'RoboCop' (1987) An Electronically Classic Movie Review
My Electronically Classic Movie Review of RoboCop!
RoboCop. Who Is He? Where Did He Come From?
Oddly enough, I have brought up RoboCop quite the number of times in my past reviews. Some readers who come across my article may be wondering those very questions from above, “who is RoboCop?” In which case, I have to say, shame on you for not having a childhood! Yes, that is correct, I did indeed grow up with 1987’s RoboCop. It was one of my all-time favorite action/sci-fi flicks as a kid and still remains to this day as one of my favorite films, period. As a child, I knew two things for sure about RoboCop; that the title character was cool and that the movie was one of a kind. Both statements hold true to this day. I watched RoboCop constantly in my youth, I played with the action figures of RoboCop that talked, I watched the sequels and several attempts at television shows, I was a huge nerdy Robo fan.
RoboCop was a major influence on my sense of humor with its offbeat, biting satire on commercialism as well as its darker and more morbid brand of comedy. Not to mention it’s an intelligent human piece that ignites questions about mortality and what makes us human. All while wrapped up in a tightly woven action spectacle with astonishing practical effects that are unparalleled by most big budgeted pictures produced in the modern era of movie making. Performances that are all around either fun to witness or interesting to dissect. In my opinion, RoboCop was a highpoint of 1980s filmmaking that I love and hold dearly in my heart. So let’s talk about it and investigate why it is easily one of the greatest action films of all time.
Dead or Alive: The Plot
In the not too distant future, Detroit is over-ridden by crime on every street corner. Police officers murdered on a daily basis as the crazed criminals run ramped. However, there is a glimmer of hope while simultaneously a potential danger to the innocents of Detroit; a major company entitled OCP who develops a crime-fighting program that only requires a prime candidate to volunteer their body for. When policeman Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is brutally killed in the line of duty by a vicious street gang, OCP swiftly takes the opportunity to use Murphy’s remains to be reconstructed into a cyborg with a completely wiped out memory and bestows onto him the new identity of RoboCop. RoboCop proves himself to be a very successful tool used against crime, that is until the submerged memories of Alex Murphy begin to haunt RoboCop. Struggling to figure out who and what he truly is, RoboCop begins to seek vengeance against the street gang that wronged Murphy by taking his life.
Gotta love how the trailer uses the musical theme to The Terminator as an easy cash-in tactic. I definitely get a kick out of it.
Story: Life Comes Death Bringing New Life
RoboCop is a rarity in my eyes where a film uses every single frame from its approximate 100 minute runtime to fully capitalize on every scene to its fullest capability to provide either insightful themes, engaging plot development, intriguing character arcs, heart pounding action, hilarious comedy, or sheer entertainment value. There is not a moment wasted in this picture. Not even the wild advertisements and news reports that play out occasionally on the screen as it all heavily feeds into the world building. Terrifically balancing the narrative along with the additional entertainment that stands more on its own while never losing the quick pace. We focus on the perfect amount of time for every scene and reaching the next plot point when it feels natural.
A beautiful thing about RoboCop’s story is that if someone were to go into the film completely cold on the details, they probably wouldn’t have any clue what was going to happen next. If a viewer were given the bare bones of the story that this movie was about a robot cop fighting crime, this would probably be off the rails as the protagonist *SPOILER ALERT* dies just barely passed the twenty minute mark. There aren’t many movies around pulling bold moves such as that, especially not as graphically violent as what RoboCop portrays. From start to finish, the story feels fairly unpredictable to a degree. Other than the fact that RoboCop will eventually seek revenge on the street gang that murdered Murphy, there are twists to come and even some ambiguous revelations about RoboCop himself that are left open to much interpretation.
In my reviews, much of the time I refer to what should be the universal method of most screenplays; which is a story should be a series of circumstances that feed into one another forming a single and coherent path to follow. One plot point should cause a certain instance to happen which results in the next character motivation that pushes us into the next scene and so on and so forth. To me, RoboCop handles scriptwriting flawlessly as one plot point moves so effortlessly onto the next. At no point am I questioning as to why a specific action sequence is unfolding, nor am I feeling rushed out the door before I can properly comprehend the material. The script allows the right amount of time for its world to breathe and a clear path for the viewer to follow in order to go along for the ride without any hiccups.
RoboCop: The Man of Metal
We, as the audience, are on this strange and very tragic personal odyssey with Alex Murphy/RoboCop as we follow him through death and mechanical rebirth. A journey where we only truly get to know the man when RoboCop is investigating the man he once may have been. Figuring out if he really is this man named Murphy, if there is only fragments of a dead man’s memory unintentionally imprinted onto a piece of software, or if he was that man before and now he is something new. There is a lot that one could read into with this character that is written and performed with such great subtlety, precision, and masterful execution. Starting off with Murphy as completely human, then having all humanity stripped away to become a machine, and slowly regaining that humanity back as he learns what happened to him.
A huge problem that this film could have unfortunately run into is the fact that the audience is not given all that much time to get to know Alex Murphy before he is subsequently removed from the picture. Honestly, he maybe has all of ten to fifteen minutes of screen time before the actor (Peter Weller) is thrusted into this bulky suit of armor and his face is totally covered by a mask. That isn’t a lot of time to care about this guy or even care what happens to him next. Paul Verhoeven took extraordinarily gruesome risks to force the audience to care, in my opinion, it pays off. An ambition that I feel is crucially missing from modern cinema, taking risks that will make the audience uncomfortable for the betterment of the movie’s quality. The horrific fashion that Alex Murphy is executed in is very ballsy, but it was the only way to ensure the emotional investment of the audience while maintaining the pacing required to keep the brisk fluidity of the narrative.
Peter Weller probably does not get as much credit for his performance here as he rightfully deserves. One of the greatest challenges as an actor is possibly when they must deliver a inhumanly stoic performance in a manner that still gives hints of humanity while earning investment from the audience. How can an actor give a machine with no visible emotion a life that engages the viewer? I’m not sure, but Weller figured out a way. When the character of Murphy is deceased and transformed into RoboCop, this feels like a machine. His movement and the cadence in his voice is hypnotic to me because at no point does this feel like simply a guy walking around in a plastic suit. RoboCop genuinely feels like a giant steel shell with several moving pieces of metal inside to make it all function. That is largely thanks to Peter Weller’s intelligent approach to this character, not to mention the hundreds of hours put into his performance that literally resulted in buckets of sweat from this poor man during production. That suit Weller wore isn’t what one would call “user friendly”. Then on top of that to leave only trinkets of the humanity that once was within an immensely monotoned delivery, never giving hints of frustration or exhaustion, I’m positive is no easy feat either. I give much respect to Peter Weller and his incredible work.
The Baddies: Jackals of Humanity
When I think back to cinemas great antagonists, usually I tend to break them down into separate categories; such as the sympathetic villain, the antihero, the simple baddie with clear motivations, the purely evil, etc. The street gang in RoboCop comprised of cast members Kurtwood Smith, Ray Wise, Paul McCrane, Calvin Jing, and Jesse D. Goins encapsulate some of the purest of evil seen on the big screen. These aren’t the most three-dimensionally written characters, there is very little in the way of humanity to their personas, and there is certainly no shred of sympathy to them either. This gang is a bunch of cackling jackals that thoroughly love causing pain onto others, they practically relish in it. Because their performances are so colorful as each actor sinks their teeth deep into the roots of these humified monstrous roles, they stand out as some of the most intimidating yet devilishly enjoyable baddies of the ‘80s or any decade for that matter.
Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker really is damn perfect in this movie because from frame one somebody can just tell that this guy is no good. There is no conscious or soul to this dude, he’s the type that kills because he likes to. Hell, Boddicker and the gang don’t even have all that much motivation to commit the crimes that they do besides money occasionally. Even then, it comes across as more of a bonus to them getting some cash than anything. Any time Boddicker is on screen, I’m fully alert and held in suspense as to what this guy is going to do next. Yet I can’t take my eyes off of him because Smith’s performance is so fun to watch as he’s having a total ball with it. Clarence Boddicker and the performance that Kurtwood Smith invests into the character is a prime example of an entirely two-dimensional villain that we quite literally know nothing about, yet still maintaining a tremendous amount of screen presence largely due to the actor supplying the right physical and mental beats to make it work. Boddicker is a villain that we love to hate. Those times that I think of the ultimate movie baddies, Boddicker ranks easily one of the highest on the list.
Lewis: A Partner in Fighting CrimeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Officer Anne Lewis played by Nancy Allen is an element that I’d argue gets slightly shortchanged in the grand scheme of discussing RoboCop. This could have been a throw away character with nothing to her and lazily forced to become RoboCop’s love interest or something. Thankfully that isn’t the case here. Akin to many of the other characters, there isn’t much to flesh out Lewis in the writing, as much of it relies on Allen’s performance who is extremely convincing as a bad ass police officer. As it turns out, Nancy Allen’s father was actually a cop, definitely showing here that she was able to channel that to a degree for her own performance and how she handled the relationship between herself and Alex Murphy. Not much is known about her, but because Allen gives off such a strong and unflinching screen presence, Lewis comes to life. In terms of strong female characters, Officer Lewis is one of the coolest in my book. Oddly enough, she is strong not because of the writing of her character, but because of the power within the talented as hell actress.
What makes a man a man? What defines a man’s identity? Is it his body? Is it his mind? Is it the memories that are left behind? Is there a soul that lives on after death? Who is Alex Murphy? Is he still alive through the new guise of RoboCop or is this a machine that has adopted the man’s memories? These are some of the themes that I deeply love about RoboCop as it sets itself apart from any other mindless action flick. Don’t get me wrong, I can dig some mindless action flare, but RoboCop’s strengths are the thoughtful ideas interwoven between the epic thrills.
Are we more than simply flesh or is our true essence integrated so deeply into our physical being that we carry on in the flesh? Is RoboCop really Alex Murphy or is the programming confused by the humanity that has since passed on? There is no real clear answer and I personally like that about the film. Now it is an equal debate for one side or the other as to where a person falls upon. One person can say with absolute certainty that RoboCop is Alex Murphy reincarnated or another can claim that the man the Murphy once was is no longer alive, but RoboCop keeps his memory alive by accepting his identity. These aren’t clearcoat themes spelled out for the audience to doubtlessly grasp, no characters go on a five minute monologue about who and what RoboCop is. The narrative plays out and it is completely up to the viewer to determine what they believe if they so choose to delve that deeply into the film. There is no obvious coercion for the audience to contemplate these themes, it’s only laid out within the story for anyone to analyze through their own free will.
Another rarity about RoboCop is how much personality is injected into the movie as it has loads to comment about pertaining to its time in extremely humorous fashion. From the Reagonomics mindset firmly established during the 1980s, big corporations taking charge the country’s interests and basically the nation’s security, the absurdity of capitalism, and even the glorification of violence in our media. There’s a significant amount of that commentary that remains relevant to this very day. It’s funny because this is a film very much so of its own time period and says a lot in terms of its time, while simultaneously being a timeless piece as well. All while being downright hysterical with some of the ludicrous advertisements and news reports scattered throughout the picture, placed at the most opportune occasions. Building on top of the sensibilities of this fictional future, but parallels what our future somewhat turned out to be.
Some of the ads played in the video above are actually from RoboCop 2, but they're also pretty funny.
If I recall correctly, I had mentioned in my review for John Carpenter’s The Thing that there are a select few films that represent the epitome of practical effects. In my opinion, prime examples of the most innovative and ambitious practical effects that have ever been utilized can been seen largely within the 1980s. I’m not in any way saying that there weren’t mind blowing special effects in the decades prior to or after the 1980s. For me, however, the ‘80s is where practical effects shined gorgeously by pushing the limits of what imagination can be accomplished on the big screen and that spirit hasn’t been topped in the mainstream since. What I’d consider to be on the list of top tier quality in terms of practical effects can be seen in movies such as Carpenter’s The Thing, The Terminator, Aliens, Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, An American Werewolf in London, Tim Burton’s Batman, Gremlins, The Evil Dead 1 and 2, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, The Dark Crystal, Brazil, The Road Warrior, Raiders of the Lost Ark, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Re-Animator, Blade Runner, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the list truly goes on and on.
Arguably some of the most impressive display of practical effects put to film are present within RoboCop. With the masterfully attentive combination of makeup effects, sophisticated puppetry and animatronics, latex prosthetics, luscious matte paintings, stop motion animation superimposed within the live-action footage, convincing costume designs, an extravaganza of explosions, and literally hundreds of blood squids. For 99% of the picture’s runtime, this is eye candy for the practical effects enthusiasts out there. The makeup work on RoboCop’s face alone is seamless as there is no telling where the prosthetics begin and the actor ends on his own skin. Every gun shot is fired with such powerful effects that I swear I can feel the pain myself. Possibly the most admirable part about the effects work is that it feels like there is no holding back of any punches, even comparing the R rated version with the Director’s Cut, they both earn praise for portraying violence without hesitation. Personally, I prefer the Director’s Cut as it adds to some of the dark humor and visceral carnage. Either edition is fantastic regardless and filled to the brim with breathtaking action.
Fun Fact: The production of the film was utter hell for the entirety of the cast and crew as the shoots were long and grueling with suits of armor that held in heat for our lead actor, the picture was over budget and over schedule with multiple threats of being shut down, everyone was at each other’s throats, Peter Weller for a time refused to answer to his own name and stated that he only wanted to be referred to as RoboCop, setting up the entirety of RoboCop’s full makeup and costume effects could take up to nine hours before even becoming camera ready, fiery explosion effects that quite nearly set their actors on fire, it took an entire fourteen hour shoot onset to capture a three second take of RoboCop catching a ring of keys… somehow that nightmare of a production resulted in something worthwhile.
Admittedly, there is one special effect that stands out and I don’t mean that in a good way sadly. Anyone familiar with the film may already have guessed exactly what effect I am referring to, but I alluded to earlier that there was technically 1% where it wasn’t entirely perfect. For anyone that hasn’t seen the film, I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but I won’t lie when I say that will be difficult as I do intend on showing the poor special effect through an image. So *SPOILER ALERT*, you have been warned. During the finale, there is a character that finds himself on the wrong side of a 100 story skyscraper window plummeting to his utter demise. The effect was captured with a stop motion puppet that… clearly doesn’t look quite human. I won’t lie, I hate that I have to point this one unfortunate effect out amongst the bunch as the bad apple. Granted, when everything else previously shown in the movie is damn near close to perfect and then we end on one epic moment with not the greatest of special effects then I feel that it should be noted at least. It doesn’t sully the film in any way, this is one of the greatest action movies for a reason, it’s simply a special effect that reaches a grade of C- in the lineup of other A+ works of art. Not a prime example of practical effects, but I’ve seen far worse and this simply needed a bit of fine tuning is all.
It’s not often that I critique the sound design of any film, but every single audio effect that can be heard sells the impact of these already fantastic visual effects. Every step that RoboCop takes, I feel as though this machine weighs about as much as a Volkswagen. Gun shots sound crisp and powerful with every bullet that torpedoes out of the barrel. ED-209, the bigger and more tank-like robot, sounds fully functional and I completely forget that this is a stop motion puppet that isn’t actually emitting any real sounds at all. There are the tiniest whisper of details to the most bombastic of sound effects, they are all believably authentic and match with the visuals amazingly.
The musical score is one of the most iconic of the 1980s, there likely isn’t a soul on Earth who has seen RoboCop and cannot automatically replay the music in their heads. The hero’s march is phenomenally memorable with such a sweepingly triumphant aesthetic. The blending of synthesized and orchestral music even contributes to some of the themes with man-versus-machine. As much as I tend to remember the more cheerful brass tempos, I also am remarkably fond of the more tender string pieces that elicit a more melancholic tone. Several layers are working in unison to craft one of my favorite musical scores to come out within the last fifty years. Seriously, kudos to Basil Poledouris for his beautiful composition that could have easily been written off and delivered a more lackluster effort for something called RoboCop. Bravo, good sir!
It isn’t a true ‘80s flick without mountains of pure Columbian snow! I have nothing to really further comment about this, I just like the fact that there’s a lot of cocaine in the movie because “1980s”.
A Franchise Rises
As for any financially successful science fiction epic, there were no doubt an abundance of sequels, prequels, remake/reboot, cartoon shows, television series, etc. I’m not going to go into full detail on the whole franchise, but I figured that I might as well state my most basic opinions on the main sequels and the 2014 remake that were theatrically released.
- RoboCop 2 – I like it. I don’t think that RoboCop 2 is by any means a great film or even comes close to being as tightly constructed as its predecessor, but I still like it. There’s some pretty damn funny dark humor reminiscent of the original, a fairly creepy new antagonist portrayed by Tom Noonan, and it has some cool action set pieces along with more well done practical effects. I’d give it a solid B.
- RoboCop 3 – I hate it. I legitimately despise this film. First of all, the fact that it was rated PG-13 to intentionally appease small children rather than adults is insulting to the spirit of the first two pictures. Further on; Peter Weller’s replacement as RoboCop (Robert John Burke) delivers a totally empty performance, the comedy is godawful, the care put into pre-existing characters is damn near non-existent, the special effects aren’t remotely as impressive yet they are trying way too desperately to be “bigger and better”, the story is a snooze fest, and the antagonists make me want to shoot myself. I hate it. Maybe I’ll review it someday. We’ll see on how much I feel like getting pissed off in the future.
- RoboCop (2014) [Remake] – This is a remake/reboot that I don’t necessarily hate, but I don’t like it all that much either. It’s fine and has its moments, but overall it’s a relatively generic modern discount Marvel origins action flick. There’s no teeth to the writing or the filmmaking, it doesn’t take any risks, and its special effects don’t come close to being on par with the original. It’s okay at best. Better than RoboCop 3. There’s my glowing recommendation I guess? “Better than RoboCop 3”.
Truth be told, if you want a better reimagining of RoboCop then watch 2018’s Upgrade. Upgrade is a far more ambitious project than RoboCop’s remake with gorier action and thought provoking themes on reality while also tackling that man-versus-machine nature from the Verhoeven original.
Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is a character piece that studies the line blurred between man and machine, wrapped inside of a story about resurrection and revenge, and contains some of the most thrilling action put to film. The comedy is pitch black with incredible intelligence thrown into the satirical writing. The performances are dead-on across the board without even a hint of a weak link. Peter Weller commits to the role of RoboCop/Alex Murphy, striking the right balance of machine and humanity in his performance. RoboCop has stood the test of time for a reason; because of its thought provoking themes, snappy dark sense of humor, unhinged look on violence, and its awesome action sequences makes RoboCop an action classic that is beloved by many. If you haven’t already seen the 1987 masterpiece then I highly recommend that you do yourselves a favor by checking this baby out as soon as possible. If this sounds like your cup of tea then I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed… I’d buy that for a dollar… That’s right, I ended my review on a famous quote from the movie and I’m not ashamed!
What's Your Favorite Robo?
What addition to the RoboCop franchise is your all time favorite?
That’s All Folks!
RoboCop… It’s f*cking RoboCop! It’s a God damn classic! If someone hasn’t seen it then they’re doing themselves a freaking disservice and it needs to be rectified immediately. What do you think though? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree? Wish RoboCop would get me to a crisis center so I may be rehabilitated of overly discussing movies? Comment down below and let me know! Also, if you so happened to have enjoyed my review then please do me a favor and share this article around the social media world. Thank you all so much for reading and have yourselves a dollar day… Don’t ask.
© 2019 John Plocar