RoboCop (1987)


*. Paul Verhoeven wasn’t alwyas a madman of explosive, ultra-violent SF films and pulp trash (and I’m saying “trash” with love). Before Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers he made a number of films in his native Netherlands, most of them starring Rutger Hauer, that were relatively expensive but had their feet on the ground. Then he came to Hollywood, the first full fruits of the move being RoboCop. He hit the ground running.
*. In his entry on Verhoeven in the Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson concludes by describing Showgirls and Starship Troopers as “twin versions of human nature being reappraised as plastic toys.” If that was the end goal to which Verhoeven’s work was tending, again we can see RoboCop as setting him on his way. Of course many of the 1980s action heroes seemed plastic — the physiques of Stallone and Schwarzenegger being the most obvious examples — but in Robocop this process reached its full development: the action hero as action toy.
*. In this, his first appearance, the robot cop is as impersonal as he would ever be. Later entries in the franchise would play with injecting more of a conscience, and the 2014 remake would elevate the conflict between Murphy’s cyborg identity and his free will into a major theme. But here Murphy’s humanity is something vestigial: video flashbacks and a thing for spinning his pistol before holstering it in his leg. He’s mainly an action toy.
*. As a final note on this point, in Robocop 3 he will literally appear as an action toy. In case you had any doubts.
*. It’s worth emphasizing just how economical the set-up is with Murphy’s back story. We never see him with his family but only get a few quick flashbacks that are stuck somewhere in his memory files. He simply appears out of nowhere at the police station, having transferred from another jurisdiction, and is then quickly blown away and resurrected as a man-machine. I like this approach, at least for this material.
*. Also economical, and just as unconventional, is the deliberate decision to not make Lewis a romantic interest. There’s nothing sexual about her character and Verhoeven even says they “tried to tone down sexuality as much as possible” with her. She and Murphy are partners, but there isn’t so much as a hint of any other kind of attachment.


*. Most of the film was shot in Dallas because it looked more modern. This struck me as odd because Detroit could have easily played itself as a burnt-out industrial husk. But even the steel factory was actually in Pittsburgh. In Robocop 3 the Japanese will have taken over and in the remake the only place to build RoboCop is in China.
*. I found it interesting that there’s a scene that shows up twice in the film, whether by design or accident I’m not sure. When the ED 209 kills the fellow in the boardroom the hapless victim runs around looking for help and his fellow execs push him away until he is left abandoned in the open and spectacularly torn to pieces in a hail of gunfire. At the end, the character of Emil, dissolving into mush after being bathed in toxic waste, appeals for help from Leon (Ray Wise) only to be pushed away and then then burst apart like a fleshy water balloon by Boddicker’s car.
*. On the DVD commentary track writer Edward Neumeier sees these “Get away from me!” moments as indicating a “sub-theme of this whole movie.” I’m not sure it’s as big as that, but they do seem to point to something. In the same vein we may note the way the washroom clears out when everyone figures Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) is about to get reamed by Dick Jones (Ronny Cox, practically invented as a villain by Verhoeven). Again, everyone just wants to get out of the blast area and away from someone who they see as toxic and/or doomed. Neumeier remarks that this sense of isolation is something that friends of his who had been laid off in Hollywood could relate to. I don’t know if it has any deeper, thematic meaning other than signaling that the world is heartless place where we all just look out for ourselves.


*. There’s something nihilistic about such a message, but that’s not a label I’d hesitate to apply to Verhoeven’s Hollywood work. Not that it’s always dark or cruel, but it doesn’t believe in anything.
*. The satire hits as loud and hard as a jackhammer. It’s driven by an almost hysterical cynicism directed mainly at the media, with the audience being the kind of yahoos who laugh maniacally at the brainless sitcoms we keep seeing an obscure punchline from, or who consume whatever infotainment show passes for news, or who are in the market for a 6000 SUX automobile.
*. It’s a combination of these factors — economy, humour, pace, comic-book action, Basil Poledouris’s rousing martial score — that catapulted this movie ahead of its time in 1987, and which still make it good entertainment today.


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