Sometimes, when writing about one thing, it can be impossible to avoid thinking about another thing, which is what happened recently when writing about JUDGE DREDD
and I mentioned that comparisons to ROBOCOP were inevitable. Based on a comic book that predates ROBOCOP by a number of years, JUDGE DREDD is enough of a mess that it’s possibly the more interesting film to write about. The thing is that ROBOCOP, a comic book movie not actually based on a comic book (even if parts of it maybe have been somewhat inspired by the original Judge Dredd), is pretty damn close to perfect. Once you get past that, it can be a question of what else there is to say? Still, there’s nothing wrong with trying.
Of course, the future began at some point. We just didn’t know when it happened. Things changed as they always do, but we looked up one day and realized just how much had been altered with no chance of going back. My guess is it all started when E! put the Kardashians on. That seems likely. But while it was never made clear just how far into the future ROBOCOP was supposed to be set, that never mattered. It was all about the inevitable. The look at a future version of our world being swamped by corporate takeovers is certainly a part of that. But removed from its enormous success in the summer of ’87 and the faulty attempts by Orion Pictures to turn the concept into a franchise, this is essentially a pitch black satire about an individual trying to reassert his identity in a world being consumed by fascism. It shows people trapped within the oncoming horrors of the future in a message delivered during the inherent ugliness of the Reagan era, a time set on transforming them into just another product which, like everything, is expendable. Just another statistic.
But looking at ROBOCOP now, in the future, makes it clear how little has really changed, as certain people way up in those glass towers look down below on all those statistics to decide who is still left to hurt. ROBOCOP was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s big introduction to the American market and it may still be his best English language film, as much as I worship a few of the others. It’s a portrait of America, showing what it has become with a filmmaking style so assured and unrelenting through every moment that the exhilaration becomes impossible to shake. It’s a film so invigorating through all that energy, thrusting us right in there as if it’s forcing us to become part of the narrative. This is a comic strip, yes, but it’s much more than that. Maybe it’s what our reality, our future, has really become by this point in time.
In the future, crime in Detroit has spiraled out of control. No sooner has patrolman Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) begun his new assignment at the Metro West precinct, teaming with partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), when he is brutally gunned down by a vicious gang led by the psychotic Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Meanwhile, at the all-powerful corporation OCP, which is preparing to begin construction on new futuristic Delta City, rising executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) takes advantage of a setback in development to unveil his new creation RoboCop, a new cyborg which takes part of a deceased policeman, in this case Murphy, and turns him into essentially a robotic supercop with several prime directives built into his programming. Murphy’s former partner is the only person who senses something familiar about him, while competing OCP exec Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) is ready to take advantage of Morton’s success and the new public hero for his own purposes.
In many ways, ROBOCOP has essentially been burned into my soul by this point, just as much as certain other late ‘80s summer releases like THE UNTOUCHABLES
and DIE HARD, each of them part of a memory that is growing dimmer, yet in my head they remain as powerful as ever. But it’s also a perfect example of a movie that has gained in stature through the years as the world has continued to change around me, so its meaning has only deepened, making it look harder into Murphy’s eyes to see how much everything has been taken away from him, and how much has been taken away from us. That sense of danger is always at the forefront even as the laughs come, and this is a pretty goddamn funny movie, with the way each scene plays out making it all feel like it could go either way at any moment. Every television is presumably tuned into the same comedy show, the one with the certain catchphrase you’ll never forget, as if this view of America is essentially one giant vicious sitcom anyway, one where the laughs come when people get hurt and they don’t realize this until it’s too late. The scene that shows just how dangerous this future really is occurs not down on the mean streets, but up in a sleek executive boardroom, and even though he’s barely seen, it’s very clear that the head of it all, Daniel O’Herlihy’s CEO, known only as The Old Man, is more dangerous and powerful than anyone. Both worlds are equally nasty. It’s just that the suits are much nicer in one of them.
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, ROBOCOP’s script is unapologetic in its look at what is to come with an unrelenting display of all that horror, and the way things are cleverly laid out means that there’s not a wasted beat in the movie, coming in at a lean 103 minutes with barely a chance to catch our breath. It would be easy to speculate how Paul Verhoeven took a script, which in other hands could have been just another piece of genre junk, to capitalize on THE TERMINATOR and not only made it bigger and more emotional but this would be dismissive of the phenomenal sense of craft everyone involved brings to the film, from the sharp and incisive wit of the script to the crisp excitement to the way cinematographer Jost Vacano shoots every scene to the physical creation of RoboCop himself in a suit (brilliantly designed and built by Rob Bottin) that completely sells the illusion of what Murphy has become, including the intricacies of the sound work every time he moves a muscle with the weight of the character always felt to help us believe everything he becomes.
All of this is true, but much of how well it works also comes from the sense of sheer physicality brought to the film by the director in the way every moment is approached down to what would normally be simple dialogue scenes, the way Dick Jones and Bob Morton get in near each other during that men’s room encounter which gives it an unforgettable energy but there’s also the closeness of RoboCop and Lewis to readjust his targeting as those baby jars are blown away, as physically close as their relationship will ever get. There’s nothing subtle about this version of Detroit, one where everything is loud and garish, no one is really in charge, and even the lightning fast reporting of all the daily horrors seen in the newsbreaks scattered throughout, establishing the world and laying down some plot points, as the anchors move onto the next calamity with bright smiles (this film is what Leeza Gibbons should be forever known for) complete with breaking for a commercial before the movie is two minutes old and everything in the world outside of the technology is clearly breaking down. The science fiction elements are always compelling but it’s the deadliness of that arch feeling all around it in this ugly futuristic America that causes it to be more tangible, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre, but presented in a way that is so horrific the nominal lead has his hand blown off in the first twenty minutes. Naturally, everyone laughs. This is the future. This is what people are.
Before he dies, we barely learn anything at all about Murphy beyond that he seems like a decent and normal guy and that he has a wife and kid, as seen in those flashes of his past life that are as epic and banal as any of ours. And then he’s gone. Paul Verhoeven has directed star vehicles during his American career. In TOTAL RECALL
, he used Arnold Schwarzenegger better than few other directors ever have and he made BASIC INSTINCT all about the glory of what Sharon Stone does in front of the camera in every possible way. But in ROBOCOP, the character called RoboCop becomes part of the very essence of the filmmaking. The way he/it carefully walks down a hallway almost becomes the visual style of the film’s fluidity, so every moving shot seems to go with the next, giving it an energy that comes from the way each of the characters walk and how it defines them, so every gesture is equally important. The way the film teases out our first real glimpses of the character as he arrives at the police station comprises one of those touches throughout that have something beyond what we were expecting, and that sheer sense of physicality gives every moment an extra jolt. On the surface, subtlety has nothing to do with what Verhoeven is doing and yet the director always knows to add in certain small moments that add to things, so even what he does with silent glances between people is something, reminding us that there’s always more going on, which keeps each of those characters alive and in our heads even when they’re not around.
Things are pretty recognizable in this future, maybe most notably the city councilman who won’t accept that he lost his re-election which feels funnier and more terrifying now than ever before. The legendary “I’d buy that for a dollar” catchphrase is maybe dumber than just about anything on TV now, so it makes perfect sense that it’s a catchphrase in the world of the movie, too, because of course it is. The police are going on strike which is probably exactly what OCP would want anyway. In fairness, the ideas filtered through Verhoeven are sometimes more compelling than the action which is solid (with some second unit work apparently directed by Monte Hellman, RIP) but not as inspired as the parts that haven’t been seen before in other movies; the shootout in the drug factory is one of the least compelling sections since it’s ‘just’ pretty good action, for a few moments a scene about nothing but guys shooting at each other. What stands out in this film shows either the twisted humor in all the action beats, whether the vignettes of the title character’s first night out or the unexpected sense of emotion occurring in the gas station when he’s unexpectedly recognized scene that makes this special, something new. All of this coming together builds the story piece by piece, the onslaught of Robo being gunned down mirroring the killing of Murphy at the start, a character forever dying for our sins and feeling the pain of our ignorance. There are still reasons for him to fight back and the heart of the film is that power.
The climax is set in an abandoned steel mill, just about the dullest possible setting for any movie but this one gets away with it, feeling appropriately medieval visually to go with the clanging sounds of the Basil Pouledoris score, as well as a counterpoint to the gleaming OCP skyscraper where things will really end a few minutes later. But that setting is also is beside the point. It’s really about everything that Robo has discovered about himself and the world around him, the feeling we get when he says to Clarence Boddicker, “I’m not arresting you anymore,” what this has all been emotionally building to. And the final minute or so of screentime, since this film doesn’t stick around any longer than it needs to beyond the last word we get to hear, is a work of beauty as well as the most gratifying payoff imaginable after everything that we, and the character, have been through. It really is one of the great endings. With Tim Burton’s BATMAN still two years in the future, superhero movies were barely a thing in ’87 (one week after this film was released, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE
opened and instantly died), but even at this early stage ROBOCOP uses itself to glorify the concept while also making clear the storytelling limitations inherent in the very concept of the superhero film; after all, it’s about a person who no longer exists, the emotions fighting to come through and he isn’t able to have sex which most likely in the Verhoeven world means you’ll never be a complete person. His programming, after all, gives him no real awareness of the trauma brought on by the sexual assault he prevents in one scene, the male organ he shoots off just one more obstacle to help him take down the bad guy.
Except for a few (presumed) hookers hanging out at Bob Morton’s place doing coke with him, there’s not much of a sense of overt sex in the film anyway, but it’s always there if you want to find it, often in the nastiest ways whether the undercurrents of that men’s room scene between Jones and Morton or Boddicker leering at the OCP secretary, leaving his gum behind as a reminder. Only the quick flashes of Murphy’s wife saying she loves him feels like anything resembling normal behavior between two people who love each other. In a way, the film is about finding meaning in this future even without that. The power of the extra violence only seen in the unrated version (no real surprise that this film went through extensive haggling with the ratings board at the time) found on the various disc releases isn’t essential storywise, but the overall effect helps to provide a clearer look at this futuristic Detroit which makes the overall message that much stronger. This is what people are in this world. This is what humanity means to those in charge.
The giant, lumbering robot ED-209 that Dick Jones presents to the board is clearly a product of this corporate world, a killing machine that blows away an innocent person turned into a joke by the end - a big, dumb, clumsy joke with the crying baby sounds perfectly encapsulates everything about the mindset behind it. Bob Morton’s idea that became RoboCop is the opposite in its effectiveness and of course that guy was no saint since he is the one who set Murphy up to be killed in the first place by placing him in that precinct. It’s the individual inside that has to fight its way out, even if maybe the one thing that hasn’t aged so well for this point in time is the film’s portrayal of ordinary cops as average, likable Joes that doesn’t quite match up with the way we’re thinking about them these days. But no film is perfect even if ROBOCOP comes close. All that fury brought to almost operatic heights by Basil Poledouris and his phenomenal score makes me want to stand up at the end even when I’m by myself. There’s not a boring shot in the entire film, not a single dull moment. The message it contains is as clear as it ever was and instead of fading the film is more powerful and, yes, emotional, than ever.
On the surface, maybe it seems like a thankless role considering how he’s covered up for much of the film but the energy Peter Weller brings to that focus as the character is essential, as if he was cast for not only the shape of his chin but that haunted look in his eyes as much as every specific movement he makes to make the cyborg the believable creation that he is. This also matches up with the heroism and humor that Nancy Allen brings to Officer Anne Lewis, a reminder of a humanity that most of the rest of the world has left behind. It’s an unforgettable line-up of actors doing some of the best work of their careers as these scumbags in suits, Ronny Cox displaying the extreme arrogance of Dick Jones, Miguel Ferrer and the cockiness of Bob Morton as his new creation achieves success. Kurtwood Smith achieves instant immortality with his reading of the legendary line “Bitches leave” but the cackling viciousness found in his entire portrayal of Clarence Boddicker is unforgettable, matched with everything that Ray Wise, Jesse Goins and Paul McCrane bring to it as his crew. Robert DoQui finds the right amount of honorable fury as Sgt. Reed, the way Felton Perry as OCP exec Johnson walks says so much about the sort of corporate guy he’s playing and Daniel O’Herlihy as The Old Man in a grand total of two scenes remains a pitch perfect satirical vision of true corporate evil, one who you just know will never have to concern himself with anything going on where people are really going to get hurt.
And one thing that’s for sure after everything we’ve been through in the past year, is that it’s tough to know if you’re still a person. Even after all that staring in the mirror, you’re still not sure. Isolation does that to you. Having no idea what the future holds does that to you. And all that’s left to do is to keep waiting for the answer. Funny thing is, the way ROBOCOP concludes, there’s no real character here to build a franchise around unless they were going to put the helmet back on him and return to the status quo. Of course, it didn’t stop them from trying and that’s exactly what they did. Coming three years later, Irvin Kershner’s ROBOCOP 2 is a big, messy, miscalculation, but seems to have a fanbase maybe because of how much of an extreme mess it is. No one seems to defend, or even much remember, Fred Dekker’s ROBOCOP 3, which was made without Peter Weller (who turned it down in favor of David Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH and you can hardly blame him), had a delayed release hobbled by the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures and was even saddled with a PG-13 rating. There was also a one-season TV show I never saw and a remake just a few years ago, or so I’m told. But I never think of any of these things as being ROBOCOP, a film that by itself remains a masterpiece of pop cinema. We don’t see anything like it anymore. The pain has been bled out of what these movies are just as much as the cinematic intelligence found in the stylization. Still, I suppose things could be worse. Watching the Republican debates back in 2016, I made a comment on social media that it wasn’t so much like ROBOCOP but ROBOCOP 2. Maybe the past few years really have been that badly put together. Real life, after all, doesn’t resemble finely honed satire. It resembles messy, unsubtle satire and more people actually get hurt because of it than you ever imagine. But ROBOCOP remains the great film that ROBOCOP is even if we’ve passed it by now. We just need to remember who we are and how we fit into this world. If all this still counts as a world.