RoboCop is a 1987 Sci-Fi / Action movie from director Paul Verhoeven. On release, it was famed for its cutting edge effects and scathingly dark satirical humor regarding big business, the police force, and crime. Verhoeven, the Dutch-born filmmaker who would go on to helm Starship Troopers (a movie about bugs) and Showgirls (a movie about boobs), has always had about the same level of subtlety as the Hindenburg, and RoboCop is an example of that.
RoboCop follows the story of Alex Murphy (played by the inimitable Peter Weller), an honest police officer who is brutally gunned down by criminals. What is left of Murphy’s body is then recovered and placed in an experimental robotic suit. The tagline on the RoboCop poster would wonderfully state: “PART MAN, PART MACHINE, ALL COP”.
RoboCop‘s higher-ups are that of the ever elusive shady corporation, OmniCorp, and the screenplay’s criticism of these suits might as well be as brash as the very same villains blowing up their hero or when they’re being melted by acid. The company responsible for the “RoboCop” project is run by these sneering, wealthy watch-wearers who see RoboCop (and by extension Alexy Murphy) himself as their product, with goals of gentrification power in mind. These upper-class corporate masters are only fired from employment when dispatched by literal gunfire. It’s a movie that huffs conservative Reagan politics and 80s-style spending and regurgitates it into a 102-minute package.
RoboCop is a blast. Clunky and on-the-nose, for sure, but it’s so tremendously “80s” that you can not help but be here for those quirks. Hyper-violent, It’s still held aloft by film fans for its practical effects and cynical view of big business. The aforementioned execution scene of Murphy, while his partner watches helpless, is gratuitous and all the better for it. As the villain targets specific body parts down the scope of a shotgun, he and his gang remove Murphy’s limbs one after the other until he’s dead. With its spectacular effects, matter of fact storyline and over-the-top violence the film would secure its place in lists of the Best Sci-Fi Films Ever Made with ease. But how exactly is RoboCop defined, and what makes it more than the sum of its (robotic) parts?
1. Serve the Public Trust
The Terminator / RoboCop comparisons are obvious, inevitable, and even interlinked. Both stories feature an eponymous violent android in humanoid worlds, both characters spawned by a shady tech company, and both films were released in the 1980s. Off-screen, both were also distributed by production company Orion Pictures. The comparisons even merge, with a Terminator Vs RoboCop movie mooted since 1990, and a comic series and even a 1993 video game detailing how the grudge match would play out. RoboCop‘s producer, Jon Davison, reasoned: “Orion had produced The Terminator, and I’m sure the success of that film led them to take a chance [on RoboCop]. “
Michael Miner, one half of the screenwriters involved on RoboCop, said:
We were writing RoboCop when Terminator was being finished. And we waited until the script was [done] before we saw the film. I guess they could both be called post-modern robot films in the sense that the humor is very dark. I think that the Cameron film is much more a horror film than RoboCop, which to me is social satire with some very real emotions in it.
While Terminator would travel back to LA, its story would begin in a desperate future carpeted by human skulls that we had not witnessed on screen previously, and its story would peek further into the technology that at the time was just being hinted at. One Sarah Connor, chatting with her future / current savior Kyle Reece, would say, “They can not make things like that yet.” To which he would reply, grimly: “Not yet. Not for about forty years.”
RoboCop meanwhile would cleverly suggest that the non-fictional Detroit is a close relative to the one it depicts. RoboCop would set its story in the far out future of 2028, a city where every direction is filled with crime, featuring innocents prime to be assaulted – now with added robots. But in July 1987 when RoboCop was released in cinemas, the real-world Michigan crime stats featured the highest homicide rate two years in a row (1985 and 1986, via the FBI’s numbers) and, over ten years on, was still to shake the moniker of being dubbed the ” Murder Capital of The World. “
Due to the normality of owning a gun (legal or otherwise, following the 1967 riots in the city) an increase in the selling of crack cocaine in the 80s, the subsequent gangs, and everyday domestic-based killings (mothers and sons arguments boiling over and resorting in a weapon being unloaded, say) murder had become a dangerously notorious trademark of the real world-Detroit. Despite RoboCop‘s more fantastical elements (and being shot in Dallas), its setting was a connect-the-dots quasi-fiction of genuine horror happening on Detroit’s streets and in its households.
2. Protect The Innocent
But the outside influences do not stop there. Co-screenwriter, Ed Neumeier, actually coining the premise for RoboCop on the set of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner no less, directly cites comic books as inspiration:
I was not a superhero guy. But [my story editor at Columbia Pictures, John Byers] gave me a bunch of comic books because someone had said, “Could we do a superhero movie about this?” […] And comics were going through a bit of a second coming. Guys like Frank Miller were coming up. Suddenly comic books were getting serious cred. And I thought, There’s a style here. The way people act, the way they talk, the behavior …. It’s kind of dumb, but it’s fun in that way too. [RoboCop] producer Jon Davison, unlike many others, understood that immediately. And then […Paul Verhoeven] came in, and at first said, “Well, why is this so dumb? Why is this so American?” And then he went and read some comic books, and he came back, and he said, “Oh, I see. I see what we’re doing.”
More specifically, RoboCop will always be compared to (if not just straight-up derivative of) 2000ADs comic book superhero cop Judge Dredd. With its fascist sensibilities, high futuristic cityscape setting, and similar body armor, helmet and chiseled jaw on display, the similarities are uncanny.
Outside directly lifting Dredd’s quotes, RoboCop would even pilfer the DNA of Dredd altogether. The RoboCop script supposedly was even bore from a Judge Dredd screenplay draft, altered so many times that it would become the RoboCop seen on screen. Not convinced? There’s even an image of an early sculpture of RoboCop wearing the Dredd helmet circling the internet.
3. Uphold The Law
RoboCop would spawn two feature sequels, an extremely faithful 23-episode TV series, another miniseries, a cartoon, endless video games, and comic books. In 2014, the world received a remake of the same name. Despite a stunning cast (including Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton), it was accused of the worst crime of them all: blandness.
Fast-forward to 2018, and a RoboCop Returns is rumored, featuring the original screenwriters. With a director attached (formerly Neill Blomkamp of District 9before he left the project), but next to no details on the movie since then, it remains a tantalizing question mark as to whether the movie will actually happen (an official RoboCop game is set for 2023 however, suggesting that legitimate interest is there).
Arguably, despite having its own more than wobbly sequels being released quickly one after the other, we only really remember the original RoboCopkeeping its legacy far more intact and less marred than that of the now dead in the water Terminator movie franchise that refuses to power down for good.
A final thought: perhaps Officer Murphy returning is more necessary than ever. With a genuine fascist police force in the west televised for the world to see, corporations granted the rights of citizens, the rise of movements like ACAB, and technology more accessible and affordable with each day, perhaps the “part man, part machine, all cop“is exactly what film fans require right now to blend the divide between haunting reality – and good ol ‘fashioned entertainment.
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