RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven)
It is always a welcome sign when a film from a past decade lives up to its name and stays relevant during present day. The 1980s, perhaps more than most other previous decades, is infamous for a number of movies and franchises that seem stuck in its own era. ‘80s culture’ , it would seem, does not translate well to the early 21st century. There are some shining beacons however, films that have withstood the test of time either because of the timelessness of their characters or because certain themes are still relevant today. Paul Verheoven, not one to shy away from controversy, had a devil of a time getting his quintessential 1980s action film RoboCop accepted by the MPAA due to the graphically violent content. While the grisly nature of the action is thrilling, RoboCop is much more than that and remains as entertaining and provocative a movie as it must have been those 24 years ago.
Taking aim at one of modern human history’s most divisive practices, corporatization, Robocop bites on everything it can chew, and chew it does. Our story begins with relatively young Detroit city police Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) as he is teamed up with Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The cops have a tall order, for these are disturbing times for the Detroit’s police force and the city at large. Crime has taken a firm grip on what happens, where and when, as have large private companies, most notably Omni Consumer Products, who have become so influential that its senior president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) wishes to spread his tentacles into the operations of the police department with mechanized law enforcers. While this original plan goes awry, a rival junior executive (Miguel Ferrer) sees a window of opportunity after Officer Murphy is butchered at the hands the most feared gang lord in the city, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Following a revolutionary operation with what remained of Murphy’s body and mind, scientists turn the former man into a one unit army, an ultimate crime fighting machine, a… Robocop!
Before getting into any of the thematic acrobatics the film engages in, it seems appropriate to begin in earnest by writing about the titular character, RoboCop. He is half cop, half robot after all, and that must count for something. From a design perspective, the man turned machine protagonist is memorable, what with his bulky physique, shiny chrome exterior and the vintage visor which hides his human eyes and is used for scanning his surroundings. Then there is the ghostly image of Murphy’s still existing face once he removes his helmet. A shadow of the man he once was, the only recognizable feature being that expressionless face. He is a walking action figure, which is an idea that resonates with a lot of people, especially in the male demographic. The appreciative touches also concern the voice of Robocop, which sounds like the human Murphy but filtered so as to provide it with a robotic echo. Beyond whatever cool costume design is utilized to full effect in bringing Robocop to life, what resonates most is the character’s story, rich in drama, both heroic and sad. Murphy was a good cop and presumably a good man, a married one no less. His temporary death at the hands of scum the likes of Boddicker is atrocious, as his subsequent transformation (some might say ‘resurrection’) means he becomes a victim of the very incarnation of evil that plagues the city and that swore to subdue. Now, as RoboCop, he is, in a sense, awarded with a second opportunity to do well and serve his community. The reality of the situation begs differently however. Just who is RoboCop? How much of Murphy’s old self remains in the body and mind which have gone through significant scientific alterations? Here is where the heart of the movie starts to beat, as RoboCop, product of a corporation’s hunger to make inroads into social services, learns to re-discover himself, sometimes through flashes of memories, other times through interactions with his former partner Anne. Omni consumer products wanted a machine, but their problem was that the man inside the machine, his spirit at least, never truly passed away. In a devastating twist, by being granted a second life of sorts to finish the job he set out to accomplish in the first place, he becomes a tool in the machinations (no pun intended) of a greedy corporation, and, more importantly, potentially at the cost of his own humanity. More than anything, it is the hero’s journey treaded by Murphy-RoboCop, a journey of self-preservation, honour, and of duty which impresses most in Verheoven’s film.
The topic of corporate malfeasance and corruption go beyond the central storyline involving Officer Murphy. Omni’s desire to essentially own the Detroit police force as well its close ties to organized crime (Boddicker and Omni senior president Dick Jones are in cahoots) are signs that even greater threats loom than Murphy’s personal struggle, terrific as that aspect of the film may be. There is something to be said about films that wear their politics on their shoulders proudly. In many instances such pictures are lambasted for being didactic and lacking subtlety. Subtlety is nowhere to be found in RoboCop, but never does that hinder the film’s ability to tell its story. Rather, it seems to assist it, to provide the movie and its central character with a backbone against which everything can take its course, in addition to being still relevant today as it was in 1987. During the 1980s, western democracies such as The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada witnessed a definite and decisive swing on the political spectrum towards right. All of a sudden, cross-national free trade agreements and policies which favoured big business were all the craze, with the more traditionally left-leaning policies of government intervention to assist the social sectors taking a back seat. RoboCop channels the fears and frustrations of that era and has them in an exciting police action movie. The convergence of the two plotlines, that of Murphy’s personal odyssey and the other involving Detroit’s police overtaken by a private company, give Verheoven’s project that special, electric energy and help raise the stakes that much more. Murphy’s story is suddenly one small aspect to a larger and very real problem. The film even makes reference to the western world’s egotistical consumer habits by frequently intercutting between news flashes which encapsulate the evolution of Detroit’s dire situation and over the top, insensitive television advertisements for a variety of products.
Peter Weller is one of those actors who is long forgotten now, but who back in the day gave some very credible performances. His work in Verheoven’s film should not go unnoticed in the current review. Granted, much of his acting is voice work, voice work which is artificially altered to make him sound robotic, but a lot still comes across despite those potential barriers. They even enhance the performance because getting real emotions across is all the more difficult. It is also the sort of performance where a single facial expression goes a long way. On the few occasions when Murphy removes his visor helmet, revealing the pale skin underneath, only a blank stare greets people. Again, the challenge for Weller to get those feelings across to the audience and make the character of Murphy-RoboCop fully fledged is tall, but the actor succeeds nonetheless. Verheoven populates the world with a great many other solid character actors such Ronny Cox, who pulls the slimy nature of Omni’s senior president, Kurtwood Smith as the brash and psychotic gangster Clarence Boddicker and Robert DoQui as the Sergeant Warren Reed.
More than just a memory from the 80s, Paul Verheoven’s RoboCop is a classic action film that meshes the inventive story about a different kind of protagonist with pressing social and political issues that struck a chord and still do till this day.