RoboCop (1987)

RoboCop (1987)Synopsis: There’s a new law enforcer in town… and he’s half man, half machine! From the director of Total Recall and Basic Instinct comes a “sci-fi fantasy with sleek, high powered drive” (Time) about an indestructible high-tech policeman who dishes out justice at every turn!

When a good cop (Peter Weller) gets blown away by some ruthless criminals, innovative scientists and doctors are able to piece him back together as un unstoppable crime-fighting cyborg called “Robocop.” Impervious to bullets and bombs, and equipped with high-tech weaponry. Robocop quickly makes a name for himself by cleaning up the crime-ridden streets of violence-ravaged Detroit. But despite his new hardened exterior, Robocop is tormented by scraps of memory of his former life, and relives vivid nightmares of his own death at the hands of the vicious killers. Now he is out to seek more than just justice… he wants revenge!

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RoboCop (1987) 7.75

eyelights: its sociopolitical satire. its unflinching action sequences.
eyesores: its title. its second-rate, b-movie quality.

Directive 1: Serve the public trust
Directive 2: Protect the innocent
Directive 3: Uphold the law.
Directive 4: ?

I still remember when I first heard of ‘RoboCop’. I was a young teenager at the time and was out for an afternoon movie at the local mall with a friend of mine. We found a huge standee of the picture waiting for us in the cinema’s lobby.

I hated the name; even as a 14-year-old, I found it corny. But the “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop” tagline played to my ‘Dirty Harry‘-loving sensibilities. And then there was RoboCop itself, which looked really cool – to an ’80s kid, anyway.

Naturally, I couldn’t see the movie: not only was it rated R, but it barely registered on the radar in my neck of the woods; it was out of cinemas as quickly as it had arrived. It would be a few years before I got a chance to see it on home video.

In the meantime, I picked up the oversized Marvel Comics special for it and re-read it many times over: I was fully engaged in the story, loved the action and the messages. And, when I finally saw the picture, it was everything I hoped it would be.

‘RoboCop’ was awesome!!!

Set in a bankrupt Detroit City that is supported by Omni Consumer Products, ‘RoboCop’, is a satirical science-fiction action film about police officer Alex Murphy, whose cadaver is used in the design of a new law enforcement unit called the RoboCop.

Nearly unstoppable, this unit finds itself on the wrong side of its corporate bosses when its previous identity is revealed and it decides to track down Murphy’s killers. Naturally, it ends up on the run from the very powers that created it.

Although it may seem like a vacuous action piece, ‘RoboCop’ is rife with sociopolitical commentary and humour, raising it a few notches above its peers. In fact, not only was it a box office success, but it was also well received by many critics.

It was controversial, however: “RoboCop’ features then-extreme violence, which initially led it to an X-rating. After being reissued to the MPAA a dozen times, it finally got an “R” – but it would be years before the uncut version was released on home video.

Not unlike ‘Dirty Harry’, it was also criticized for its views of police enforcement and justice, leading some to brand it as fascist. It was also taken to task by some feminists, who felt that women were under-represented and served very little purpose.

Personally, I find most of these arguments valid and ‘RoboCop’ to me now smacks of a certain immaturity in the way it portrays the dystopia of its future. It is meant as satire, yes, but it feels as though its themes have not been treated seriously enough.

The most glaring ones (privatization of public goods, gentrification, high crime rates) are handled with a modicum of respect, but these seemed so far-fetched in 1987 that they were likely intended to be as ridiculous as the rest. Now a reality, the joke is lost.

Still, the story holds up, the action remains exciting and the pace is terrific. The performances and the way the whole is delivered suggest a comic book movie, but that can be ignored when one is having fun. And ‘RoboCop’ is filled with plenty of good times.

The Good

The setting: A bankrupt Detroit that is being bought out by corporations; even the police department has been privatized. I like the setting because this possibility is a genuine concern; when the people no longer own anything, they are slaves in their own land. And their owners never have their interests at heart. Sadly, the film was rather prophetic in this regard.

The sociopolitical commentary: Although it’s juvenile in its approach, the questions that ‘RoboCop’ raises through its satire are important ones. An action film with a little meat on it is always a good thing, because they are often so bloody vacant.

The cultural satire: Right from the onset, the film situates us via some television news bulletins. We get frequent updates, but we also get to see the television ads (robotic hearts, gas-guzzling cars, Nukem board game for the whole family), and repetitive, low-brow sitcoms that people watch mindlessly.

The gender equity: Verhoeven purposely had co-ed changing rooms at the police station to put men and women on the same level. He also introduced Murphy’s partner, Lewis, without assigning her gender until the last minute, allowing the audience to see how tough she was but thinking she might be a man. I love that she’s an equal to the men (at least on paper).

The behind-the-scenes battles: ‘RoboCop’ is an action picture, but it doesn’t have a clear villain; there are, in fact, three main villains, with two of them dueling for supremacy at OmniCorp. This adds a layer of complexity tot he story that its peers usually don’t have.

The first-person perspective: When we are introduced to RoboCop, we see the world through its eyes, from the surgery, to the scientists’ NYE celebration, to the unveiling. This personalizes it and creates an aura of mystery, if not anticipation; one wonders what RoboCop looks like but we don’t know until later.

RoboCop is humanized: We eventually discover that it has nightmares, remnants of his erased memories. Then it encounters a hood who helped kill Murphy; it begins to question its identity and puts the pieces together. By the time it visits Murphy’s old house and his memories return, we fully appreciate his anger and accept his quest for vengeance.

The RoboCop suit: Although it was originally supposed to be quick and snake-like, the suit was too clunky for Peter Weller to use. So they had to change the way it moves. Where it does succeed, however, is in the way it conceals Weller’s proportions; he’s a small man, but it’s designed so that you have no idea where he begins and RoboCop ends.

ED-209: I love the look of the thing, and its tension-filled and tragic introduction really puts its lethality on the table. Ahem. It also brings the question of drones in modern society, of the many risks involved. Not that anyone gives a crap, based on their current application. Let’s just say that it’s a dangerous road that we’ve chosen…

The RoboCop action sequences: Although brief (he is, after all the perfect law enforcer), they are stringed together to give us a heroic montage of him stopping a corner store robbery, preventing an attempted rape and crashing a hostage-taking by an ex-city counselor (a scene based on a true story, actually).

RoboCop is not invulnerable: He is forced to confront not just a rivals’ own robot, ED-209, which pummels him, but he discovers that there is a fourth directive, which prevents him from fulfilling the first three under certain conditions. Watching him try to escape a trap that has been set out for him by dropping down from one level of a parking lot to the next is pathetic; it makes him look very vulnerable. Well done.

The realistic violence: Although some will decry the violence, ‘RoboCop’ was stunningly realistic contextually; ruthless criminals would do this sort of damage, especially in a city where crime has gone rampant – boundaries will get pushed. As a teen, I was totally impressed with seeing Murphy’s hand get shot to a pulp and laughed out loud at seeing a hood explode as he gets hit by a car, with his skull sliding off the windshield. And the “melting man”? Still grotesque to look at.

The cast: Miguel Ferrer is wicked fun, Ronny Cox is devilish, Ray Wise (of ‘Twin Peaks’) is always a blast and Kurtwood Smith (of ‘That ’70s Show’) is terrific as a creepy villain. Peter Weller is excellent as RoboCop, of course, but the demands are more physical given that he’s a robot.

The music: Basil Poledouris created an appropriately thematic score for ‘RoboCop’ and it’s one of his most recognized. It also helps the picture end on a strong note: “Nice shootin’, son. What’s your name?” “Murphy.”. Cue heroic theme. And chills.

The not-so-good

The opening titles: The first impression we have of the movie is a shot of Detroit with the ‘RoboCop’ logo blasting onto the screen. They’re cheap looking, and it makes ‘RoboCop’ look like a second-rate picture right out of the starting gate; it really doesn’t lend it credibility. And, let’s be honest, it’s bad enough that it’s called “RoboCop”…

The basic conceit of the RoboCop: Why use a human corpse at its core? Does it contribute something that a CPU couldn’t? This is never explored. And it leaves one to wonder how they could use Murphy’s corpse given that he had his head shot through; clearly they didn’t need an intact brain, so what were they going for?

The RoboCop suit: A clunky robot like this one could have rings run around it. It’s surprising that it would be as effective as it is at reducing crime. As a lethal killer (in a war, for instance), it might do, but it likely wouldn’t be entirely effective as a deterrent. I mean, it’s so difficult for him to even get in and out of a car that they don’t show it on screen.

ED-209: As much as ED-209 is impressive to look at when it’s still, it looks stupid in motion due to some really clunky stop-motion animation. And the sequence when it falls down the stairs and has a screeching tantrum? Ridiculous!

The RoboCop action sequences: The heroic montage is both impressive and ridiculous, unreal but cool at once. The crimes he tackles seem mundane given his capabilities and they’re played up in a comic-bookey fashion. It’s not really realistic.

The gratuitous violence: Although the graphic violence is realistic, it’s exploited for thrills, which is totally unnecessary and probably not responsible. It’s weird that the violence is so harsh while the film is presented in a cartoony style; it’s a strange juxtaposition.

The cast: Almost everyone chews the scenery, making the film feel like a B-level action film. Peter Weller doesn’t, but he’s one of the few. Meanwhile, Nancy Allen delivers her lines poorly and runs like a girl (which is weird given that she’s supposed to be a tough cop), but she tries hard and the part is excellent.

The music: My only real issue with the music is with RoboCop’s theme, which sounds vaguely like ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (Poledouris’ most recognized score); it’s rather discrepant in this context. It may be the reason why the ‘Terminator‘ theme was used for the trailer instead.

For all its weaknesses and cheesy delivery, ‘RoboCop’ does discusses a very important question: What makes a person human? As Murphy is stripped of his humanity, we can’t help but wonder what is happening to the man inside, what remains of the original person.

It all also asks where the line is drawn, what the divide between human and machine is, as RoboCop tries to regain a little piece of its former humanity. Is recovering Murphy’s memories enough for him to be human again, or is it a complex mix of elements?

Because, ultimately, ‘RoboCop’ is more than a revenge story, it’s more than a social satire: it’s a story about one man’s quest to resurrect from virtual annihilation, of overcoming impediments that are not just external but internal as well. He’s fighting for his soul.

It’s a tale as old as the world, but ‘RoboCop’ throws into the mix the “man vs machine” angle, modernizing it. But, instead of pitting in battle humanity against machinery, here it pits a single man against forces that would overrun and control him. And he overcomes them.

And, ultimately, that’s why ‘RoboCop’ is still awesome now: like its titular hero, there’s far more beneath the surface than one might imagine at first glance.

Date of viewing: April 15, 2015

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