!
I love Paul Verhoeven’s twisted 80s sci-fi actioner Robocop, and the impact it had on me when I first saw it was so strong I doubt I will ever forget it; despite the film’s faults few movies since have managed to make a similar impression.
My parents purchased their first VHS player in 1987, the year the movie was released, and I remember spotting the title on display in our local petrol station. As a kid of 12 I was sold on the cover alone, featuring the android hero Robocop standing next to his Ford Taurus patrol car, which at the time seemed to be a glimpse into the distant future of motoring. As we lived in a small town this garage was the only place that rented films for miles around, and unfortunately they only had one copy, so repeated visits during the next couple of weeks were necessary before we could actually get hold of it. The idea of streaming movies via the television was, back then, just as ludicrous as the notion of a police officer whose body was mostly made out of metal.
I guess my folks were a little naive, as they had no qualms about letting me watch a movie which, legally at least, I shouldn’t have sat through for another six years. They rarely went to the cinema, and thus had little knowledge of the level of violence generally contained in 1980s action films. Any movie that made it on to one of the UK’s four TV channels back then was so severely cut it was rare to see much violence or hear any swearing, even after the 9pm watershed. The first TV screening of Die Hard, for example, famously appeared in people’s living rooms in the UK with John McLane bellowing phrases like ‘Yippee-ki-yay, muddy funsters’.
Robocop – once a visit to the petrol station had proved successful – tore into our tranquil, harmonious home like a snarling Rottweiler in a monastery. I was genuinely shocked and thrilled by the film, which famously includes a decapitation, a metal spike neck-stabbing, a henchman who has his skin removed by a vat of acid, a potential rapist who is shot in the balls and a scene where a hand is turned into a bloody stump by a point-blank burst from a shotgun. It may be common to see such gruesome violence today, but in 1987 I had certainly never seen anything like it, and I suddenly had a whole new world of adult-oriented film to explore. My parents, amusingly, seemed perturbed by the swearing but never once pressed the pause or stop button.
Robocop is a sci-fi satire, set in the near future, that tells the story of a Detroit-based cop named Alex Murphy (Peter Weller). On his first patrol in a crime-ridden district of the city (much of which was actually filmed in Pittsburgh and Dallas), Murphy and partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) pursue a criminal gang led by the ruthless Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who leads them to a disused steel mill. The gang attack and maim Murphy in the mill, and the officer later dies in hospital from his injuries, but Lewis escapes.
Cop killing is not unusual in this vision of a dystopian society, which appears to be on the brink of collapse. As a result of unmanageable crime the city’s mayor has signed a contract with a corporation called Omni Consumer Products (OCP), who now control the failing police force and in turn have been granted permission to demolish run-down parts of Detroit in order to build a new high-end sector called ‘Delta City’.
OCP is led by a CEO referred to simply as ‘The Old Man’ (Dan O’Herlihy), whose time is largely spent keeping the peace between company vice-president Dick Jones (a superbly malevolent Ronny Cox) and up-and-coming cutthroat executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). Jones’s solution to Detroit’s crime problems is ED-209, a mass-produced enforcement droid that will eventually be deployed by the US Army, although technical issues with a prototype create an opening for Morton and his ‘Robocop’ programme. The body of the newly-deceased Murphy is chosen for the pilot Robocop test, but Murphy’s memories have not disappeared, and the robot officer gradually begins to uncover his old human identity.
Robocop was Paul Verhoeven’s first major Hollywood movie (albeit his second in the US), following a successful decade of filmmaking in his native Holland. The concept for the story originally came to co-writer Edward Neumeier when he saw a poster for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and a friend told him that the 1982 sci-fi film was ‘about a cop hunting robots’. Verhoeven initially threw the script in the bin out of disgust, but it was plucked out by his wife, who read it and subsequently persuaded her husband that the plot was considerably weightier than he had thought.
The design of the character was based largely on 2000AD’s anti-hero Judge Dredd, as well as the Marvel Comics superhero Rom. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rutger Hauer were both seriously considered for the title role, although their large bodies prevented both from being given the part due to technical difficulties with the character’s suit, and Peter Weller was cast instead.
The movie’s satire – one of its strongest points – actually came about as an afterthought. The initial cut received the dreaded rating ‘X’ from the Motion Picture Association of America due to its extreme violence and swearing, and this prompted Verhoeven to insert a series of humorous fake adverts, TV and news clips that mocked a variety of topical issues in order to distract attention away from the film’s more brutal moments. It was a successful move in two ways: Robocop was downgraded to a commercially-sound ‘R’ rating, but more importantly the final cut now had an arch, bitingly funny tone that distinguished it from a great deal of pedestrian sci-fi and formulaic action movies.
These stings are included from the very start, and within the first three minutes Verhoeven’s movie aims a few poisoned darts at an array of subjects including apartheid in South Africa, the American healthcare system, the media, Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme and the culture of privatization. These continue throughout: fake adverts are included for cars and even a strategic cold war-based board game called Nuke ‘Em, and the dumbing down of television is highlighted by repeated clips of a cheap, exploitative game show called That’s Not My Problem!, the host of which – one Bixby Snyder (S.D. Nemeth) – peppers the film with his catchphrase ‘I’d buy that for a dollar!’
Verhoeven would go on to satirize the media in a similar way in another science fiction film, Starship Troopers, and in both movies the issues he highlights mock right-wing conservatism, racism, and corporate values. This didn’t stop many commentators suggesting that Robocop was the fascistic product of a neocon’s wet dream, which seems to me to be missing the point in a fairly spectacular fashion.
The film has a very cynical view of large corporations, and in particular those that have cosy arrangements with the local and national authorities. OCP is a nest of vipers, a breeding ground for greed and corruption, and it serves as an extremely unsubtle warning about the dangers of unchecked capitalism. It is filled with oily ladder-climbers who dream of the keys to the executive bathroom, and the ruthless nature of the boardroom is expertly lampooned by two gruesome deaths that bookend the film. (It is in this house of sharks that we get our first and last glimpse of the supercool ED-209 design, which excited my 12-year-old self just as much as the AT-AT walkers of The Empire Strikes Back did a few years earlier.)
Detroit is the perfect choice for a setting, the city symbolically reflecting the death of the American dream (though I expect many of its current residents would roll their eyes at such a suggestion) and the empty, rusting warehouses and factories used as locations highlight both the city’s industrial heritage and its likely future. If old Detroit is one of Ford cars and crime, the new Detroit – represented here by Delta City and robotic peacekeepers – is potentially not too distant a cousin.
The movie is superbly cast, and one of its strengths is the number of unlikable bad guys and corporate weasels. Boddicker in particular is an excellent, memorable villain, and the character’s horn-rimmed glasses were suggested by Verhoeven so that Kurtwood Smith would resemble Heinrich Himmler. He gets most of the movie’s best lines. By comparison the police are somewhat simplistically portrayed as well-meaning, put-upon blue collar workers; they are completely beholden to the whims of their paymasters, and it’s a shame the writers do not create any characters that are quite as memorable as the OCP executives and criminals of the city, but at least Allen is successful in her portrayal of a character who exhibits equal measures of toughness and empathy.
Weller’s performance is actually much better, and more subtle, than it would at first seem. It is a physically-demanding role, and the actor is certainly up to the action tasks that are laid before him, but more importantly his movement is a key factor in telling the story. When initially let loose on the unsuspecting Detroit public Robocop is as stiff and robotic as you would expect. Gradually, as Murphy’s memories come back to him, Weller’s movement becomes looser and he slowly reintroduces Murphy’s walk. As his eyes are covered for most of the film Weller is also forced to convey thought and emotion using only the shape of his (usually-closed) mouth, something he manages with aplomb; two good examples are the scenes in which he visits his old family home and attempts to arrest Dick Jones at OCP’s headquarters. To my mind it is superior to the similarly iconic turns by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator and Yul Brynner in Westworld.
It’s not without faults. The effects are a mixed bag, but even though some of the ED-209 stop-motion work now looks a little dated, the film’s modest budget of $13 million may well have worked in its favour. It was probably a cost-saving device, but the decision to film the manufacture of Robocop from the robot’s perspective was a masterstroke, and results in some of the most famous scenes of the 1980s. There is also a gritty realness to the movie as a result of the general lack of special effects, although the make-up department works wonders in a few key scenes.
Verhoeven’s movies are generally quite exploitative, particularly of women, and that’s the case here. That may put some people off, and others will dislike the violence or the camp, comic book tone. Viewers must also contend with the fact that Robocop is home to several clichés of 1980s action cinema (please no, not another terrible nightclub scene). However, even though it has had a 2014 re-modelling, the original Robocop remains a movie I love for many of the reasons mentioned above. Chief among these is the fact that, in 1987, Paul Verhoeven’s movie revealed the extremity of cinema to me for the first time, but it balances the schlock brilliantly with wit and clarity of vision.
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Written by: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox
Running Time: 102 minutes