There are really only two truly iconic science-fiction movies from the 1980’s: the first is James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984); the other remains Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987). While the former, with its apocalyptic ‘end of days’ scenario, can effectively be classified as pseudo-horror, the latter is a delicious social satire, and something of a time capsule in its anti-capitalist sentiments; Verhoeven and screenwriter, Edward Neumeier, railing against the ‘me’ generation’s prevailing ‘greed is good’ mantra; the yuppies represented herein as egomaniacal, ultra-violent and self-destructing narcissistic pleasure seekers.
At the time of its release, RoboCop seemed like an unlikely venture for Verhoeven, whose career was begun on the promise of intense, character-driven dramas. Still, in his native Holland, Verhoeven had garnered a reputation for pushing the envelope in screen permissiveness. However, when the political polarity shifted from right to left wing governments, Verhoeven’s movie projects – nationally funded – began to encounter stalemates. In retrospect, this indignation seems to have colored Verhoeven’s critiques on power in general – also, its socio-economic influencers; the director transposing these highly personal artistic frustrations onto his directorial debut in the U.S. – RoboCop.
For months, screenwriter, Edward Neumeier had tried to market his idea about the future of law enforcement, set in the gangland urban decay of Detroit; the city saved from itself by a robotic crusader. Sharing this idea with another writer, Michael Miner, Neumeier was to discover a kindred spirit who also thought robots were ‘cool’. Miner had, in fact, toyed with his own ‘robot themed’ adventure story about a man who, after suffering a tragic accident, is refitted with full-body mechanical prosthetics to enhance his abilities to administer order and justice.
Drawing on a formidable backlog of hallowed cinema robots, with a particular homage made to Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, Neumeier and Miner’s two concepts eventually melded and morphed into RoboCop; the ‘working title’ incurring everything from snide chuckles to outright guffaws as being tacky, clichéd and downright silly. In retrospect, the parallels between RoboCop and The Terminator are superficial at best; each a post-modern robot-themed story relying on deft bits of very dark comedy and book-ended by wall-to-wall action. Both movies contain a deeper message: Terminator’s forewarning of man’s methodical quest to self-destruction, RoboCop’s initially less clear, but ultimately, more deeply evolved themes crystalized by Verhoeven’s extemporaneous passion for reshaping and massaging the narrative as he was shooting it.
Initially, Neumeier had passed his screenplay to Verhoeven’s agent, who promptly shared it with his client and received a very adamant ‘no’ for his efforts. It seems Verhoeven’s wife was chiefly responsible for coaxing her husband into reconsidering his hasty rejection of RoboCop; Verhoeven eventually drawing out satirical elements to create a higher concept/anti-capitalist diatribe from this low-budget B-grade programmer; exploiting only the patina of sci-fi, and its bold, gutsy (and gut-strewn) adventurism to complement his more richly derived and mined artistic milieu. After producer, Jonathan Kaplan turned Neumeier and Miner down, the pair approached John Davison at Orion Pictures; the company’s previous and overwhelming success with The Terminator, arguably, influencing the studio’s decision to green light the project.
In retrospect, RoboCop feels very much like a transposition of time-honored traits ripped directly from the Hollywood western playbook; our noble hero trading in his white, ten gallon and trusty steed for glistening breast plates, protective helmet and bulletproof body armor. Our mechanized messiah even indulges in some slick Hop-along Cassidy gunplay, the character twirling his new-age six-shooter between his robotic fingers before appropriately, and effortlessly, slipping it into a hidden compartment in his leg; highly representational of the leather holster worn by western heroes and gunslingers. And RoboCop goes even further in its analogous associations with the Hollywood western; the crime-infested urban cityscape (actually Dallas and Pennsylvania subbing in for Detroit) a dead ringer for the lawlessness of Dodge City or Tombstone. Paul Verhoeven’s anthropological study of the western genre is married to his outsider’s perspective on American cultural in general, circa 1987. This elevates the whole tenor of the piece. RoboCop could so easily have degenerated into rank nihilism. Instead it rises above the squibs to become a fairly weighty tome about the restoration and preservation of humanity’s collective faith.
RoboCop gets a fair amount of mileage from this congruence; also from Verhoeven’s other great spark of inspiration – the Bible. Approaching RoboCop from a purely humanitarian perspective, Verhoeven’s high concept takes aim at no less a cataclysm than the crucifixion. “I wanted to make a movie about Satan killing Jesus”, Verhoeven would later admit. Indeed, the brutal execution of RoboCop’s human alter ego, lanky police officer, Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller) and his penultimate ‘resurrection’ as a reprogrammed humanoid, dedicated to achieving Detroit’s salvation, draws on some intensely felt parallels with the Christ story; this industrialized avenging angel sworn to protect the sanctity of human life and uphold the law; that is, until the final bloody confrontation between Murphy’s body-armored superhero and arch nemesis/corporate exec, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) ensues.
The other appealing aspect that lured Verhoeven into making the movie was its action-packed pugnacity. This goes well beyond Verhoeven’s last name and that other word – violence – both beginning with the letter ‘V’. It’s far too easy to be dismissive about the film’s over-the-top ferocity, particularly the grotesque nature of Murphy’s cruel extermination and his even more callous reconstruction – his memory erased (well…almost) by corporate America, stamped with the assembly-line model number as a ‘Robocop’. Unlike most sci-fi, RoboCop is a far more humanistic exploration of man’s dependency on machinery (man actually becoming machinery, made ‘the other’ in his own society and exploited by his own kind to do their bidding). Verhoeven revels in this message: the sacrificing of Murphy’s mind and soul to the gods of profit and hedonism only to turn away from all these man-made temptations: the creation rising beyond all expectations to expose and champion the cause of humanity for humanity’s sake.
Briefly, Verhoeven considered Michael Ironside as his star. Alas, the sleek design of RoboCop’s skeletal structure and shell (basically a latex wet suit covered in foam and plastic appliances, spray painted to look like heavy dye-cast metal) necessitated casting an actor of lean body mass, physically agile and in excellent shape. Ultimately, Peter Weller won the part; an inspired choice. Weller has an otherworldly ‘Michael Rennie’ quality about him, almost better suited to play the humanoid avenger than this flesh and blood cop who loses everything, but regains a partial sense of his former identity in the end. Weller, who had trained in mixed martial arts, adopted a very birdlike stance in his interpretation of the character. In fact, one can see definite traces of Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in Weller’s mimed performance, the personality of this character basically emerging from under the uncomfortable costume.
For the pivotal part of Officer Anne Lewis, a no-nonsense, pseudo-love interest for Murphy and his alter ego, Verhoeven first turned to Stephanie Zimbalist, who backed out at the last possible moment, affording Nancy Allen the opportunity to step in and make the part her own. Like co-star Ronny Cox, Allen’s on-screen persona would receive an attitude adjustment by Verhoveven, the director ordering her to snip off and dye her trademark strawberry blonde tresses; Allen’s newly christened mannish crop perfectly complimenting her archetype as a very butch babe. As for Ronny Cox, herein, we get a very fascinating screen heavy; courtly, polished and well-mannered on the surface/teeming with subliminal homoerotic rage, manifested in his character’s ruthless desire to conquer the boardroom at all costs; even contributing to the cold-blooded murder of two younger executives.
Special effects artist, Rob Bottin began sculpting his RoboCop body armor under a cloud; Verhoeven inadvertently impugning the creative process of ‘finding the character’ with the suggestion Bottin adhere to his inspiration and use a prototype culled from some Japanese comic books. Alas, the Japanese influence, with its oversized shoulders and chunky legs proved impossible to maneuver; Weller confessing to Verhoeven he could barely move in this costume; much less give a competent performance. For several days at the start of the shoot it looked as though RoboCop was already shaping up to be a folly of epic proportion. Indeed, the picture would go over both time and budget. Bottin and Verhoeven quickly fell out of friendship, their adversarial alliance growing more tenuous by the hour as Verhoeven pressed on. Peter Weller backed Bottin in his decision to work night and day to further streamline the costume and make it manageable.
RoboCop is set in an undisclosed time in the not-so-distant future, presumably in a dystopian Detroit, Michigan suffering from urban blight and overrun with violent crime; in short – Detroit circa 1987 to the present. The film doesn’t appear to have dated all that much because little has actually changed in the Motor City in the many years since its release. Here is a community (and I use the term very loosely) mismanaged by the few profit-driven corporate executives of the fictional mega-conglomerate, OCP (Omni Consumer Products); the daily vigilantism reigning terror on the streets, cheerfully reported on the nightly news, co-anchored by a pair of fresh-faced talking heads (including future Entertainment Tonight co-host, Leeza Gibbons). Recognizing the city’s moral implosion as imminent, the mayor gives OCP full control to develop an elite robotic police force to patrol the perilous streets; also, total freedom to demolish whole portions of the city to make way for a planned construction project; the utopian metropolitan center – Delta City – to be managed in a very Hitlerian fashion by OCP as its own independent state.
Naturally, this decision raises ire in the Detroit police force, its harried sergeant, Warren Reed (Robert DoQui) barely able to keep the last vestiges of morale afloat as the remnants threaten to strike. Unbeknownst to everyone, at this very moment OCP’s senior VP, Dick Jones is set to unveil a prototype of a robot droid that will be assigned to restore Detroit to its former glory. The ED-209 is a lumbering giant; an ominous presence with a pair of powerful machine guns for arms. Alas, in attempting to show off its potential as a crime-fighting colossus, Jones hits upon a malfunction that causes the 209 to brutally obliterate fellow executive, Kinney (Ken Page) in a hailstorm of bullets. Seizing upon the opportunity to steal Jones’ thunder, enterprising exec, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) interrupts the ghoulishly funereal tête-à-tête between Jones and OCP’s Chief Officer (Dan O’Herlihy) to inform them his RoboCop program is all set to develop the first human/cyborg hybrid crime fighter. All they need is a recently deceased human subject.
Appalled by Jones’ lack of remorse over the gruesome murder committed by the 209 – referring to it as a ‘minor glitch’ – the chief officer green lights Morton’s project; encouraging OCP to assign police officers to more hazardous neighborhoods in order to expedite the prospect of at least one of them dying in the line of duty; thereby supplying Morton’s minions with their necessary guinea pig. Alas, that poor rat turns out to be Alex J. Murphy – slightly naïve, newly arrived and assigned to patrol the dark back alleys with his partner, Anne Lewis. The only woman on the force, Lewis is nevertheless one of Detroit’s toughest cops and proves it by subduing a psychotic suspect taken into custody with only her brute fists as protection. She’s Murphy’s kind of gal…well, sort of. After all, he’s a happily married man with a good-looking wife, Ellen (Angie Bolling) and young son, Jimmy (Jason Levine) waiting for him at home.
Too soon, Murphy and Lewis encounter the ruthless gang lord, Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith, better known these days for his lovable curmudgeon on That 70’s Show). Boddicker and his motley crew of violent offenders, including gun-happy Leon C. Nash (Ray Wise) and goofy tough-guy-wannabe, Emil M. Antonowsky (Paul McCrane) waste no time cornering Murphy inside a derelict steel mill before delighting in his slow death. Verhoeven’s first foray into uber-grotesque, stomach-churning sadism begins with Boddicker blowing off Murphy’s left hand, using a double-barrel shotgun and ending with a powerful blast from another handgun that blows the back of Murphy’s head and brains all over the factory floor before Lewis can get to him.
Verhoeven counterbalances this mind-numbing sequence with one even more anesthetizing to our collective sense of moral indignation: Murphy’s view from beyond the grave as Bob Morton and his crew of emotionally retarded scientists, including Tyler (Sage Parker) and OCP’s corporate stooge, Johnson (Felton Perry) callously tinker with erasing his memory and reprogramming his mind to reflect the RoboCop program; to protect and serve the populace and obey the law – or rather, the edicts of OCP. As RoboCop, Murphy is given three primary directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. His debut within the precinct is met with rank skepticism. But pretty soon, RoboCop begins to prove his medal by thwarting a rape in progress and later, by stopping a gas station robbery – albeit, by blowing everything up. In this latter crime, Emil recognizes certain characteristics about RoboCop that distinctly remind him of Murphy; Emil fleeing the scene thoroughly unsettled before RoboCop can stop his escape.
The success of RoboCop comes with unforeseen problems. First, Lewis realizes RoboCop is really Murphy, thereby inadvertently jogging his memory. During a routine battery recharging at the precinct, RoboCop begins to have visions of his former life. We see what Murphy sees; reliving Murphy’s final moments on earth and his assassination all over again. The visions cause RoboCop to leave the precinct in pursuit of Boddicker and his henchmen. His first call is paid on the Hall of Justice, where he uses his own USB port – a spike protruding from the middle of his fist – to access data files of Boddicker’s known accomplices; the files stored within his computerized main frame now. In the meantime, Dick Jones hires Boddicker to take care of Bob Morton; the assassin breaking into Morton’s home while he is entertaining a pair of cheap hookers with some expensive cocaine. Ordering the…uh…ladies out, Boddicker subdues Morton with a few well-placed gunshots, designed to inflict maximum pain, before revealing to him Jones is behind the assassination. Unable to move, Morton lies helpless on his carpet while Boddicker places a hand grenade just out of reach, pulling its pin and exiting Morton’s house moments before a hellish explosion levels it to the ground.
Boddicker now attempts to muscle in on a lucrative cocaine manufacturing plant run by local scumbag, Sal (Lee DeBroux); the tenuous deal at gunpoint thwarted when RoboCop intercedes and attempts to place everyone under arrest. Although many of Sal and Boddicker’s goons are taken out by RoboCop, Boddicker, Nash and Emil manage to survive. Boddicker is actually taken into custody by RoboCop, but not before he confesses Dick Jones is behind everything. Boddicker now uses his one phone call to alert Jones RoboCop is on his way to apprehend him; Jones quietly and patiently waiting for his arrival, only to interrupt RoboCop’s primary objectives by referring to a fourth ‘hidden’ directive; one RoboCop cannot override. He cannot arrest any senior officer of the OCP Corporation. Jones orders the ED-209 to annihilate RoboCop; the gargantuan beast of a machine unleashing its formidable fire power on the fairly diminutive RoboCop. Although badly damaged, RoboCop manages his escape from the high rise office building, down a narrow set of stairs the ED-209 cannot navigate without toppling and becoming lodged on its back in the stairwell.
Taking refuge at an abandoned steel mill, RoboCop is tended to Lewis who helps remove his face guard, revealing Murphy’s visage beneath. His radar shooting navigator injured, Lewis guides RoboCop into relearning his human skills to fire his weapon with accuracy once again. In the meantime, Jones orders Boddicker to find and destroy RoboCop; Boddicker, Nash and Emil locating him and Lewis at the steel mill. Nash is blown to bits in an observation tower. In his attempt to run RoboCop over, Emil is swallowed alive in a toxic soup that eats through his skin before being struck and run over by a van driven by Boddicker, who also manages to take Lewis hostage. In the penultimate showdown, RoboCop saves Lewis’ life; storming the OCP Corporate offices to reveal to its Chief Executive Officer Jones is behind everything. Unwilling to surrender, Jones takes the CEO hostage, RoboCop unable to react to the incident until the CEO publicly declares Jones is fired. The impediment to his fourth directive removed, RoboCop shoots Jones dead. Pleased with the outcome, the CEO asks to know his rescuers’ name, to which RoboCop smiles and replies, “Murphy”.
In these brief moments, Paul Verhoeven brings us full circle to the impetus for his involvement on the project in the first place; the human saga behind all the glitzy – and then, state of the art – special effects. RoboCop is Verhoeven’s idea of a thinking man’s sci-fi adventure. It succeeds partly, the essence of the human drama surviving the deluge of blood-soaked/bullet-riddled SFX that occasionally threaten to obscure and submarine the exercise. I recall seeing RoboCop in 1987 and, as a novice movie-goer, being marginally put off by its obtuse carnage. I mean, blowing up an entire gas bar in a nuclear-styled explosion, merely to rid the neighborhood or a single criminal (and not even managing to catch the criminal on that destructively over-the-top try) just seemed like…well…overkill (pardon the pun).
And despite Verhoeven’s loftier ambitions to tell a Biblical tale in modern day (even futuristic) terms (distilling its purpose for a baser objective: merely to appeal to an audience of adolescent male ticket buyers) just seemed appallingly subpar for the movie’s many other gifts. I confess, I have yet to entirely rid myself of this assessment. What made the movie click back then, and what, arguably, remains its linchpin today, is Peter Weller’s matter-of-course performance as our mechanized superhero. In hindsight, RoboCop is Weller’s tour de force, not Paul Verhoeven’s; the actor managing to withstand the prosaic technological dispensing of squibs in rapid succession, transforming human flesh into bloody sushi in a matter of frames and with all the potency of a strong hit of Novacain. I still can’t get excited over RoboCop’s slasher mentality. Although, I must also confess the movie plays far more acceptable by today’s (cough) cinematic standards than it did in 1987. Is RoboCop art? Let us say, it’s an interesting hiccup where art and commerce lodge together like a bloody clot, soon to be dislodged by the next, more violent, screen spectacle. Pity the poor squibs now, why don’t you?
This is MGM’s second outing for RoboCop on Blu-ray. Since 2007 there have been several repackaged editions – all of them sporting the same fundamentally flawed 1080p transfer. Well, you can effectively retire whatever previous edition you’re currently holding in your private collection, because this newly remastered director’s cut is definitely the way to go. The film looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Jost Vacano’s style is gritty and grainy – shot on a shoestring budget. Most of the SFX were created in-camera (much preferred to today’s CGI in my not so humble opinion), others achieved with a combo of blue-screen matte work and crude stop-motion animation (again, supportive of the action and giving very concrete weight to the robotic movements).
This remastered edition is from a new 4K scan. While, some have argued 4K is really no more than a marketing ploy, having absolutely nothing to do with actual picture quality, I’ll just go on record in support of ANY effort to remaster movies in their optimal quality at the highest bit rate currently available. Done in conjunction with proper color correction/clean-up and timing, it certainly cannot hurt, even if the final result must be down-converted to present Blu-ray resolution standards, before being compressed and authored. Enough of that. So, how does RoboCop on Blu-ray look? Fantastic! The TV broadcast segments that open and infrequently intrude on the action and plot (Verhoeven’s way of squeezing in social satire between his bouts of Tourette Syndrome-styled ultra-violence) remain at a low-rez quality as intended; showing deliberate signs of digital combing, fuzzy colors and a lot of video noise. This is as it should be. Prepare to be startled by how much clarity follows once the film moves out of the media spin and into its real/reel world: the new scan revealing a shocking amount of fine detail in hair, skin, backgrounds, clothing, etc.: the ‘wow’ factor present throughout. Again, RoboCop is not a movie one watches for exuberant colors, but this disc faithfully reproduces that vintage 80’s look with precision. We get good solid flesh tones and a fair amount of film grain looking utterly marvelous. Contrast is bang on. About colors in general: there is a noted shift away from the cooler color palette on the old 2007 Blu-ray.
Personal opinion, of course, but this remastered Blu-ray seems to look better for the ‘warming up’ of the palette; somehow more hearty and robust. Is it as the film was meant to look or did look in 1987? I get frustrated when that question gets asked, as though there was one standard adhered to by all so that no matter what theater one happened to be sitting in, in 1987, the image viewed was identical and therefore, true to the director’s original intent. Rubbish! Does this remastered edition of RoboCop look as good as it did back then? I’d argue – even better. Is it true to Paul Verhoeven’s vision? Only Verhoeven himself can answer that! Does it betray my memory of how the movie looked way back when? Decidedly not. That’s the barometer I’ll go by and stick with to recommend this offering.
Finally, MGM has done a meticulous clean-up to ensure age-related artifacts have all but vanished. I detected a few brief speckles during some of the stop-animation sequences, probably a result of the primitive compositing process back then; not distracting and definitely forgivable to not even worth mentioning. RoboCop’s theatrical release was in Dolby Surround with a limited 70mm engagement in 4-track stereo; the soundtrack Oscar-nominated (* sound editors, Stephen Hunter Flick and John Pospisil actually won a special achievement Oscar for RoboCop). The 2007 Blu-ray gave listeners the option between a 5.1 remix (new) and a 4.0 presumably replicating the 70mm release. We get only the 5.1 DTS on this remastered Blu-ray and, honestly, no complaints about it either. Great care has been taken to achieve a natural sounding upgrade.
Bonus features are plentiful; nearly 2 hours of stuff including a Q&A from 2012, the magnificently comprehensive Flesh and Steel: The Making of Robocop, a pair of featurettes from 1987, a breakdown of the boardroom sequence with storyboards and commentary by animator, Phil Tippett, a choice selection of deleted Scenes, a few more junkets on villains, SFX then and now, and the legacy the movie has since wrought. Plus the original commentary track recorded for the 2007 release and featuring Verhoeven, Neumeier and the film’s executive producer, Jon Davison. All of this is capped off by TV spots and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)