Spoilers will have twenty seconds to comply.
The concept of dystopian future gets thrown around a lot lately. When it does, it happens in a distant time where you can’t even recognize society anymore. But in the script for Robocop (1987), Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner picked a more familiar setting: Detroit, Michigan. How close they came to predicting the dilapidated factories and touched on the sensitive topics of crime, gentrification and corporate greed is plain eerie. Twenty-seven years after the movie’s release, the city of Detroit actually filed for bankruptcy.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, Robocop (1987) is often remembered not only for the action and violence but for hitting on various aspects of modern life with satire. Two newscasters would report on fabricated news from around the world with a smile upon their faces before cutting to commercials that would be extremely tone deaf to the incredibly tragic news they reported. Nuke’em board game for the family and the 6000 SUX fuel-guzzling car would be advertised while announcing a malfunctioning orbital laser killing hundreds of people or a rebel faction in Mexico blowing up the Acapulco airport.
We had a front row seat as second-in-command Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) would show the chairman of OCP, known only as the Old Man, the latest in “suburban peacekeeping”, the ED-209 robot. Minutes later, and ED-209 would violently terminate naive volunteer Kinney (Ken Page) in a moment of very, very dark humour. Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) takes this chance to introduce his own program. He just needs a volunteer.
Enter Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller), new transfer from Metro South. He’s young, he’s naive, he’s got morals and thinks children need good role models. He’s also learning to twirl his gun just like T. J. Lazer, his kid’s favorite TV show character. He gets partnered with the tough as nails senior cop Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). Yes, we’re in a genre action film that seems to hit all the beats plus a few extra.
Okey, obviously you know the story. In one of the most violent scenes of the movie, Murphy ends up being shot to pieces by Clarence Boddiker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang. Of course this is the setup and you know that payback is going to be a bitch. There’s no way that any member of that gang is going to end surviving what’s coming to them. Verhoeven so far has chosen not to show us RoboCop and as Murphy experiences his transformation (or meta-murphy-sis… I will let myself out here) the director opts for his point of view.
Soon enough, we’re no longer watching a black screen as we’re suddenly experiencing the world from what looks like a pure late 80’s MS-DOS style terminal complete with even references to the old OS (command.com anyone?). The stylized font and the blinking cursor are just icing on the cake. The robo-view suddenly adds another dimension to the narrative. We can see when RoboCop is recording, what he’s seeing, what information he’s getting and can even try guessing what his intent is.
When the movie finally chooses to show RoboCop, the entrance is just so well executed. His profile blurred by a translucent plastic window, him turning away from the camera, the cops running to get a good look… You couldn’t ask for a better entrance. And the thing is, RoboCop is a symbol of corporate greed manifested into a nightmare of titanium-covered brutality. And yet, we know he’s going to turn into the hero fighting the system. Nevermind that he’s technically in the system as deep as anybody could ever be.
RoboCop turning back into Murphy, or at least into what’s left of him, is a more painful and longer ordeal. He’s the ghost in the machine, the glitch that won’t completely go away. And yet he can’t quite remember who he is. His flashbacks are not full memories but only things he sees. “I can feel them,” he says about his wife and son. “But I cannot remember them.” The movie only gives us Robo’s flashbacks. We never get to see what Murphy’s home life was like. Perhaps, it wasn’t as idyllic as his flashbacks made it seem. We tend to romanticize the past.
When the visor finally comes off, we’re surprised to see Murphy’s face. Perhaps in a semblance of humanity, the doctors that operated him decided to leave him his face. I always made the wrong assumption about Dr. Tyler (Sage Parker) is the same character than Dr. Marie Lazarus (Jill Hennesy) which in the third movie is named as the scientist who created RoboCop. I think they were meant to be at some point.
In reality, only three characters make it on all three movies. Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), Sergeant Warren Reed (Robert DoQui), OCP Executive Johnson (Felton Perry) and newscaster Casey Wong (Mario Machado). Peter Weller got as far as the second movie, which he preferred to distance itself from after filming it. I can’t blame him. RoboCop 2, 3 and reboot Robocop (2014) didn’t have anything of substance to add. There are sparks here and there in the second film that barely amount to something. By the third film, the franchise was trying to become PG to appeal to wider audiences. The reboot is just more than a bit embarrassing to watch.
One of the biggest lessons of RoboCop that we seem to be unable to learn nowadays is to let go. Reboots, sequels that happen years after the original… They’re just pale shades of what the idea was. Sometimes it’s trying to revive the nostalgia of what worked before, but more than often it’s a cash grab. And yet, I’ve fallen for it sometimes. Look how it took so many Transformers films before getting a Bumblebee. A reboot of another franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road remains one of my favourite films. How many Hollywood studios will kill to have something close to the Marvel MCU. There’s literally no chance this nostalgia train is ending soon.
Highly recommended, even when some of the special effects are starting to show their age. It’s one of those lightning-in-a-bottle films that only really, truly struck once. As much as I like this film, it’s also one that I prefer to watch while ignoring its sequels. It really exists very much on the time that it was made, the late 80’s. Perhaps there truly is one worthy sequel/reboot/rehash in it, but otherwise it should work simply as inspiration for a new original story. After all, the writers wrote the script inspired by another movie: Blade Runner (1982).
That will do for now.