He Has Risen!
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Despite its schlocky, B-movie title and the premise of a cyborg cop in a semi-dystopian Detroit, the Paul Verhoeven directed Robocop would prove to be one of the smartest films from the 1980s, an era when blockbuster movies were made for adults and their appeal would trickle down to younger audiences. Everything about the cyborg police officer oozes pure 1980’s cool from the slick metal look to that unforgettable voice (“your move creep!”). It feels like an actual robot and not simply a man wearing a suit, largely in part thanks to Peter Weller’s performance in which he nails the robotic body movements (I can suspend my disbelief that it never occurs to the bad guys just to shoot Robocop in the flesh of his uncovered lower face).
Robocop himself is the creation of Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a company which in its own words deals in “markets traditionally regarded as non-profit” such as hospitals, prisons and space exploration (funny I am writing this review as Jeff Bezos and the Richard Branson have just recently flown into space); a company that is essentially part of the military-industrial complex (“you got access to military weaponry? We practically are the military”). OCP runs the Detroit police force which raises the question, does there exist a public police force that is actually privatized (to which I’m unable to find a clear answer)? The world inside OCP is a combination of sexy and sinister yuppiedom full of Godfather-esque inner dealings and in which stock boards are placed above urinals. I like how during the presentation for the company’s other police robot ED-209, one of the board members is brutally gunned down by the machine and the best anyone can say is “does somebody want to call a paramedic?” and the board just continue to talk business and finance (also notice how Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) stubbornly pays no attention during the ED-209 presentation). It ultimately comes as no surprise when it turns out OCP has links to Detroit’s most prominent gang lead by Clarence Boddicker, a figure of pure menace with his sinister look and a man who can go down as one of cinema’s great villains (notice how he’s always doing something with his mouth). Yet I wouldn’t say OCP is portrayed as an overtly evil company in Robocop, the companies’ head, the sympathetic old man (Dan O’Herlihy) appears to be oblivious the shadier dealings within his company rather than actively taking part in them (by contrast in Robocop 2 OCP is portrayed as a far more sinister company, right down to having Nazi-esque flags on displays). Robocop can join the club of sci-fi movies that warned us about the dangers of corporate power, but did we listen?
So how does OCP come to literally own the body of Robocop’s previous alter alias, Detroit police officer Alex Murphy? We are only given a single line of dialogue in which company member Donald Johnson (Felton Perry) states “Well he signed the release forms when he joined the force. He’s legally dead. We can do pretty much what we want to”. It’s also not clear if Murphy has literally been brought back from the dead (although with Robocop being a clear Christ metaphor that argument could be made). Clarence Boddicker shot Murphy in the forehead and he clearly appeared deceased lying in a pool of his own blood, yet when Murphy is being rushed to the operating room we do see what appears to be flashbacks in his head to his family life suggesting he was still alive. Regardless if weather OCP has literally possesses the ability to reincarnate a human, it is a disturbing prospect how a company can literally own your body and in effect, a person (regardless if they’re technically still classified as a human upon becoming a cyborg) can become a company product. As the film progresses there are subtle signs of Murphy regaining his humanity and like fellow similarly themed 80’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner, the question is asked, what is the dividing line between man and machine? Unlike say 2001: A Space Odyssey which makes the viewer fear technology with HAL 9000, Robocop has a message of man learning to live side by side with technology. The scene in which Murphy removes his visor and looks upon his face for the first time since becoming Robocop is heart-wrenching and easily the most moving scene in the film, with the makeup effects themselves being something of awe.
Robocop’s competitor at OCP, ED-209 is one cool looking beast but is a product that clearly hasn’t been well thought through since it’s incapable of accessing areas such as a simple staircase. It’s the little touches though which give it a personality from its lion growl before attacking from its pig squeal when it falls over to its little foot twitch. It goes without saying stop motion effects will never cease being cool to look at (likewise, Robocop I also great a showcase for the lost art that is the matte painting). Contrarily, Murphy’s partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), while instrumental in helping Murphy rediscover his humanity, I do find myself slightly resenting her character as she does bear some responsibility for Murphy’s death and for a ridiculous reason. She just had to look down at that gang members’ package and as a result, be knocked out and disarmed. Had she not been distracted Murphy might still be a regular cop. That said, Murphy’s twirling of his gun to emulate the fictional futuristic cop T.J. Lazer in order to impress his son is a massive firearms violation (tut, tut), even if “role models can be very important to a boy”.
One of the memorable aspects of Robocop and something which really makes the film unique are the television segments, of which the news bulletins are in themselves an effective manner to deliver exposition while the commercials are incredibly entertaining and quotable (“That’s it buster! No more military aid!”). Perhaps most memorable of all is the fictional sitcom It’s Not My Problem! and that infectiously quotable line “I’d buy that for a dollar!” – the punch line to a joke we never hear yet the characters in the movie watching this low brow sitcom find hilarious. Much of the acting in Robocop is deliberately very campy. I can remember on one occasion channel surfing and I stumbled onto Robocop, my mother could not stop laughing at just how campy the acting was.
No specific date is given for when Robocop is set, whereas like Blade Runner, there exists technology that is still science-fiction in the real world and the President of the United States makes speeches from outer space (likewise male and female police officers sharing the same changing room appears to be the norm), yet within this universe, televisions are still bulky boxes with Cathode-ray tubes. Perhaps the film’s most memorable tech anomaly is the appearance of what you could possibly call a DVD, in which Boddicker uses a CD to carry visual information which was not possible in 1987. I also find the interior of Murphy’s house (owned by a company called Zem Industries) looks so heartless and sterile. This world isn’t quite Soylent Green but it’s still not desirable.
Even for a film that is as violent and drenched in blood as Robocop, the one moment which still manages to come out of left field is the death of the Boddicker’s henchman Emil Antonowsky (Paul McCrane). The death of Emil is equally disturbing yet darkly comic as he turns into a creature resembling the toxic avenger after driving into a toxic waste container. What makes it so funny is the horror-like organ music that plays over the graphic, horrifying sight of a man who rivals Joseph Merrick followed by his body splattering all over a car windshield after Boddicker accidentally drives into him. Conversely, the film’s action climax does end on a more beautiful moment of violence as Boddicker penetrates Robocop with a spear, a shot that has a very mythic quality to it.
Robocop as a series is also one of the great tragedies of contemporary cinema in that the first film set up so much sequel potential which failed to be utilized upon (I do like Robocop 2 but it is a downgrade from the first film) – regardless, we will always have the original. The ending of Robocop is just about the perfect explosion of catharsis to an already sublimely paced film as our titular hero gets revenge on the corporate bad guy Dick Jones (Ronny Cox). I do love that brief cutaway shot in which Donald Johnson looks on with glee at Robocop guns down Jones while that charmingly dodgy falling shot in which Jones has unusually long arms is so wonderfully cliché. This is followed by one of the best single lines in film history as the old man praises Robocop for his shooting and asks him for his name. A Robocop who has regained his humanity gives a simple utterance of “Murphy” as Basil Poledouris’ superb theme plays over the end credits and the audience cheers on.