REVIEW: RoboCop [1987]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: July 17th, 1987 (USA)
Studio: Orion Pictures Corporation
Director(s): Paul Verhoeven
Writer(s): Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner

“The future has a silver lining”

It started with a passing thought by screenwriter Edward Neumeier as he walked by a poster for Blade Runner—a movie his friend explained was about a “cop hunting robots”. What if he combined those two nouns to make a robot cop? A machine with the computational power to judge right from wrong tinted gray due to a latent morality combined with the extra strength and invincibility being constructed out of metal could provide? Yes, please. Partnered with Michael Miner, however, their dystopian script was initially dismissed by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven until his wife read it and discovered the political commentary hidden between the lines. Here was a blackly comic satire depicting rampant corruption, the privatization of public service, a consumer-driven media, and the all-encompassing power trip of greed at the expense of our own humanity.

Looking back, RoboCop should have been a no-brainer for Verhoeven, especially knowing how his second collaboration with Neumeier—Starship Troopers—took these themes even further. From the opening frame we watch a primetime news team explain Old Detroit’s state of lawlessness with violence escalating and police deaths mounting to the point of an impending strike. It’s Omni Consumer Products (OCP) and their military contract clout who arrives under the guise of a public sector hero; a corporation with the people’s interests at heart promising to clean up the streets and begin construction of their utopian urban landscape coined Delta City. Senior President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) introduces his behemoth robot ED-209 as poised and ready to takeover law enforcement with an iron fist, but a bloody “glitch” leads his OCP Chairman (Dan O’Herlihy) to consider an alternative.

Here is the underlying collision of greed with Jones’ desire to rule getting usurped by cocky opportunist Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), a man salivating for a chance to put his RoboCop initiative into motion knowing full well that the brutality on the streets means it’s only a matter of time before some cop is declared legally dead and thus OCP property due to an elaborately designed contract waver they’ve enforced just for such experimental needs. The vile and murderous Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his merry band of psychotic henchmen (including a pre-“Twin Peaks” Ray Wise) serendipitously comply as Officer Alex Murphy’s (Peter Weller) first day in the Western District puts them face-to-face with guns drawn. A hail of bullets dismembering him into a pulpy mess of blood and muscle later, Bob has his “volunteer”.

One could say we’re on just such a road as terrorism increases and human life’s value falls. Artificial technology advances and we begin to play with fire in the belief we control our creations out of hubristic notions of God-like power. But as we’ve learned from The Terminator and Frankenstein before it, our wings almost always burn to set us plummeting back to the cesspool we’ve allowed the world to become. RoboCop provides an intriguingly fresh combination of those two works by giving the robot a human half. Scientists may have wiped Murphy’s memory and checked the boxes to wrest away rudimentary control, but intangibles like dream and consciousness are unpredictable. Once humanity is retriggered—through memories of family, love, and vengeance—the drive for autonomy will search for a workaround to accomplish his personal goals.

This is why Boddicker is more than simply a catalyst for Murphy’s demise. He’s also the familiar face this machine’s last shred of humanity clings to as enemy. RoboCop travels the streets to do his thing—serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law—but those intrinsic details that made Murphy Murphy don’t disappear. Confusion sets in when former partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) calls him by his human name and he goes off the reservation when Boddicker’s man Emil (Paul McCrane) is encountered during a gas station robbery screaming “We killed you” in response to RoboCop using a line Murphy had before dying. Fully robotic entities demonstrate an inability to compute more than black and white while humanity’s guilt-ridden insecurities with fault coupled by bloodlust for retribution proves fallible. A “happy” medium may be impossible.

Eventually the plot lines of Murphy versus Boddicker and Morton versus Jones merge into one, but it’s done in a way that legitimizes RoboCop’s ever-evolving consciousness rather than simply squishing them together by brute force. There’s a chain of events that brings him closer to the man at the top of the pyramid through fear-induced confessions and a constantly improved intelligence discovering how to better perform his directives even when a hidden one incongruous with the others threatens his own wellbeing. These are the things sci-fi fans love to think about—ideas familiar to us on a grander scale set inside the type of fascist/communist state we’ve feared taking over America throughout history. This is capitalist culture ruling as government enterprise more focused on personal gain than the greater good while people become nothing more than malleable statistics.

This “thing” created by the prospective totalitarian regime becomes society’s hope at survival once more vicious robotics prove less than sympathetic upon malfunction. RoboCop is therefore a vicious yet laugh-out-loud funny look at the nature of big business’ relationship with a democratically elected government where the sheer absurdity of gore actually lightens the Orwellian bleakness of its environment. The effective stop-motion animation of ED-209, hilarious TV commercials accompanying each news report, and ideas that the human soul is our most cherished commodity help the film stand the test of time and make us wonder way a remake would ever be necessary. The police are painted as justified heroes while the corporate executives prove well-meaning idealists overcome by power-hungry maniacs who’ve lost their way. It may not look quite like our present, but the similarities are uncanny.

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