RoboCop (1987)

(L-R) Nancy Allen as as Officer Ann Lewis and Peter Weller as Murphy in MGM/Orion Pictures’ ROBOCOP.

Metro police officer Frank Fredrickson identifies criminal mastermind, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who orchestrated the killings of three other officers.  In response, the police force in Detroit is being privatized by conglomerate Omni Consumer Products.  The police union reacts, threatening a strike.

OCP wants to commoditize law enforcement purely so they can gentrify urban areas.  Of course, they will assume the commercial real estate development as well.  Sound familiar?

This is the backdrop of Paul Verhoeven’s shrewd satire disguised as action/sci-fi.

“209 is currently programmed for urban pacification, but that is only the beginning,” says OCP President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).

ED-209, a heavily-armed robot resembling a cross between a minotaur and a helicopter, is a visual gag of comical genius from effects supervisor Rob Bottin, bookended by a cleverly poetic reference to Theseus with a staircase standing in for the labyrinth.  Filmed in stop-motion, the sentry’s hulking mass moves clumsily, like a Harryhausen miniature in CLASH OF THE TITANS.  ED is unveiled in one of those corporate demos that takes place in a sprawling, ornate boardroom larger than you’ll ever see in any Fortune 500 company.  There’s also an entire wall of monitors directly behind a podium, oddly placed perpendicular to the backs of half of the Board.

Granted, neither the podium nor the monitors serve any explicit purpose in the presentation, except as aesthetic embodiments of corporate excess—and a stretch of a setup for the film’s denouement.  This is Verhoeven’s reductive genius at work, part of a weapons demonstration that: a. Should never take place in any office setting, ever.  b. Does a better job of satirizing presentations gone awry than would a Q&A with PowerPoint slides.

“You call this a GLITCH?” barks the Chairman of the Board (Dan O’Herlihy turning a mean streak completely opposite his jolly alien Grigg from THE LAST STARFIGHTER), right before hearing out Vice President Bob Morton’s (Miguel Ferrer) proposal to temper the program with a cybernetic mind—ideally recruited from the best officers Detroit PD has to offer.

Enter Alex Murphy (Peter Weller).  Assigned to Metro PD South precinct, Murphy is paired with Officer Ann Lewis (De Palma favorite Nancy Allen; DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT).  Eventually, Murphy and Lewis are cornered in a steel mill (the ideal location to dispose of bodies, according to Apple’s Siri™).  To Verhoeven’s credit, Lewis never falls for RoboCop.  She’s her own woman and an equal partner aligned with Murphy’s relentless pursuit of justice.

Riddled by bullets from Boddicker’s gang, Murphy is airlifted to a hospital where OCP reconstructs him into a cyborg.  In one draft of the story, Murphy was to retain some of his flesh but Verhoeven instead chose, wisely, to conceal his humanity behind a cowl, like Batman.  Only Peter Weller’s prettyboy lips remain, droning mindlessly in monotone until the climactic return to the gangsters’ steel mill hideout where the reveal of his humanity is so meticulously and deliberately mirrored on Yul Brynner’s striking gaze as the Gunslinger in WESTWORLD.

Weller reportedly studied ballet to inform the way RoboCop moved—unlike C3PO, he emulated the graceful and fluid movements of, rather appropriately, an industrial robot from an automotive plant.  While many sequences in the film are too tightly shot to appreciate Weller’s physicality, you can see these influences in the wider-angle cinematography of Boddicker’s takedown at a cocaine distribution center run by the local drug lord, Sal.  Rather than the conventional narcotics slime-ball, Sal is played by the venerable character actor Lee de Broux, whose credits span television (Mannix, Baretta) and film (CHINATOWN).  He resembles Robert Duvall, as if Tom Hagen had left Staten Island to branch into his own criminal enterprise.

Writer Edward Neumeier and Director of Photogaphy Jost Vacano worked together on Verhoeven’s Riefenstahl-meets-Republicans pastiche, STARSHIP TROOPERS.  The result: A scathing social commentary loaded with layers of metaphor not immediately recognizable to my twelve-year old self, I’ve been digesting thirty years hence.

“Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock.  I will notify a rape crisis center,” says RoboCop to a sexual assault victim he rescued with his “Big Fuckin’ Gun” (A Beretta M93R dressed to look like a coffin).  Aside from the obvious poetry of RoboCop’s shiny metal ass facing the camera under a smug OCP Billboard touting its Delta City project (“The future has a silver lining”), the deeper subtext here is a commentary on privatization.  Displaying no emotion or concern, RoboCop’s utterance carries the blithe tone of a faceless customer service representative’s apology for “inconveniencing” one of Corporation XYZ’s millions of customers.

As with Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis’ BACK TO THE FUTURE, Verhoeven’s sociopolitical introspection is everywhere, especially in the Reagan-era ads for everything from brand-name artificial hearts (“By Jensen! Yamaha! You pick the heart!”) to belligerently large sedans with horrible gas mileage (the 6000 SUX, or, as my wife points out, presciently one letter away from “SUV”), and 30 second soundbite-driven news.  Executives live in high-tech mansions while homeless men wander the streets and there’s seemingly no middle ground.  Incidentally, the heedlessness and hedonism of the upper class would have its comeuppance six months after ROBOCOP’s release, culminating in Black Monday—the largest single-day decline in the stock market since the Crash of 1929.  Nonetheless, the catastrophe trickled down to us all.

Basil Poledouris’ score punctuates this cynical burlesque with clank and bombast reminiscent of his Anvil of Crom from CONAN: THE BARBARIAN.  Like Milius’ and Howard’s titular hero, RoboCop has a code of honor, in the form of three Prime Directives:  1. Serve the public trust.  2. Protect the innocent.  3. Uphold the law.  Murphy becomes the property of OCP brainwashed by a set of rules that serve his corporate masters. Not himself.  In a theme common to Verhoeven’s fictions (TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS), the protagonist wrests himself away from external ideology in deference to his own innate understanding of right and wrong.

Theseus conquers the minotaur.


ROBOCOP is currently in limited re-release for its thirtieth anniversary.