On August 1987, genre film fans received a bonafide treat when the film Robocop made its debut. To say that the film was a thrilling surprise would be an understatement on the league of the title character’s stoic line delivery. Part of the reason for the enthusiastic reaction to Robocop is that August is usually a dumping ground for non-starter films that no one remembers weeks after they debut. Robocop bucked that trend with its no-holds-barred action, over-the-top violence and wry social commentary.
Serving The Public Trust
Robocop starred Peter Weller as Murphy a beat cop in a futuristic and crumbling Detroit who is viciously gunned down. Left for dead, and with a ruined body, Murphy is resurrected into the mechanical body of Robocop, a prototype robotic constable. The cyborg police officer is touted as the crown jewel of Omni Consumer Product’s (OCP) media blitz to promote a revamped Detroit to be renamed Delta City. Robocop makes an immediate impact in the public consciousness as he patrolled the dangerous streets in his sleek chrome body that was designed by Rob Bottin. Buttressed by Basil Poledouris’ pounding and bombastic score, Robocop efficiently curbs crime thanks to advanced cybernetic skills.
However, beneath the chrome armor Murphy’s mind and humanity, which was supposedly wiped clean during his transformation, starts to re-emerge. At the same time, the film follows the ruthless corporate antics of Robocop’s overlords who care little for their community. Eventually, Murphy’s emerging morality clashes with his handlers, who are in league with the local crime lords. In this case, Robocop’s arch rival Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who looks like a typical suburban father but has a severe aptitude for violence that rivals a favela gang leader. Even though these villains did not have any superpowers, their cunning and willingness to go the extra mile were quite a match for Robocop.
The film made quite a splash that late summer and for good reason. Thanks to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, Robocop excelled in macabre humor and biting action scenes. Verhoeven and the other filmmakers including producer Jon Davision, and screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, were clever enough to inject a balance of pathos for Murphy’s plight and inspired social observations.
Dystopian Corporate Culture
Robocop’s futuristic America is one where the country is slowly decaying as common decency gives way to empty consumerism. An insensitive corporate culture has taken hold on society as the top business leaders claw each other to get to the top while the rest of community suffers from their decisions. The main corporate scumbags in the film were Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) and his boss Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), and both men exemplified the callous, slimy and two-faced negative image of corporate leaders. Seeing Morton’s conniving machinations and Jones’ ruthless actions were fascinating to watch and reflected the narcissistic business-oriented culture of the ‘80s.
Sadly, the film’s commentary echoes the fraying moral fabric of today’s society and illustrates how prophetic Robocop was in predicting our future. Of course, violent crime is not as prevalent as in that film, but many of the other dystopian aspects presented in that film seem just around the corner for us, if not here already.
The level of violence shown in the film is still quite shocking today given the way Verhoeven seems to revel in showing us how vicious humanity can be. What helped make the level of violence so intense and shocking was the superb makeup work by Bottin.
First Modern Superhero
In many ways, Robocop can be considered a prototype for modern superhero films. The film was inspired by The Six Million Dollar Man and the more adult-oriented comic books that appeared in the 1980s. Groundbreaking comic book writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were making a splash with their graphic comic book stories where the heroes were more than willing to use extreme violence to fight crime. Robocop employs similar means, using all of his weapons and high-tech tools at his disposal. A good example of this in the film is where a thug took a woman and used her as a shield against Robocop. The cyber cop then used his advanced marksman skills to castrate the bad guy through the woman’s dress with a perfect shot that left her unharmed.
But Robocop didn’t just have street punks to fight against. His greatest enemies were his corporate handlers who stripped Murphy of his humanity and did not have the public’s best interest at heart. OCP only saw Murphy not just as an asset but as a quick fix. The company wanted to replace Detroit’s human police force with a robotic one they could control. Their first attempt, the lumbering ED-209, proved to be a failure and so the Robocop program was quickly brought online as a stopgap measure. Even though Robocop was a public success, he was distrusted by many human police officers who correctly saw him as a threat to their livelihood. The one exception was his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), who eventually deduces Robocop’s original identity and helped him recover his humanity. Although ED-209 was considered a failure, due to software issues, the robotic sentinel was still a credible threat to Robocop. ED-209 was quite popular with fans and the stop-motion effects by Phil Tippet used to bring him to life was one of the last times the effect was used in a major film.
ED-209’s failed debut when he mistakenly kills a hapless OCP executive was one of the film’s funniest and macabre moments and illustrated how Verhoeven reveled in directing over-the-top violent scenes that brought out guilty laughs. Keep in mind, that the executive’s death scene was actually edited from a more violent version where the robot repeatedly fired on the corpse, which sprayed blood all over the boardroom. Then there were the clever commercials that were inserted in between scenes, which were bursting with satire. Fans of the film still love the line from some ads “I’d buy that for a dollar!” which was shouted from a john buying the services of prostitutes.
Given all the film’s merits, what made Robocop a masterpiece that still resonates thirty years later was its core conflict of individuality versus an overbearing corporate culture. We empathized with Murphy’s dilemma as his humanity shone through all the hardware covering up what remained of his physical body. It was also a metaphor for the capacity of our human spirit to rise above encroaching technology.