We’re in a Paul Verhoeven mood of late after the cult classic Total Recall. Now it’s the turn of a legendary satire involving a robot policeman.
If you’ve not seen this film, you’d possibly think it’s your typical ultraviolent ‘80s action romp along the lines of The Terminator.
Yes. But what’s surprising about it is the unusually sharp and prescient satire. Plus, it’s gritty as they come—often unremittingly bleak.
There’s something darkly humourous about proceedings, whilst also utterly tragic and (oftentimes) abhorrent.
As much as it is a gung-ho sci-fi action film, it’s also a scathing criticism of big business capitalism and society in decline.
Set in a dystopian future of Detroit, the city is facing total chaos due to governmental and business mismanagement of finances.
The sky-high crime rate leads to a deal with mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP), which aims to help run the police department.
The company’s senior vice president, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), introduces a law enforcement robot: ED-209.
To show off its efficiencies, he asks an executive to point a gun at it.
However, ED-209 malfunctions. And the poor bastard executive is blown away to all hell in one of the most (deliberately) over the top and darkly comical death scenes in film history.
Viewer caution here, as this bit is very gory.
Ambitious executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) jumps on the dismal failure to recommend a different idea: RoboCop.
The OCP chairman (Dan O’Herlihy) likes it and gives the go-ahead, which greatly annoys Dick Jones.
Cut to Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who’s on his first day in the new unit with his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen).
They pursue a notorious gang after a robbery and locate the thugs’ hideout. Amongst the lunatics, we have the utterly psychotic ringleader Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith).
There’s also Emil Antonowsky, played in emphatic fashion by the underrated Paul McCrane. We mention this as the actor was so terrific as the lovably obnoxious Dr. Robert Romano in ER (“If wishes were horses, we’d be knee deep in shit.”).
This lot sure are bloody nasty, but there’s significant character development to help us understand the lawless, nihilistic nature of future Detroit.
And at their hideout, and in horrifically brutal fashion, the group guns down Murphy.
It’s a notorious scene and one we’re leaving out, but it provides a gut-wrenching moment—RoboCop doesn’t hold back.
Killed outright, OCP then claims his body and turns him into RoboCop. There’s a famous montage sequences as Murphy is assembled and brought back to “life”.
As a corporate product, he now has a few core objectives to follow:
- Serve the public trust.
- Protect the innocent.
- Uphold the law.
From the off, he’s clinically efficient at his job and professionally ruthless. You could almost say machinelike!
Although deemed a success, problems arise as RoboCop starts to remember parts of Murphy’s life—most specifically his horrendous death.
His former police partner tells him he is, essentially, Murphy—and RoboCop is shocked.
He tracks down Murphy’s former home and walks through the now-abandoned house, memories flooding back to him as he goes along.
It’s an example of how RoboCop balances out its extreme violence and satire with a sense of genuine tragedy.
Meanwhile, Dick Jones has a vendetta against RoboCop and its creator. Bob Morton is wiped out by Clarence Boddicker after Jones hires him to do so.
And then Jones attempts to have RoboCop destroyed, so he can have his dream of ED-209s realised. Which means wealth and power, basically.
The film ends in dramatic fashion as RoboCop corners Murphy’s killers at their hideout and proceeds to wipe them out.
Now skip this next bit if you’re squeamish, as Paul McCrane’s character goes out in spectacularly gruesome fashion.
He’s tricked into driving into a vat of nuclear waste.
As he stumbles from his vehicle he’s visibly melting. And he proceeds to stagger about making disturbing (although weirdly amusing) exhaling noises.
He’s eventually put out of his misery when he bumbles across a road and gets run over, exploding on the spot with a mass of gunk flying everywhere.
These effects were handled by industry legend Rob Bottin, already famous for his incredible practical effects on The Thing (1982).
RoboCop then kills Clarence Boddicker, finally avenging the death of Murphy.
To finish his mission, the robot heads straight to OCP and confronts Dick Jones, eventually able to blast the greedy bastard out of the building. He rounds off the film be telling the chairman his name is Murphy.
And… scene! Phew. Hectic stuff. And an all-time classic.
Sprinkled through the production are satirical moments and digs, riffing on the Cold War and society’s paranoia about nuclear fallout.
There are also many jabs at big business capitalism, men in suits, greed, and ‘80s era individualism. Which all makes it disturbingly relevant to life in 2020.
But above everything, it just has a terrific energy—a verve. It’s relentless, never backs off, is crammed full of great ideas, and the cast is top notch.
Full credit to Peter Weller, who we must remember had to pretend to be a robot. And to do so in convincing fashion.
This he does brilliantly. Not for a moment do you think it’s a bloke in a suit.
Meanwhile, the gang does a fine job of coming across as utterly vile. It’s a credit they do this, and you loathe them, but they’re also engaging screen presences.
Of course, we must praise Verhoeven as a director. What had the potential to be a daft sci-fi romp has surprising depth.
It’s also a mega entertaining film. I’d buy that for a dollar!
Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner wrote the screenplay. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven then got on board, this being one of his first Hollywood productions.
He cast Peter Weller after turning down Rutger Hauer and Michael Ironside. The more broad gentlemen made getting into the robot suit difficult.
Weller (much more slight) got the role as Verhoeven felt the actor could portray pathos well with his style of acting.
Obviously he had to go through lots of preparation before scenes were filmed. To get into his robot suit, Rob Bottin’s instructions were for a bald cap so the helmet could be removed more easily.
The suit was then constructed around him in segments. So, obviously, you need a great deal of patience for something like that. As it took hours every time Weller had to do a scene.
Weller hired Moni Yakim from performing arts specialist Juilliard School in New York. He helped the American actor nail the robotic movements.
The shoot was tough for him. He lost three pounds a day in weight because temperatures in the suit hit 38 °C (100 °F).
The good news is it was all worth the effort.
The budget was a mere $13 million (low in the world of Hollywood). But in the US it went on to make back $53.4 million, making it something of a hit.
But over time, it took on a new life. It’s a cult classic and one of those legendary ’80s flicks that everyone talked about when we were younger.
We can’t remember when we first saw it, but we certainly loved it. Probably around 1997 or so. Mr. Wapojif does recall a delay in getting to see it, but once it turned up on television he got the thing watched.
Basil Poledouris’ soundtrack is also pretty epic—it often plays out like a western.
As for the polemical nature of RoboCop, producer Jon Davison described the theme as, “fascism for liberals.”
In that, it’s a liberal film which explains its message in as gratuitously violent manner as possible.
So, it’s ultraviolence meets satire. Not a bad combination, eh? We can thank Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for creating that concept.
Conversely, there are elements of religious symbolism at play. RoboCop is a Christ-like figure.
He rises from the dead, performs great deeds to help society, and even walks on water prior to wiping out the lead antagonist.
So, this is an action film. But a multi-layered one with surprising levels of wit.
We urge you to give it a watch… if you can stomach the acid meltdown bit.
As with Total Recall, there was an utterly pointless remake: RoboCop (2014). Why, Hollywood? What was the point, exactly?
Why not use the budget for myriad unique ideas out there you’re not funding? Give someone else’s concept a go.
Anyway, in the balance of fairness we must say the writers (Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, and Michael Miner) did try something different.
Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) technically doesn’t die. He’s blown up by a crime boss, but Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) insists his wife sign off on experimental technology to save his life.
The highlight of the film is the extent Norton takes to keep Murphy alive.
Ultimately, he ends up as a face, his brain, and his lungs. Everything else is gone, except for the robot suit that acts as his body.
This is played out brilliantly in the remake—it’s a horrendous consideration.
And it’s later a touching moment when Murphy is finally allowed to visit his family—and he thanks Norton for his efforts.
Unfortunately, the writers didn’t make much use of the concept other than that. And the rest of the remake devolves into shooty boom ratta tatta tatt fair.
Plus, the satire that makes the original stand out isn’t there. So what we have is just another generic action romp. And it’s dull—by the numbers.
The whole thing reeks of studio interference. And that’s a shame, but the film at least isn’t as terrible as many expected.