Robocop 30th Anniversary
“I want money back, I want my time back — and most of all i want my innocence back.”
That was how critic Maggie Anderson described her experience watching the original RoboCop in 1988, a few months after its release, while writing for London’s Evening Standard. On the surface, you can kind of see where she was coming from: Virtually all of its lean103-minute running time is packed with bullets, gore, and profanity. But while Ms. Anderson’s reaction was hardly unique, it was also hardly representative of the mainstream. Rather, RoboCop represented one of those rare instances where critical and popular acclaim were out of sync. What makes this even more impressive still is that this was — on the surface, anyway — a standard issue action vehicle with a gloriously goofy title that almost dared audiences to dismiss it out of hand. Heck, per his own telling, even director Paul Verhoeven tossed the script across the room without reading it as soon as he saw the title.
With RoboCop celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this summer, there’s no doubting the lasting impact Verhoeven (who made his Hollywood debut with this film) managed to achieve. It’s visceral, violent, unnerving, and engaging, and while we can easily chuckle at some of the shopworn stop motion effects of the ED-209 enforcement robot or obvious budgetary limitations, three decades later RoboCop feels nevertheless more timely than ever: It’s impossible to look at the world we live in and not see the stark future the movie warned us about, where media and society are hopelessly intermingled and corporate aristocracy determines the fates of average people, already coming to fruition.
The story is a familiar one, cobbled together in Frankenstein fashion from a host of influential fantasy forebears (among them the UK’s Judge Dredd comic series and, appropriately enough, Frankenstein) by screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. In a nightmarish, crime-ridden, near-future version of Detroit, Office Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is gunned down in the line of duty. However, his remains are repurposed by global megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (who have taken over the job of managing the police department from the local government) into a cyborg police officer who can be on-call twenty-four-seven.
RoboCop makes a dazzling initial debut on the public scene, but an encounter with his former partner Ann Lewis (Nancy Allen) soon has him beset by pesky, fragmented memories of his former life with his wife and son. As he attempts to cope with his returning humanity and figure out who he is (or was), he must also track down the man who killed him (Kurtwood Smith) and a corrupt corporate executive (Ronny Cox) who (we soon learn) is pulling the strings from above.
What’s important to realize when examining RoboCop all these years later is just how unique it was at the time of its initial release. Yes, it was emulating the ultraviolence that made movies like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series or the entire Arnold Schwarzenegger oeuvre such big draws during the ‘80s, but it ups the gore factor to cartoonish levels bent through Verhoeven’s prism of genre lampooning
“Dick, I’m very disappointed,” says the corporate honcho known only as “The Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy) to Cox’s Dick Jones after the failed demonstration of a massive, entirely impractical law enforcement robot has left the bullet-riddled corpse of one of their fellow executives splayed out in the middle of the boardroom. “Disappointed,” not because of the life lost, but because of the time and money involved. The casual nonchalance of this declaration is a direct comment on how numb audiences had become to the escalating body counts of ‘80s action cinema, and thus wickedly, darkly humorous.
In addition to critiquing rampant capitalism without conscience (“Good business is where you find it,” says Cox proudly while extolling the virtues of the corporate takeover of various public sector jobs), the movie also puts the entire culture of media excess and indulgence under a microscope. From the fake commercials interspersed throughout (inserted to highlight the film’s satirical content and dissuade the MPAA from the X-rating it initially garnered) to a comedy show whose only appeal appears to be surplus raunchiness and the endlessly repeated catchphrase, “I’ll buy that for a dollar!”, it all Verhoeven is constantly wagging his finger at American cultural emptiness.
Nowhere is this clearer than the many “Media Break” segments interspersed throughout, which serve the story by keeping the audience appraised of the film’s particular dystopian status quo (which is made more depressing for how close to our own world it is visually — none of Blade Runner’s flying cars here). These segments (“Give us three minutes, we’ll give you the world!”) also implicitly critique the rise and prevalence of “infotainment” by having Leeza Gibbons, known primarily as a sometime-host of syndicated fluff show Entertainment Tonight, serving as one of the film’s talking heads.
Of course, it’s not just the satire that gives RoboCop’s continued resonance. If anything, the sharply comedic aspects merely serve as window dressing: They’re there to add another vector of analysis, but they don’t define the film. Instead, the central through-line is a poignant story about a man trying to reclaim the identity that was forcibly stolen from him — first by immoral criminals, and then an amoral corporation. It’s a metaphor for the travails of the workingman, whose only purpose is that of (literally, in this case) a cog in the machine.
In another example of Verhoeven using amped-up violence to make a broader point, Murphy’s vicious, bullet-ridden murder occurs so early on that it’s impossible for the audience to have gotten attached. But the sadistic glee exhibited by Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker and his assorted goons, coupled with Murphy’s screams of abject agony as he’s brought down, are such that anyone with a conscience and a pulse will feel an immediate sense of heartbreak and loss for this character, which in turn propels our investment in the rest of the movie.
Much kudos must also go to Weller himself, who was given a pretty thankless job as the bionic bobby of the title and spent much of the movie’s runtime enveloped in an unwieldy prosthetic suit. Already a cult favorite thanks to his appearance as the title character in W.D. Richter’s Buckaroo Banzai just a few years earlier, Weller makes Murphy seem easygoing and relatable in his early scenes and manages to give Robo a distinct personality without falling into the trope of speaking in a halting, machine-like voice.
There’s real, raw emotion in the scene where Murphy, slowly remembering his former life, visits the house he once lived in with his family. Thanks to Verhoeven’s liberal use of point-of-view shots that put us in Robo’s headspace, we witness fragments of happier times as he makes his way through the empty dwelling, and Weller conveys a deepening pathos that’s made even more remarkable when you consider that under the RoboCop suit created by effects guru Rob Bottin, he has to rely entirely on the lower portion of his face to do the heavy lifting.
This is all punctuated by an orchestral score from the late Basil Poledouris that brings heavy percussion to the big action scenes (such as the “Rock Shop” sequence where Robo brings down a drug den) while dialing in on more emotional beats for scenes like the one described above. It’s a tightrope that the composer navigates with aplomb, and while one could easily see a film like this bowing to the zeitgeist of the time and going with a synthesized soundtrack, Poledouris’ symphonic score is yet one more ingredient that’s helped assure the film’s immortality.
Somewhat surprisingly at the time, RoboCop was a substantial success at the box office, grossing $53 million domestically against a $13 million budget. That success paved the way for a variety of attempts at extending the brand, including two theatrical sequels (in 1990 and 1993), two live action TV shows (in 1994 and 2001), two animated series (in 1988 and 1998), and a big-budget remake in 2014, not to mention a cavalcade of comic books, action figures, and all manner of other licensed paraphernalia that continues to emerge.
And while none of the brand extenders mentioned above found much success (Weller himself only returned for the first sequel, directed by The Empire Strikes Back’s Irvin Kerschner), the property itself has managed to remain ubiquitous. This speaks to the singular power of the film, and Verhoeven’s direction. It also speaks to how, by film’s end, with RoboCop referring to himself as “Murphy” and no longer wearing his trademark helmet, the story has come to a neat, tidy conclusion. There are no further addendums required. Rather, it’s a complete experience whose effectiveness is diluted rather than enhanced by any follow-ups.
Despite the fact that it’s draped in cynicism and satire, RoboCop is ultimately a hopeful story about humanity’s ability to endure. It posits a world where the will of the individual to exist — to simply be — is itself a revolutionary act that can bring about lasting, positive change. It’s a powerful message that will never go out of fashion, and it’s the reason that RoboCop will continue to resonate with future audiences for the next thirty years (and beyond).