Retro Film Review: RoboCop (1987)


When science fiction is discussed by people not accustomed to the genre and its concepts, they usually associate it with fantastic tales about little green men and space operas in distant futures and galaxies far away. In reality, some of the best and most influential works of science-fiction had its basis solidly in the Here and Now. The most elaborate imaginary worlds of the future were actually built by simple yet logical extrapolations based on the current trends, like Orwell did in his dystopic masterpiece 1984. Last decade, one of such dystopic worlds was created for the purpose of RoboCop, SF action thriller, known today as the great Hollywood debut of talented Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven.

The plot is set in a very near future that hasn't seen much change from the Reagan Years. America is run by powerful and greedy corporations of the military- industrial complex who thrive through the Star Wars projects and low intensity conflicts in Latin America. In the mean time, industrial heartland of America has decayed and once proud city of Detroit is a pile of abandoned steel-mills and factories, drowned in poverty and rampant crime. Local authorities, with their financial power drained through industrial decay, low-taxes and laissez-faire economics, are forced to turn public services to private companies. One of them is Omni Consumer Products, which now runs Detroit Police Department. However, despite the best efforts, policemen can't cope with the well-armed criminals and Dick Jones (played by Ronny Cox), vice-president of OCP offers new solution – powerful, heavily-armed and almost indestructible ED 209 robot. Spectacular presentation of ED 209 abilities, however, turns into bloody disaster and the Old Man (played by Dan O'Herlihy) is willing to listen to the alternative plan by young, hot shot yuppie executive Morton (played by Miguel Ferrer). His idea is to combine the body of deceased police officer with the high tech equipment, armour and weaponry and create the invincible cyborg that would rid the city of criminals. The body needed is Murphy (played by Peter Weller), good police officer who died at the hands of a vicious gang of street punks, led by Clarence Bodiker (played by Kurtwood Smith). The experiment succeeds, and RoboCop project is put in motion with formidable results. However, Officer Lewis (played by Nancy Allen), Murphy's former partner, recognises the body and the human part of RoboCop starts to remember his true identity.

Superficially, the plot of the movie looks like a combination of comic book cliches: noble man dies only to be resurrected as a superhero; he fights the bad guys and has his moment of doubt/weakness before he takes his revenge in a final spectacular showdown. On the other hand, very clever script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner uses such weak plot in order to spice it up with a destructive satire of 1980s America (like with the name used for the latest model of American car). Especially effective is the use of fictitious three-minute-news in order to illustrate the future world; two anchors, played by the real-life newsmen Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons, present the grim tales about wars, disasters and human misery with a cheerfulness that strikes a frightening chord with "news as entertainment" policy of today's media.

Paul Verhoeven also contributed to this film, offering an outsider's perspective to the absurdities of Reagan's America. His background - European welfare-state, with its own "gentler, kinder" version of capitalism - was a huge contrast to the dog-eat-dog ultra individualistic yuppie culture that flourished in the Decade of Greed. Verhoeven was probably having a lot of fun by inflating the elements of that era to the levels of absurdity; it also emphasised the satirical point of the movie with his trademark use of over-the-top violence. Nice example is the scene in the beginning when the unfortunate OCP executive gets machine-gunned into a small pieces, and the next minute his friend and colleague uses the opportunity to suck to the boss. Nausea with the physical violence is effectively combined with the dark humour. Same is with the very gruesome, yet funny death scene in the end that can serve as Verhoeven's comment on environmental problems.

Although RoboCop easily falls into the category of "author's film" and the name of Verhoeven is the first to be associated with it, the other artists also left their distinctive mark on it. Peter Weller was very good in his, somewhat limited role of machine that turns into human; with its cool, stoical presence of good policeman and good father he was ideal for the role that Verhoeven himself considered the retelling of the Jesus Christ story. Nancy Allen is alsovery believable in her very un-feminine and very realistic portrayal of RoboCop's trusted sidekick, high above the usual cliché of women in action movies. However, those who play the bad guys are, us usual, stealing the show. Kurtwood Smith is excellent as a sadistic punk whose glasses give away the intelligence that would bring his criminal career above the street level, unlike his colourful stooges (played, among others, by reliable character actors like Ray Wise and Paul McCrane). Ronny Cox is also shadowed by him as a creepy corrupt executive, the role he would repeat in Total Recall.

Another strength of this movie also lies in a tight (and "Oscar"-nominated) editing by Frank J. Urioste that gives a movie, despite a lots of content, very fast pace in its 102 minutes. The visual design of the movie is also very elaborate, with pieces of futuristic architecture of corporate and technology in stark contrast with the decay of industrial wasteland. However, the most recognisable element of the film is Basil Poledouris' musical score, with its epic theme that is somewhat inferior to his masterpiece in
Conan the Barbarian, yet very effective. All in all, ROBOCOP is one of those rare movies that manage to be funny and entertaining, yet thought-provoking and dead serious in the same time.

RATING: 9/10 (++++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on October 12nd 1998)


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