The “Cruel Summer” series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), and TOP GUN (1986).
The summer of 1987 saw few new ideas in Hollywood. Coming off of summer ‘86’s head-spinning tug-of-war between steroid genre offerings (Cobra, Top Gun) and movies attempting to deconstruct genre conventions (Aliens, The Fly), Hollywood seemed content to make movies that felt more like covers than original compositions. In his review of the requisite Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Predator, Roger Ebert wrote, “Predator begins like Rambo and ends like Alien, and in today’s Hollywood, that’s creativity.” Elsewhere, Boomer TV favorites were blown up for the big screen, as with Brian DePalma’s surprisingly square The Untouchables, while Dan Aykroyd gave a career performance in the clever Dragnet. There were also John Hughes-inspired teen comedies like Adventures in Babysitting and Summer School. The creatively bankrupt sequels included Superman IV, Jaws: The Revenge, and Beverly Hills Cop II, a movie that was all sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. The newfound Top 40 popularity of oldies music tied to the surprise success of Stand By Me led to movies like La Bamba and Dirty Dancing. (Can’t Buy Me Love managed to cross a John Hughes teen comedy with a golden oldie. That’s what’s known as “high concept!”) Even Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable Full Metal Jacket was viewed by some as an also-ran, coming as it did on the heels of Platoon. But there was one movie that combined violence, satire, and humanity so brilliantly that even its most ardent fans didn’t fully realize it was showing a future that was quickly becoming the present.
Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is a future shock comedy set in the very near future, which is really a cracked reflection of the present. Unlike, say, Blade Runner, which luxuriates in its beautifully framed images of urban decay, RoboCop has a more lived-in look and feel that gives its story a startling immediacy. Set in Detroit (shot mostly in Dallas, TX), the movie captures the ever-widening disparity between the corporate-political power structure and everyday working citizens. The glass and steel of the numerous looming skyscrapers reflect the fear and need for protection of those in power from a restless citizenry enveloped in crime and madness.
Verhoeven, a Dutch director who had achieved some success with intense art-house offerings like the psychosexual freak-out The Fourth Man, brought a much-needed dose of subversiveness to Hollywood action movies. Directors like Walter Hill, Richard Donner, and Peter Hyams operated in a slightly accelerated classical form. Clean images and pauses in between action set-pieces were the hallmarks of traditional action movies. Verhoeven gleefully took a butcher knife to classical forms and came up with a potent mix of ultraviolence and biting satire. The screenplay by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner took a perennial 80s action movie—the cop buddy movie—and cranked up the energy to 11. Audiences conditioned by countless cop buddy movies were ready for a movie that went through whiplash tonal shifts. The popularity of this movie, which would typically go from a laugh to a moment of poignancy to a crowd-cheering bit of vigilante violence within the same few minutes, showed that audiences were able to make emotional adjustments at a quicker pace than previous generations of moviegoers. We were all entering a world of speed-up.
As the movie opens Detroit is being overrun by crime while an undermanned police department threatens to go on strike. The city fathers are so desperate for a solution that they partner with the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation, which has created a prototype for a mechanical law enforcement unit called ED-209. The scene where the ED-209 is demonstrated remains one of the greatest scenes in science fiction movies—the machine malfunctions and kills an executive. The humor comes from the sight of a machine following its programming even in the face of utter compliance. (The machines will always come out on top.) When the ED-209 fails to live up to expectations, another eager executive (Miguel Ferrer) says he has a different program that will keep costs down and is guaranteed to work. All he needs is a volunteer.
That’s when Verhoeven introduces us to Murphy (Peter Weller), an earnest police officer partnered with Lewis (Nancy Allen). Weller infuses Murphy with a winning mix of joy and professionalism that tells us he loves being a cop. (The way Murphy practices un-holstering his gun is a nice touch.) He has such an easy rapport with Allen that we’re immediately on their side. (Verhoeven has some perverse fun by making Allen look almost as masculine as Weller by outfitting her with a haircut that’s just painful to look at.) When Murphy and Lewis find themselves in a high-speed chase they work in almost perfect harmony. A problem occurs when they get separated as they pursue a gang of crazed drug-dealing anarchists into an abandoned warehouse. The scene where Murphy is shot to death is so brutal that it puts us on point in wanting to see him get revenge.
Murphy’s body is so ravaged by gunshots that he becomes the perfect candidate for the RoboCop program. In the sequence where he is built, a series of POV shots subtly replaces a human perspective with a computerized one. The images become more square, as if the world were being viewed through a computer monitor. (The shot of a woman giving RoboCop a kiss is curiously moving.) When RoboCop goes out on the street for the first time Verhoeven clearly riffs on the part in every superhero story where the hero puts on his costume for the first time; Verhoeven frequently takes standard situations like a convenient store robbery or a hostage negotiation and gives them a warped comic spin that doesn’t detract from their excitement. I especially like RoboCop’s solution to stopping a rape in progress. (“Madam, you’ve suffered an emotional shock! I will notify a rape counsel center!”)
Made in the pre-CGI era, RoboCop is one of the last great practical effects movies. Matte paintings, stop-motion animation, and cutting-edge costumes give everything a tactile quality that’s still thrilling to see. The stop-motion animation of the ED-209 by Phil Tippett is jaw-dropping, especially in a slapstick bit where ED-209 chases RoboCop through the OCP building but is defeated when it can’t navigate a stairwell. Rob Bottin’s make-up effects and costume design remain the best of his career. Coming off his very sticky (and overly painted) effects work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, Bottin’s work here has a more flexible and believable feel. RoboCop’s uniform is like a cross between Japanese comic art work and military chic, turning Murphy into a believable man of steel. (Think a walking Ford Taurus.) Late in the movie, when RoboCop takes off his helmet and we see Murphy’s face for the first time since his death, Bottin’s bald cap prosthetic makes Weller’s already intense blue eyes even more penetrating. RoboCop’s internal struggle with his human instincts is over. Murphy is back.
Verhoeven’s nasty playfulness is constantly popping up throughout the movie. He has an especially kinky preoccupation with the connection between sex and machines. The scene right before Murphy is murdered shows Lewis coming upon one of the more deranged bad guys, Joe (Jesse Goins), taking a leak. When Lewis pauses long enough to glance at his privates, it allows the bad guy to get the upper hand and leads to Murphy’s death. Later, when Lewis and Murphy are reunited, she helps him fix his targeting system by correcting his aim. It’s the closest they will come to consummating their relationship. For Verhoeven, sex is partially mechanical. (Showgirls is all about manufactured sex.) The rousing score by Basil Poledouris uses both orchestration and electronic sounds to highlight the contrast between the organic and mechanical.
Verhoeven’s most daring gambit is the perfectly timed moment of satire. The idea was such brief inserts of humor would lighten the intensity of the action, but instead they just intensify the action, forcing us to be prepared for anything. At various points in the movie the action is interrupted by media newsbreaks (“You give us three minutes, we’ll give you the world!”), that inform us about incidents like American troops aiding Mexican nationals with a raid in Acapulco, or when the U.S. accidentally wipes out Santa BarbAra from outer space. The fake commercials are hysterical, especially a spoof of Electronic Battleship called Nukem. (“Pakistan is threatening my border!”) Of course, the most startling aspect of RoboCop is its depiction of the corporatization of America and the outsourcing of labor for profit. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the most ruthless of the OCP execs, spouts rhetoric that at the time sounded like a send-up of Gordon Gekko, but now wouldn’t be out of place on Fox News or a CPAC conference. It’s casually mentioned that OCP has found profitability in industries that had been deemed money losers. These include hospitals, prisons, and space exploration. They now want to take over the Detroit police department and turn it into a moneymaker. In 1987 this sounded like an outrageous satire of the 80s Wall Street culture. Today RoboCop stings, as its vision of the future were all too real. Verhoeven brings it home by staging the final showdown not in the streets of Detroit but in a boardroom.
But RoboCop’s most lasting legacy is RoboCop itself. This film marks the first time moviegoers were made to identify with a machine. Before, machines and aliens in movies were seen as something otherworldly. Even when we were made to feel an attachment to a non-human character like, say, E.T., we saw him through a human perspective. But RoboCop was different because the most human character in the movie was a machine. Every other character in the movie, even the loyal Lewis, was secondary. When RoboCop walks through the now abandoned house where his wife and son lived, we’re made to fill in the emotions he can no longer compute. Movies were now embracing technology and machinery. Everything from Total Recall to Terminator 2 to A.I. to I, Robot to Transformers has showed us machines that are more human than humans. We no longer rage against the machine. We are the machines.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.