With the remake of Paul Verhoeven‘s “RoboCop” lumbering mechanically into theaters nationwide this week, there has been a lot of talk, online and elsewhere, about how the remake simply cannot live up to the 1987 original. But what there’s been precious little of is a discussion of why the original film is so highly regarded; instead the deafening pre-release backlash just seems like a general kind of foggy, nostalgia-tinged outrage that is both inarticulate and unhelpful. And, all things considered, the remake isn’t all that bad; read our colleague’s review here. Still, there’s no question that the remake won’t manage to have the same kind of impact the original did, so we’re taking this chance (having longed for one for a while) to look back to the future of Detroit, and examine exactly why that original film felt so fresh and new.
“RoboCop,” released on July 17, 1987, and based on a wickedly acidic script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, told the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), an average Detroit cop who, on one of his first days at a new precinct, is senselessly gunned down by a group of renegade thugs. The police department, under the private control of mega-corporation OCP, decide to turn Murphy into the next generation of law enforcement: a robotically enhanced, emotionally detached super-cop whose only limitations are in his programming and technical design. Of course, the movie, in true cautionary fable form, asks the question: what happens when you put a man inside a machine and the man wants out?
When the film was released, it was a sizable hit, spawning a number of offshoots, sequels and spin-offs, which continue to this day with the retrofitted “RoboCop” remake. But at the time, nobody had ever seen anything like it. It was a small bomb detonated in a rather stale cinematic landscape, in a political, cultural and social climate where claustrophobic conservatism reigned supreme. Here are ten ways the film felt like an explosion in a way that its decent, but forgettable, remake can’t hope to match.
1. It Modernized Movie Robotics
Robots have been in movies for a very, very long time. As Verhoeven has noted, the two chief influences, from a design and performance perspective, was the creature Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and, more importantly, Fritz Lang‘s monumental 1927 masterpiece “Metropolis” (he calls the RoboCop character, on a lengthy making-of documentary entitled “Flesh and Steel,” “a male version of Fritz Lang’s” robot). The Decade had earlier seen the release of Ridley Scott‘s seminal “Blade Runner,” in which robots wrestle with existential alienation, but they look very much like humans. What made the lead character in “RoboCop” so groundbreaking was that it was a robot that looked very much like a Cadillac or something (the movie was set in Detroit, after all), but that grappled, quite violently, with the fears and desires more closely associated with humanity. (C-3PO, who owes a similar stylistic debt to “Metropolis,” and R2D2, for instance, were never gripped with such heady concerns.) In “RoboCop,” the character looked inhuman while still retaining its soul. One of the bolder flourishes in the movie is that Murphy, the slain policeman, only has memories after he’s been transformed into RoboCop, and they come through like the fuzzy signal of some pirated cable channel. Call it the big-screen robot 2.0.
2. It Was Aggressively Satirical
From the very first moments of “RoboCop” (after its iconic, stock-footage-backed title card), you understand that this is a very different type of action movie. News anchors are covering the current state of the political and cultural landscape of this woe-begotten future world, where a defense satellite misfires and causes incalculable damage and, thanks to a commercial break, families engage in a board game called Nuke ‘Em that gleefully sends up Cold War tensions. Elsewhere, Reagan-era politics become brutally realized as cutthroat businessmen literally go to war with each other, and local law enforcement becomes a privatized pawn in a system where capitalism has run amok. Elsewhere, union organizations, prime time television and the debate over toxic waste and nuclear power are all sent up. Co-screenwriter Edward Neumeier says in “Flesh and Blood” that he always thought the movie was a satire wrapped in an attractive genre package, while Verhoeven has said repeatedly that he wasn’t out to make a political statement, most recently in a group conversation with the cast and crew that’s included on the movie’s just-released anniversary Blu-ray edition. “I don’t make political statements, I’m just reflecting things in the culture,” Verhoeven claims. It’s probably inconceivable that anyone but Verhoeven, a loony Dutch filmmaker, could have, in the guise of an action movie, taken a look at American culture with the same insight and playful abandon. It adds up to a science fiction tale that is so much more.
3. It Was Also Very Religious
While it’s easy to get caught up in the eighties political satire, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the saga of RoboCop (the character), deeply mirrors the life, death and rebirth of Jesus Christ. Verhoeven has long been obsessed with what he calls the “mythological” tale of Jesus (so much so that he published a book in 2008 called “Jesus of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait“) and wanted to reflect that in the tale of RoboCop. When people asked Verhoeven why he was spending so much time on the hyper-violent sequence in which Murphy is executed by a gang of thugs, Verhoeven responded that, “You can’t have Christ come back without the crucifixion.” A shotgun blast that turns Murphy’s hand into kibble stands in for nails in the palms, and Verhoeven instructed the secondary goons to laugh like jackals, mimicking the fabled response of the Romans to Christ on the cross. Verhoeven, on the Blu-ray, also assumes that when Christ returned, he was something of a “Che Guevara figure,” and would have probably instructed his followers to take up arms, just like RoboCop. One of the last images of RoboCop in the film is of him walking through a shallow puddle, photographed like he’s literally walking across water. This symbolizes his true transformation into what Verhoeven repeatedly refers to as “American Jesus,” since, you know, he’s carrying a big fucking gun.
4. It Had A Heart
Eighties action movies were known for a lot of things, but an overabundance of emotional depth was not one of them. There is, however, a quiet sensitivity to “RoboCop,” and one that Neumeier admits on the commentary track, often comes across during the movie’s less violent scenes. It’s a movie where a literal unstoppable killing machine has crises of conscience, and feels bad about being a shitty husband and father. (On one of the disc’s documentaries, Weller notes that, “The linear thought process is gone but the sense of humanity is there.”) By comparison, similar action heroes of the period, portrayed by people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, seem positively robotic and the movies they starred in felt aloof and detached. “RoboCop,” for all its sly winking, was also a deeply felt, highly emotional piece of popcorn entertainment. A rarity for the time and one of the reasons, all these years later, it’s so special.
5. It Was Pornographically Violent…
Given the current state of big budget action movies, where PG-13 is desired above almost all else (and, indeed, the new “RoboCop” is somewhat toothlessly rated PG-13), it’s almost inconceivable that so many huge action movies in the eighties and nineties received R-ratings and still managed to achieve a phenomenal level of success. But “RoboCop” took things even further—pushing the violence into over the top, very nearly pornographic levels. The MPAA initially awarded the movie an X-rating (these were the days before the NC-17), based solely on the gory violence, mostly concerned with the sequence where Murphy is murdered and another where an OmniCorp suit is blasted into itty-bitty pieces by the hulking ED 209 defense robot, which served to inadvertently defang one of the movie’s very best jokes. Unlike most of the action movies at the time, the violence served to reinforce the movie’s satiric underpinnings, both mocking and celebrating the genre that it was playing inside. On one of the new Blu-ray’s documentaries, producer Jon Davidson described the movie as having “a liberal viewpoint but in the most violent way imaginable” and dubbing it “fascism for liberals.” There is something cathartic about the violence in “RoboCop,” particularly in the now unrated version, with the splatter of it all making the story even more impactful.
6. …And Yet Still Marketed Towards Children
What might be even more shocking than the violence in “RoboCop” was how the film was still marketed towards children, after narrowly avoiding an X rating. This is another thing that seems downright unfathomable in the current cinematic landscape (and even was something of a rarity back then). As early as 1988, television commercials ran for a toy line called “RoboCop: Ultra Police,” that recreated scenarios and characters from the movie (including ED 209), but in the mold of Saturday morning cartoons. These toys were pretty edgy, though, with the toys firing caps (the commercials made a lot of these tiny explosive charges), and certainly didn’t discourage children from watching the incredibly violent movie. A few years later, a similar deluge of toys would be aimed at children who weren’t supposed to be seeing “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” A half decade after “T2,” another Verhoeven joint, in some ways even more extreme than “RoboCop,” would inspire a line of kid-friendly toys, in the shape of “Starship Troopers.”
7. It Blurred Binary Gender Divides
Another thing that the original “RoboCop” doesn’t get nearly enough credit for (and is very much missing from the remake) is its nearly revolutionary attitude toward the gender divide. In an early sequence, Murphy walks into the locker room of the Detroit Police Station where he’s just been stationed, with both male and female officers changing openly in front of one another. There’s no sexualization of the scenario, and Murphy doesn’t bat an eye. As Verhoeven says on the commentary track, “We tried to introduce gender neutrality into the locker room. But it went by so fast.” (Verhoeven and Neumeier would return to the co-ed locker room idea in “Starship Troopers.” And that time, Verhoeven was allowed to linger.) Even more powerful, in terms of its depiction of gender neutrality, is the character of Lewis, played by Nancy Allen. The character is introduced kicking a thug’s ass, and since she’s wearing a helmet, her gender isn’t even revealed until the end of the sequence. She’s slightly bulkier, with a short, androgynous haircut, and never, either before or after his transformation into a metallic crime fighter, is there any hint of sexual tension or implied romanticism. It’s a “just the facts” ma’am relationship, through and through. In fact, some of the only implied sexuality in the movie (besides the somewhat sour attempted rape sequence) comes in the form of a near-liaison between Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer in the men’s room, something that is highlighted on the movie’s commentary track.
8. It Featured An Atypical Lead
Action heroes at the time were nearly invincible, outrageously muscular super-men, and in “RoboCop,” a movie about a man who is literally turned into a machine, we were given a vulnerable, deeply human lead character. Some of this had to do with the casting of Peter Weller, who up until this point was known for the marginal cult oddity “Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” and was of a willowy, diminutive stature that could more easily be encased in a clunky robot costume. It also allowed for an action star that people who don’t bench press small cars could identify with. But more than that, in the depiction of a conflicted man in crisis, Weller’s performance mirrored the daily struggle of the American male in a far more realistic way than virtually any other action star of the period. (The year after “RoboCop’s” release, John McTiernan‘s “Die Hard” would turn a shoeless sitcom star into an even-more-relatable everyman hero.) Take, for instance, “Commando,” released by 20th Century Fox two years before Orion unleashed “Robocop,” which opens with a sequence where Schwarzenegger is doing fatherly things with his daughter (played by an insanely young Alyssa Milano), including feeding a wild deer, before, moments later, a bunch of bad guys show up and Schwarzenegger dispatches them all. That was what counted as being a “sensitive” action hero in the late eighties.
9. It’s Formally Ambitious
The news broadcasts and commercials that periodically interrupt the proper narrative of “RoboCop” weren’t just bitingly hilarious interjections of social satire, they were somewhat groundbreaking in the way that they were presented. Most movies at the time would show someone watching a film, or turning on a television, and then we would fade into that television or movie, establishing that it was something that one of the characters inside the movie was viewing. With “RoboCop,” Verhoeven and his editor Frank J. Urioste would just cut to the commercial or the news program, like the movie itself was also part of the same stream-of-consciousness satellite feed. This kind of editorial style has been adopted countless times since “RoboCop’s” release, but at the time it must have been slightly startling. Elsewhere, Verhoeven’s European sensibilities make the movie feel like a colossal achievement in action movie formalism. There are long, unbroken shots, and weird editorial tics scattered throughout, in addition to a number of trippy point-of-view sequences that very literally put you inside the glitch-ridden mind of Murphy/RoboCop.
10. It Spawned Its Own Universe
Every Hollywood franchise in existence is no longer happy with simply having a series of films, instead, they are interested in creating a vast, expansive, interconnected “universe” in which several films, spin-offs, cartoons, and merchandising properties, feed and redistribute the main brand. In a sense, “RoboCop” accomplished this way back when, which is even more hilarious considering how consumerism is one of the movie’s very biggest targets. The movie spawned two sequels: 1990s guilty pleasure smorgasbord “RoboCop 2” (which Weller returned for but Verhoeven wisely sat out) and 1993’s “RoboCop 3,” a half-baked sequel that Weller too abandoned (Nancy Allen, for some reason, returned) and which sat on the shelf for a number of years while studio Orion went through bankruptcy proceedings. There were a pair of live action series, as well, 1994’s “RoboCop: The Series” and 2001 miniseries “RoboCop: Prime Directive,” as well as the animated spin-offs “Robocop: The Animated Series” (which aired in 1988) and “RoboCop: Alpha Command,” which aired a decade later. In addition, there were comic books, novels, theme park rides and video games, one of which anticipated the team-up phenomenon by pitting RoboCop against that other robotic Orion antihero The Terminator.
The 2014 edition of “RoboCop” is in theaters now. If you’re seeing it, a fun game is to check off how many of these same achievements it can claim.