To celebrate the release of the dismal RoboCop (Padilha, 2014) on home media, June 3rd was declared “RoboCop Day” in the city of Detroit. While that movie wasn’t too impressive and had nothing on the original RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987), this does give us the perfect excuse to talk, and celebrate, all things RoboCop on a specific day each year.
Released: 17 July 1987
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Budget: $13.7 million
Stars: Peter Weller, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox, Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, and Daniel O’Herlihy
In the not too distant future, crime and corruption are rampant in Detroit, where Omni Consumer Products (OCP) are actively trying to cause civil unrest in order to schedule construction of Delta City. Violence rules the streets thanks to the efforts of notorious criminal Clarence Boddicker (Smith); however, when police officer Alex Murphy (Weller) is ruthlessly murdered by Boddicker and his gang, OCP turn what’s left of Murphy into the ultimate crime-fighting cyborg, RoboCop, and he sets out on a quest to regain his humanity and extract revenge on his killers.
RoboCop was the brainchild of Universal Pictures junior story executive and aspiring screenwriter Edward Neumeier; inspired by science-fiction films, particularly Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), Neumeier eventually gained a partner in the form of aspiring director Michael Miner. Together, they crafted a satirical take on 1980s business culture, commercialisation, corporations, and the media with more than a little influence of Judge Dredd spliced into the mix. The script was eventually purchased by Orion Pictures but eventual director Paul Verhoeven initially passed on the project until he found a way to connect with the satire and the themes of identity and humanity. Orion originally wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role but Peter Weller was eventually cast thanks to his commitment to the part, lower salary, and good range of body language; Kurtwood Smith and Ronny Cox, by comparison, joined the film to shake off their type casting as “nice guys”.
All of the work Weller did with Moni Yakim to develop RoboCop’s unique movements had to be scrapped in favour of slower, more deliberate movements once he put on the RoboCop suit. Designed by Rob Bottin, the expensive suit took six months to build from flexible foam latex, was supported by an internal harness during action-heavy scenes, and was one of the film’s most impressive practical effects alongside Phil Tippet’s monstrous Enforcement Droid-209 (ED-209), which was brought to life through both practical and laborious stop motion effects. Despite some difficulties with the film’s marketing, RoboCop was a modest hit for Orion; it made just over $53 million at the box office and was met with generally positive reviews. While filming was a gruelling experience for the director and main star, RoboCop went on to be an extremely influential movie, spawning a number of sequels, spin-offs, and ancillary media in the form of toys, cartoons, and videogames.
RoboCop takes place in a semi-dystopian future that looks remarkably like the late eighties; in Detroit, crime and violence are so out of control that cops, understandably fed up of being killed on the streets, are close to going on strike! The very suggestion of leaving the already chaotic streets undefended angers Metro West Sergeant Reed (Robert DoQui), a hard taskmaster who delivers the iconic line: “We’re not plumbers! We’re police officers! And police officers don’t strike!” Still, Reed is exasperated by scumbag criminals and their equally sleazy lawyers who downplay the significance of crimes such as attempted murder, and the city cops certainly have the odds stacked against them; they’re under-staffed, under-paid, out-gunned, and out-numbered and their lot only gets worse day by day as OCP has made moves to privatise law enforcement in order to justify the construction of Delta City, a modern industrial utopia that is the lifelong dream of their chief executive officer, referred to simply as the Old Man (O’Herlihy).
It is into this tumultuous situation that we are introduced to Murphy, a veteran officer transferring in from Metro South; partnered with the tough-as-nails Officer Anne Lewis (Allen), Murphy is just one of many officers moved over to more violent areas of the city at the direct order of OCP junior executive Bob Morton (Ferrer) specifically because they fit the physical and psychological profile for his RoboCop project. A devoted husband and father, Murphy is a simple family man and a good cop; he’s impressed with Lewis’ physicality and builds a fast rapport with her but their partnership is tragically cut short when they respond to reports of a robbery. OCP is the very definition of an untouchable, greedy, malevolent corporation; the very definition of eighties excess, even, as OCP has incredible influence across the city thanks to their power and military contracts. Comprised of a number of unscrupulous Board members who care only for profit and expanding their own ambitions, OCP have few qualms about sacrificing others in their quest for greater profits. After orchestrating the rising crime in the city, Senior President Richard “Dick” Jones (Cox) proudly unveils his mammoth ED-209 robot as the answer to “urban pacification”. Unlike in the later sequels, where the Old Man is seen as a strictly malicious figure, his motivations seem far more ambivalent here; while Jones is in league with Boddicker and actively murders those who get in his way, the Old Man seems to genuinely want to improve Detroit with the construction of Delta City. However, when ED-209 malfunctions and murders a junior executive, the Old Man’s focus is still, amusingly, more on the financial losses Dick’s “glitch” will cost the company.
This violent incident sets the entire main plot in motion as, with Dick humiliated in front of the Board and the Old Man, Morton takes advantage of the situation to get approval for his RoboCop project, earning Dick’s ire in the process. Luckily for them, but not so much for Murphy, Boddicker and his gang (comprised of Emil Antonowsky (Paul McCrane), Leon Nash (Ray Wise), Joe Cox (Jesse D. Goins), and Steve Minh (Calvin Jung)), are in the middle of a desperate getaway after robbing a bank and Murphy and Lewis dutifully chase after them despite not having any back-up. Essentially a group of psychopaths and sadistic killers, Boddicker and his gang take immense pleasure in shooting it out with the cops and running rampant throughout the city and, while we don’t really learn a great deal about them, they are all very colourful, reprehensible, and larger than life villains thanks to being portrayed by some extremely talented character actors who all seem to be having the time of their lives in the roles. They delight in torturing and taunting Murphy, who is left defenceless and helpless when Lewis is cut off from him and, led by Boddicker, they systematically set about blowing him literally to shreds with their high-powered firearms in one of the most brutal and gut-wrenching scenes I’ve ever seen.
With his hand and arm blasted off, Murphy is bombarded by a series of shotgun blasts and yet remains alive thanks to his body armour, until Boddicker executes him with a point-blank shot to the head. After a harrowing scene of Murphy’s death, he is subjected to a lengthy procedure by Morton’s team and reborn as RoboCop. We only see bits and pieces of this transition, and all from Murphy’s disjointed and fragmented perspective as he comes online in a cybernetic body and is unveiled in all his armoured glory. Sustained by a rudimentary paste and installed in the Metro West facility, RoboCop is a captivating and alluring presence for both criminals and cops alike. Bound by three “Prime Directives” (and a fourth, classified Directive), RoboCop is programmed to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law, something he does with an unmatched efficiency. After acing the shooting range with his rapid fire Auto-9, RoboCop hits the streets and immediately stops an armed robbery (arguably causing more damage to the store than the robber would have), saves the Mayor from a mad gunman, and saves a woman from a couple of rapist punks by shooting one in the dick and this is all within the first thirty minutes of the movie! Having lost his identity and memories during the process, RoboCop initially has no recollection of his former life as a human cop; however, Lewis’ suspicions are almost immediately raised when she sees RoboCop performing Murphy’s signature gun twirl.
While at rest, RoboCop is tormented by fragmented memories of his murder and his memories are triggered by Lewis, who is convinced that he is Murphy reborn, and Emil’s horror at also recognising one of Murphy’s iconic lines (“Dead or alive you’re coming with me!”) This drives RoboCop to investigate the name Lewis addressed him as, “Murphy”, and paying a visit to his now-abandoned family home, and realising his true origins. Determined to avenge himself on Boddicker, RoboCop tracks the crime boss to a cocaine factory and, though fully intending to beat Boddicker to death, arrests him in accordance with his third Directive: “Uphold the law”. Enraged at Morton’s arrogance and disrespect, Dick is even more incensed at RoboCop’s presence, which not only completely undermines his ED-209 proposal but also leads to Boddicker implicating Dick in his (as in Boddicker’s) desperate pleas for mercy. To that end, Dick arranges for Boddicker’s bail, orders him assassinate Morton, and then cripples RoboCop when the cyborg police officer finds himself unable to arrest him due to Director 4 (which prevents him from acting against an OCP employee). After narrowly surviving a shoot-out with ED-209, RoboCop is set upon by the city Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) team, led by Lieutenant Hedgecock (Michael Gregory), and once again shot to shit. Saved by Lewis, RoboCop struggles with disparate memories of his former life and soon finds himself facing off against his killers, now armed with high-grade military weaponry and set on killing him for good.
For me, you can’t talk about RoboCop without mentioning Basil Poledouris’ iconic and memorable score; a combination of synthesisers and traditional orchestra, the main theme manages to be rousing, heroic, and tragic all at once and perfectly encapsulates one of the main themes of the movie (that of machine and man working in harmony). Murphy’s violent death is punctuated only by his agonised screams and the sounds of guns being fired but, when RoboCop is blasted but Hedgecock’s men, the harrowing scene is accompanied by an poignant series of horns that really add to the tragedy and helplessness of the moment. Similarly, when RoboCop awakens from his dream and begins to piece together the fragments of his former life, it is accentuated by Poledouris’ rousing score that works perfectly with Weller’s unparalleled body language to really sell the RoboCop’s inner turmoil. One of the most entertain aspects of RoboCop are its many instances of social satire and commentary on consumerism, both of which are used to great comedic effect because they’re simultaneously ludicrous and played completely straight and treated so nonchalant by characters in the film. For example, the film is interspersed by regular cutaways to Media Break, a regular scheduled news program whose hosts, Casey Wong (Mario Machado) and Jess Perkins (Leeza Gibbons), deliver reports of nuclear discord in other countries, violence on the Detroit streets, and a whole host of grim news with an unabashed enthusiasm that borders on disinterest.
Indeed, this is a fictional world where death and violence are commonplace and treated as simply routine, resulting in an amusingly blasé approach to the bleakness that grips both the city and are a great way to quickly inform the viewer of what’s happening in Detroit. Alongside these are a number of ridiculous commercials for things such as Yamaha-branded artificial hearts, the hilariously ostentatious 6000 SUX, and a bizarrely popular television show whose womanising main character (S. D. Nemeth) just loves proclaiming: “I’d buy that for a dollar!” There are many themes at work in RoboCop alongside this biting satire, the majority of which are masterfully conveyed through the simple use of music, body language, and subtlety. Yes, the idea of a hulking cybernetic cop blasting scumbags with a massive firearm isn’t exactly the definition of the word subtle but the core concepts of identity and humanity are especially poignant. One that you might not have picked up on is a sly Christ allegory; Murphy suffers and dies, is resurrected, and even walks across (well, technically through) water by the conclusion. You can argue that this is a bit of a reach but there’s definitely enough evidence to delve deeply into this reading and the very fact that this is the case shows that RoboCop isn’t just some mindless eighties action movie. The movie asks audiences to consider the question of whether Murphy’s soul lives on in RoboCop or whether he’s simply a machine with fragments of a dead man’s memories and whether having those lingering memories and feelings are enough to say that Murphy lives in in his new mechanical body. By the end of the film, of course, RoboCop has fully evolved away from his cold, efficient programming and has accepted his humanity; he ditches his visor and proudly proclaims his name to be “Murphy” and, though the status quo is largely reset by start of the sequel, that doesn’t undermine the triumph of this character arc here as RoboCop is able to reaffirm his humanity while making his murderers pay for their actions.
Of course, that’s not to undermine the action that is on display here; thanks to Weller’s slick, fluid movements, RoboCop is an efficient and impressive screen character, able to blast his foes through a series of swift movements often without even looking! Not only that, the film is hilariously violent, especially in this Director’s Cut, where scenes such as ED-209’s violent introduction, Murphy’s unsettling execution, and Boddicker’s cathartic death are all expanded upon in gruesome detail. Honestly, if you’re tired of today’s modern CGI effects, you could do a lot worse than to pop in RoboCop for some proper old school, practical effects; blood squibs are everywhere, animatronics, puppetry, and traditional stop motion techniques are used to fantastic effect to bring ED-209 to life and make for an effective and exciting clash between it and RoboCop, and that’s not forgetting the RoboCop suit itself. Excuse me while I gush for a minute but this suit is a thing of absolute beauty and totally sells the idea that this is a machine-man thanks to how layered and intricate it is, to say nothing of the iconic thomp-thomp-thomp footsteps he makes. When RoboCop removes his helmet and gazes upon the remains of his face, it’s an especially touching scene (even though he randomly loses his chin guard in the process) thanks, largely, to a combination of Weller’s powerfully understated performance and the fantastically realised special effects. Finally, there’s the “melting man” effect used to show Emil’s well-deserved death; bathed in toxic waste, his skin melts and leaves him a gaunt, agonised figure that injects a real horror into this bombastic sci-fi action piece.
RoboCop is another of the quintessential, formative movies of my childhood; I grew up watching this, and other similar sci-fi and action movies of the eighties, and it’s had a profound influence on my likes, personality, and academic decisions over time. A brisk, action-packed sci-fi classic with a number of poignant themes regarding humanity and the nature of the soul, RoboCop is so much more than just a mindless action film. Having lost his humanity and his memories during the process of being resurrected, RoboCop sets aside his stringent programming in order to piece together his former life. Lewis is fully accepting of him once she realises his true identity, standing by him as he faces off with Boddicker and his gang and the underpinning message of the film seems to be that humanity is not defined by ones physical trappings. At the same time, RoboCop is an endlessly entertaining commentary on the consumerism and excess of the eighties and is full of amusing social satire that is perfectly realised to avoid coming across as slapstick or a parody. Similarly, the film is chock full of blood, violence, and hard-hitting action and some of the most impressive and ambitious practical and special effects ever put to film. Honestly, I could talk about this film all day and never get bored, but suffice it to say that RoboCop is an absolute classic of its genre and it still holds up to this day.
Are you a fan of RoboCop? Did you see the film when it first released or did you discover it on home video? Were you a fan of the film’s themes, social satire, and unapologetic violence? What did you think to the effects, particularly the RoboCop suit and ED-209? Which RoboCop movie is your favourite? How are you celebrating RoboCop Day today? Whatever you think about RoboCop, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.