Today is one of those days where I tackle a film I’ve always been in two minds about covering. See I like reviewing films, it passes the time and allows me to hopefully help other people find new films to watch they might have missed before. I also really enjoy tearing into the bad ones. Not good-bad films like Troll 2 and Ninja Terminator but BAD-BAD films like Ultraviolet and Titanic II. The reason I get apprehensive about some films though is because they’re the exact opposite. Films that aren’t just good, but they’re in the upper echelon of film-making. I’ve covered a few – Tokyo Story, LA Confidential and Alien for example – and if you go read those reviews (Please do!) you’ll likely tell that I was at times struggling to find the right words to express just how special the film is. Today I cover one of those films. Today I take on what is possibly the greatest genre films of the 80s. Today I review RoboCop.
Here’s the blog part. I don’t know exactly when I first saw RoboCop, but I know that I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen it. I would have had to have been around 5 or 6 years old which is when I first started really watching films. Yes I was one of those kids that wouldn’t stick to the kiddie films and thankfully I had parents that didn’t mind me watching stuff like this at that age. The film amazed me at the time. It was by far the most violent thing I had ever seen at that point. I loved the film as a kid because it was gory as hell and had a cyborg in it which were all the rage in the 80s. The gore never bothered me too much. I just laughed at a lot of it, which is the exact reaction you want your kids to have I’m sure. I remember I would always tense up and wince at the moment Murphy (Peter Weller) gets his hand shot off but other than that I loved all that blood splatter. These days I can appreciate the film on a much higher level though, which I’ll get into later.
RoboCop, for anyone not raised in the 80s, is the story of a crime ridden Detroit in the near future where a Consumer Products company called OCP runs pretty much everything including the police and are heading up plans to rebuilt Detroit as the futuristic and crime free Delta City. In order to do this they need to clean up the streets. After a slight glitch in the system causes a demonstration of Richard “Dick” Jones’ (Ronny Cox) ED-209 military grade robot to go a little awry a young up and coming rival, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) steps up to the plate with his RoboCop idea. All he has to do is wait for a volunteer in the police force to come forward. Which is where Alex Murphy comes in. It’s his first day on the job in down-town Detroit and all is going well until he has a run in with a gang of psychotic criminals lead by the scary as hell Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) leaves Murphy in the perfect state of mind to volunteer for the RoboCop program. By state of mind I mean dead. And by Volunteer I mean his body is property of OCP, he’s product and they can do whatever they want with him. After a trip to a OCP lab Murphy returns to the streets as RoboCop, a knight in shining armour sent to fight off any scum and villainy he can find. Unfortunately for OCP RoboCop is starting to experience a few glitches of his own in the form of human memories returning to him.
So that is a description of the first 40 minutes or so of the film and already we’ve got multiple layers of themes beyond what 90% of films will have over their entire run-time. We have corporate excess and backstabbing. Privatisation of public services, something that is happening today. We have the start of the films central Christ allegory in Murphy’s death and resurrection. We have the idea of mortality being tested by technology and lastly the theme of identity. I’ve not even made mention of the TV news and advertising sequences that bookend a lot of the film’s scenes which add tot he depth of the universe the film is set in and provide the layers of satire needed to sell this film to the audience. Just think about how much of a miracle it is that this film works. It’s juggling a lot of themes and it is about a robot cop. This should be a mess. But it isn’t because director Paul Verhoeven sells the hell out of it by wrapping the entire film up in a dark satirical streak a mile wide. He tells you it’s a joke that this world exists and then reminds you that the satire isn’t about the film’s world but about he world we were entering at the time. Nowadays we’re living in a world that’s dangerously close to being just like the Detroit of RoboCop’s near future setting. The film is, in my opinion, one of the greatest examples of thematic balancing that has ever been made.
RoboCop is one of those films that you’ll laugh along with as it provides a laugh in say the form of an advert for a family board-game involving nuking your siblings but then juxtaposes this apparent excess with streets filled with litter and crime. Verhoeven’s best films do this from start to finish but none balance it quite like RoboCop does. After a young board member is brutally, and I mean BRUTALLY, shot to death by ED-209 Verhoeven undercuts the horror with another board member yelling “somebody call a paramedic!”. Dark humour combined with the cluelessness of the men in charge who themselves are relying on excessive showy means of ingratiating themselves in the eyes of their stockholders all covered in around 30 seconds of film. That is efficient, clever and bold film making. It’s scenes like that that separate this from any other films of it’s genre. This is what happens when really skilled directors take the helm of pulp sci-fi films.
The Christ allegory mentioned earlier is played out multiple times over the course of the film. Murphy dies and is brought back to life, crucified for doing what he believed in. In the scene where he gets killed he and his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) had called for back-up in dealing with the heavily armed gang twice and had been told that there is no back-up. Not that they’re on their way, which would mean Murphy and Lewis went into the warehouse recklessly. They were told flat out that they had no support which would be because of how the police were a business now motivated by cost cutting. Murphy believed in upholding the law but OCP clearly didn’t. Later RoboCop is betrayed by his own kind, has a spear plunged into his body and even walks on water. If you’ve seen the film and not noticed that last one you will when you watch it next.
There’s even more going on. We don’t know Murphy the man for long but in that short time we get to know enough to be sure that we like him. One element of his character we see is his practising of a trick performed by a cyborg crime fighter on TV that his son loves. Murphy practices the trick to impress his son. Eventually he can do this trick perfectly but it is as a cyborg himself. It’s a subconscious trait that exists within Murphy and the first hint to Lewis that he is Murphy. This delves into the identity theme and themes of masculinity. The need to be better at any cost. Obviously not Murphy’s choice to become a robot but he cannot do the trick perfectly until he is. Plus it’s the indication that there is part of him left that gradually becomes more important as the film goes on. This leads to him hunting down Boddicker’s gang which leads to a moment where he almost manages to make his emotions over-rule his programming. As he is about to kill Boddicker he is reminded of his first Prime Directive, to uphold the law. That shows he still wants to be a good cop and not the revenge hunting killer that his new body allows him to be.
Performances in RoboCop are superb. You just have to watch Weller moving about as RoboCop to see someone that not only played the role but put in an excessive amount of time perfecting every single nuance. He moves like a machine, all fluid yet erringly precise. There’s a shoot-out sequence in a drug factory where his every movement plays out almost like a dance. He makes his way through the action with one efficient motion after the another like a lethal ballet. RoboCop isn’t the most talkative character around but Weller fills him with a robotic tone that gradually cracks a little bit at a time as he remembers who he was before he became RoboCop and realises the horror of the life he is in now. To add to this performance the film has two great villains in Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker. There is no doubt that within a few minutes of meeting both you’ll want to see them killed. But Boddicker has another level to him. He’s not just easily dislikeable but is also very charismatic. You understand why he has a gang, you understand why people fear him and you definitely know that you never want to cross him.
You can’t talk about RoboCop without going into it’s effects and make-up work, Featuring two of the greats of what we now call practical effects in the forms of Phil Tippet with his stop motion animations for ED-209 and Rob Bottin with his incredible make-up for Robocop. The suit is a work of design art to the degree that the reveal of the suit for the upcoming remake is almost guaranteed to be hated no matter how good it is. They could even copy the suit from this film and still upset fans over the slightest detail they get wrong. The most stunning make-up effects come at the end of the film. I’ll have a picture of RoboCop without his mask on after this paragraph which is prime example of how good Rob Bottin is. It’s a seamless blend of Peter Weller’s face into prosthetics that appear to show his skin stretched over an exposed metallic skull. I bet here and now that when they do a scene like that in the remake it’ll be a CGI skull with a digitally mapped on face. The other notable effect is the fate of Emil (Paul McCrane). He crashes a car into a giant vat of Toxic waste and stumbles out a melting man. An effect that actually was based on the make-up effects of Rick baker on The Incredible Melting Man in fact.
The film’s score is provided by Basil Poledouris, who also scored the Arnie film Conan the Barbarian. He mixes military brass band marches with synthesiser music to create a mechanically precise and almost robotic sound to the theme that follows RoboCop wherever he goes. The RoboCop March manages to give you a militaristic feel to any scene RoboCop is in but is also layered with traditional romantic film score elements to keep the theme feeling heroic. It also juxtaposes the war like nature of the characters outer appearance with the humanity that lies underneath.
Honestly I struggle to fault RoboCop on a storytelling or thematic level. It’s shot beautifully with many shots using compositions that you’d expect from a 1940 impressionistic German movie but also uses a very comic book like framing making sure that RoboCop’s actions are framed for impact. The script (By Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) is so sharp you could arrange the pages side on and turn it onto an improvised Slap-chop. I suppose I could mock that one effect at the end where a villains arms look a bit too long but that would be nit-picking. RoboCop is exceptional, so much so it was even included in Mark Cousin’s The Story Of Film alongside films such as Tokyo Story, A Bout De Soufflé and The Message. And Mark Cousins is quite the cinema snob. I watched this last night (August 28th 2012) on a cinema screen for the first time at The Prince Charles Cinema in London and I honestly have never enjoyed the film more. It’s been around 25 years since I first watched it on VHS and seeing it projected onto a giant cinema screen it felt like the wonder of seeing it for the first time. If ever you see a local cinema showing RoboCop make it your duty to go along and see it. Especially if, like it was for me last night, it’s coupled with Verhoeven’s other classic Total Recall.