Should I Watch..? RoboCop (1987)
What's the big deal?
RoboCop is an action sci-fi thriller film released in 1987 and was directed by Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, the second film of his Hollywood career. The film stars Peter Weller as Detroit police officer Alex Murphy who finds himself brought back from the dead as a prototype cyborg to assist his fellow officers. The film also co-stars Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer and Dan O'Herlihy. Despite a relatively small budget of just $13 million, the film was warmly praised by critics upon release and became successful at the box office. It would later spawn an entire franchise comprised of two sequels, a TV series, merchandising, video games, two animated series, comic-book appearances before finally getting a reboot in 2014. The film covers themes of corporate corruption and media manipulation as well as what it is that makes us human.
What's it about?
In the near future, the city of Detroit has descended into a poverty-stricken dystopia fuelled by high crime rates and financial ruin. The mayor signs control of the under-funded and over-stretched Detroit police force over to Omni Consumer Products (OCP) in exchange for them converting run-down areas of the city into an independent city-state known as Delta City. While board members Dick Jones and Bob Morton clash over the design of their prototype robot to work alongside the police, officer Murphy is introduced to his new partner Anne Lewis and the pair head out on patrol.
With Morton's design getting the go-ahead over Jones' (which angers him greatly), officer Murphy is tragically gunned down by Clarence Boddicker and his gang. Morton then uses Murphy as the basis for his design, the heavily-armed RoboCop, replacing Murphy's shattered body with cybernetic replacements that work alongside Murphy's brain. As Murphy begins cleaning up the streets, the bitterness between Jones and Morton threatens to derail the whole scheme...
Alex Murphy / RoboCop
OCP Senior President Richard "Dick" Jones
Clarence J. Boddicker
OCP Executive Robert "Bob" Morton
OCP Chairman, "The Old Man"
Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner
Release Date (UK)
5th February, 1988
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Special Acheivement (Sound Effects Editing)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound, Best Film Editing
What's to like?
Nothing pleases me more as a viewer than when something that appears to be one thing turns out to be something else entirely. RoboCop is a prime example - on paper, this is a basic shooter with cyberpunk elements brought in to stop it sounding too familiar. But underneath the surface lurks an intelligent and shrewd picture that pokes fun at the excessive corporate greed of the Eighties. The film lacks a typical antagonist (despite Smith's memorable portrayal or Boddicker) but instead, the faceless OCP acts as the real baddies with boardroom scuffles and backroom politics spilling over into violence. It also has some notions about the nature of humanity versus the technological advancement of the species. What exactly is RoboCop - a man inside a machine, a machine with a human face or something else?
Weller delivers a perfectly controlled performance as Murphy which is right for the role. Allen is quite feisty as Lewis but isn't given much to do once Robo is booted up. Ferrer and Cox, as the feuding scumbags within OCP, also provide great support and generate some humour between the shoot-outs and the dystopic view of Detroit - one which appears closer to the truth now than ever before. But this is Weller's show, moving and behaving in a way that you would expect a humanoid machine to do so. If anything, he's more convincing as Robo than he is as Murphy.
- The producers held a special test screening of the film specifically for police officers as they felt that real cops might object to the violence shown in the film. As it turns out, the real police were delighted to see a cop treat known criminals in a way that they could not.
- Verhoeven had the habit of calling actors by their character names on set. This caused Smith and Ferrer to keep laughing as Verhoeven kept calling the women playing prostitutes "bitches".
- In the original trailer, Orion Pictures reused the music from The Terminator (1) which is also about a cyborg. Schwarzenegger was briefly considered for the lead but his size would have been doubled in the RoboCop suit, making him look like the Michelin Man.
What's not to like?
As one might expect, the effects have dated somewhat - Murphy's titanium armour looks decidedly plastic these days while the bulky ED-209 jerks around the place like a Ray Harryhausen effort. But generally speaking, the ideas stand up pretty well. The automatic pistol Robo uses still looks very cool indeed and there's just something about the character that endears him to us. It has also fallen victim to real-life events as Detroit would actually file for bankruptcy twenty-seven years after the film's release. Who knows, maybe this film might be closer to the truth than we acknowledge?
For all the film's efforts to satirise the American's love for violent shoot-outs, Verhoeven certainly makes sure his shoot-outs are violent and bloody. It's as if the film is trying to parody films like Die Hard (2) or Beverly Hills Cop (3) by having a literally indestructible cop dealing death and destruction to anyone the wrong side of the law. The humorous TV clips and news-readings throughout also strips the film of any tension these sort of action films tend to generate, though the film still has plenty to offer.
Should I watch it?
RoboCop might not have the same spit-and-polish as most action movies these days but it's not exactly outdated. Beneath the gory, bullet-heavy exterior is a film of rare intelligence and imagination that's driven by the screenplay and Weller's effective portrayal as the lead. It's a pity the sequels failed to follow its lead by instead concentrating on pitting ever-bigger baddies against our hero or giving him gimmicky add-ons like a cheap mobile phone. But the film's legacy would be cemented by the strength of this first entry into the series, which would quickly sink into the same stereotypes this film so carefully skirts around.
Great For: action fans, disgruntled cops, anyone with a Filofax and ambitions
Not So Great For: Detroit residents, anyone who thought this needed a reboot
What else should I watch?
Don't believe me about the sequels? Well, RoboCop 2 (4) features Robo taking on a drug dealer who also gets turned into a hefty cyborg for reasons I can't recall right now. Although its reception from critics was fairly mixed, it was nothing compared to the outright hostility that greeted RoboCop 3 (5) which was rated PG (a truly horrendous decision) and gave Murphy a jet pack. No wonder Weller decided not to return for the third instalment. The 2014 reboot didn't fare much better with the general consensus being that it was a watered-down version of the first film as well as one which also lacked the subversive nature of this movie.
Of course, cyborgs are no stranger to movies even if they are usually the bad guys. Take The Terminator which has poor Linda Hamilton on the run from murderous machine Arnold Schwarzenegger or early Jean-Claude Van Damme effort Cyborg (6) which pits the Muscles from Brussels against robot killers in a post apocalyptic future. Slightly more deserving of your attention are the wonderful Blade Runner (7) and Will Smith's under-rated I, Robot(8) which has a bit more action to it than Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece.
© 2016 Benjamin Cox