So far over the course of this Cinematic Century project we’ve talked about quite a few movies that I have a deep nostalgic affection for. I genuinely love all of the movies that I’ve featured here, but some of them are movies that I’ve only recently come across, and grown fond of. But, every now and then I get to talk about a movie that I’ve had in my life for decades, and that has had a massive impact on me and my tastes. Today we’ll be talking about one such film, RoboCop. Perhaps the most 1980’s movie that was ever made. I saw this movie perhaps far too young in my life, all thanks to some older cousins, and it really left a pretty huge mark on me. Which, made it pretty much a shoe in to become the film I’d feature for 1987. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other great movies I could have picked. I was probably always going to go with RoboCop, but I think the movie that put up the biggest fight was Rob Reiner’s virtually perfect the Princess Bride, one of my all-time favorite films, and a pretty equally influential film in terms of my taste in media, especially in regards to the meta-textual nature of its plot. We also could have gone with Raising Arizona, one of the Coen Brothers’ earliest films, and one of their funniest. I mean, I dare you not to laugh at Trey Wilson describing his missing children as wearing pajamas featuring “Yoda’s and shit.” Or, hey, we could have talked about the only John Hughes movie I unabashedly enjoy, the ridiculous Plane, Trains, and Automobiles, featuring one of the best comedic melt-downs of all time. I’ve also made it quite clear how highly I regard the first Timothy Dalton Bond movie, the Living Daylights, but I don’t think we can beat the James Bond horse any more on this site. Spaceballs has never been my favorite Mel Brooks movie, but I’d be lying if I don’t laugh any time I think of the scene where they comb the desert. There’s also Full Metal Jacket, perhaps the major Kubrick film that I’ve seen the least in my life, primarily because the first half is just far superior to the second half. Or, you know, we could have had a double feature of Arnold Schwarzenegger with two of his all-time best films, Predator and Running Man, both of which I love whole-heartedly. But, when the rubber met the road, there was no denying that I was going to have to chose RoboCop, one of the greatest American satires of all time.
RoboCop began life as two different screenplays from two different screenwriters. Edward Neumeier had a script about a robotic police officer who fights crime in a futuristic world where corporations run everything verging on a dystopia, and Michael Miner had a script about a police officer who is mortally wounded and donates his body to become a cyborg. And, like peanut butter and chocolate they decided to just blend their scripts into one insanely violent film. And, after convincing a studio executive to make the movie after talking his ear off at an airport, the film was eventually given to Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, who had recently come to America to start the Hollywood chapter of his career. Verhoeven was initially put off by the script, but ended up seeing the satiric potential in it after some prodding by his wife. They then got to work bringing this gritty dystopic vision to life, primarily filming in Houston with the help of quite a bit of matte paintings to reach the level of insanity that this film’s Detroit would have. And, after bringing in special effects wizard Phil Tippett to help with the stop motion, they were able to make a film that pushed the boundaries for what an acceptable action movie at the time could be. Which, ended up biting them in the ass, because the film was initially given an X rating by the MPAA, owing completely to it’s insanely graphic violence. Which, would have been an absolute death sentence for a film like this. So, Verhoeven played ball and agreed to remove some of the violence, and add in some of the comedic surrealism that the film would become known for, hoping to balance the violence. And, after 11 attempts to get the film rated, it was finally given an R, and allowed to be release, becoming an incredibly successful action film for the year. At the time it was fairly well received, but the general critical consensus was that it was just an extravaganza of violence, with no real substance underneath all the gore. But, like so many of the movies I discuss here, over time things have changed. All of the weird satire and parody that the movie had simmering under the surface finally began to crystallize, and the movie has gone on to become one of the defining films of the 1980’s.
RoboCop takes place in Detroit in the near future, where things have gone very poorly. The city is on the verge of collapse, due to financial woes and an apocalyptic amount of crime. Things have gotten to the point that the mayor of Detroit has given a massive corporation, Omni Consumer Products, the jurisdiction to run the police department, hoping that they’ll be able to make it function better in exchange for turning Detroit’s worst slums into a new town known as Delta City. However, how that police department will be run is a topic of contention with the board of OCP. One member, Dick Jones, proposes a massive war machine known as ED-209, which will control the streets through fear and intimidation. But, that project is put down after it literally kills a fellow board member while demonstrating its powers. So, things are instead passed on to Bob Morton, who plans to create a cyborg policeman he calls RoboCop. They just need a human candidate. Which brings us to Alex Murphy, a cop who has been recently reassigned to the worst possible precinct in Detroit. He and his partner Anne Lewis begin patrolling in Detroit, getting Murphy used to the new job, when they come across a famous criminal named Clarence Boddicker. Lewis and Murphy decide to follow Boddicker and his gang, eventually ending up at their hideout in a steel mill. They attempt to sneak in and take Boddicker down, but Murphy is caught and tortured by the men, having much of his body riddled with bullets before being shot in the head. Lewis is able to escape and bring help, but they’re too late to save Murphy, who is declared dead.
However, that’s not exactly true. OCP is able to take Murphy before he dies, and uses his body to create their RoboCop. They spend months integrating robotics and cybernetics into Murphy’s body, creating a robotic police officer that is programmed to be a perfect cop, while also serving the public trust, protecting the innocent, and upholding the law. And, he’s eventually deemed ready to begin work, travelling through Murphy’s former precinct and wowing everyone, cleaning up the streets. However, despite a supposed total erasing of Murphy’s memories and personality, Lewis begins to wonder if this mysterious RoboCop may be her former partner, due to some very particular tics he demonstrates. She tries to reach Murphy, but he’s still trapped behind the wall of RoboCop. However, that little bit of doubt manages to catch hold when RoboCop is on patrol one day and comes across one of Boddiker’s men, which triggers a flashback. RoboCop is able to arrest the man, and while running his record finds out about Boddicker’s entire gang, and specifically the murder of Alex Murphy, which is enough to get Murphy to remember who he is. And, now he has a target.
So, RoboCop begins seeking out Boddicker, and pretty quickly is able to arrest him during a drug deal. However, while arresting him Boddicker lets something slip. he works for Dean Jones, who funds his criminal escapades in order to advance his ED-209 and Delta City projects. So, RoboCop heads to OCP in order to arrest Jones, which is when he learns he has a secret directive in his brain which keeps him from harming anyone in OCP. RoboCop is then severely damaged by an ED-209, and forced to flee into the city. He gets help from Lewis, and the two get to work repairing RoboCop and letting him remember his time as Murphy. While that’s going on though, Jones has freed Boddicker and equipped his men with high-power weapons, hoping that they can kill RoboCop before he becomes a problem. And, they’re successfully able to track RoboCop down to the same steel mill where Murphy died, which is where he and Lewis have set up shop. Boddicker and his men attack the mill, but RoboCop is able to dispatch them, one after another, killing the men who essentially killed him. And, with that taken care of, RoboCop heads to OCP headquarters, where he’s able to barge into an executive meeting and play footage of Jones’ confession. And, what’s more, the head of the company fires Jones, negating RoboCop’s rule against harming members of OCP. And, free to enact his revenge, he kills Jones, and heads off to keep serving the people, but not before telling them that his name is Murphy.
Like I said at the top of this article, RoboCop is a movie that I have a vast amount of personal nostalgia for, primarily thanks to the fact that it was something I got to share with my older cousins, a movie that was perhaps too violent for the age I saw it, but a little secret that made me feel like I was doing something grown up. And, when you see a movie like RoboCop at a young age, most other movie’s ideas of gore are just kind of elementary to you. I’ve never been a huge gore-hound like so many other people, but RoboCop sure is a movie that will blow your mind as a kid, and then continue to blow your mind for the rest of your life as you start to understand how filmmaking actually works, and you’re left stunned at the visual acrobatics that this movie is pulling off, seemingly with no effort. It’s a staggering technical achievement, which I feel like is one of the biggest reasons that this movie works as well as it does. Because, on its surface, this is a dumb movie. It has a ridiculous name, it’s full of wanton violence and destruction, and it seems like just another cheesy 80’s action flick. But, the more you look into it, the more you realize that there’s a lot going on in this movie. Paul Verhoeven is a director who seems to have made a career out of making movies that can be enjoyed in a deep, intellectual manner, and simultaneously a surface popcorn manner. If you want a gory action flick, this movie has you covered. If you want a bizarrely sharp satire that tackles everything Verhoeven found fascinating about American culture, you also have that covered.
Paul Verhoeven is a director with a lot of personal interests that he works into his films. But, when it came time to make his big splash in the world of Hollywood, he decided to do something unexpected. He chose a big weird action flick to be his entry point, and specifically chose it in order to make a mission statement about America. This movie served as Paul Verhoeven’s opinion of American cinema, and American culture at large. It’s a crazy story about violence, cops and robbers, corporations, and the almighty dollar. And, much like Network, it’s a satire that looks less and less satirical with each passing year. I mean, if you read tomorrow that Google had purchased the Detroit police department and was going to be utilizing an artificial intelligence to patrol the streets, would you even think twice about that? We live in RoboCop. Verhoeven specifically requested to insert a series of insane commercials and new segments into this movie, helping streamline a whole bunch of otherwise tedious world-building into the movie, while also showing us just how desensitized this world had become. If you live in a world where the news is a nonstop cavalcade of death and violence, where you are encouraged to pay for new organs as status symbols, and where a company is just going to build its own city on the rubble of a crime-ridden town, are you really going to blink when you find out that there’s a RoboCop running around? Probably not, and while this movie was initially conceived as a satire, a movie poking fun at the idea that 1980’s excess and greed could eventually reach this cartoonish extreme, it becomes pretty damn bleak when you can watch this movie and see that certain elements are indistinguishable from present day reality. Paul Verhoeven seemed to be lovingly mocking America, showing us a reflection of how we looked to the rest of the world, and instead he accidentally served as a prophet, pretty accurately guessing where this culture of excess would eventually lead us.
RoboCop was written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, directed by Paul Verhoeven, and released by Orion Pictures, 1987.
Categories: Cinematic Century