|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 08 June 2004|
1987’s “Robocop” has become such an influential science-fiction film – the word “robocop” has even entered common slang to denote a type of police officer on violent autopilot – that it’s hard to remember that once upon a time, the movie sounded like it might be a bad idea. Even recalling “Robocop’s” success, it’s possible to hazily remember it as emblematic of its time.
Surprise. The original “Robocop,” revisited on DVD, turns out to be as clever, punchy and even startling today as it was back then. Maybe this is partly because a lot of sci-fi filmmaking has become considerably tamer and less imaginative, so that the competition isn’t as huge as it might be, but mostly it’s because director Paul Verhoeven and writers Ed Neumeier & Michael Miner take what could have simply been a big-screen riff on “The Six Million Dollar Man” and turn it into something sharply satirical, often breathtakingly brutal and generally gripping on a number of levels.
Frank Murphy (Peter Weller) is a good cop in near-future Detroit, just trying to do his job amidst ferocious violence, threats of a police strike and a takeover of the police force by the huge corporation OCP. Frank is gruesomely killed in the line of duty, only to be resurrected by an ambitious junior OCP exec (Miguel Ferrer) as a crime-fighting cyborg when a completely mechanical OCP police unit, the ED-209, malfunctions lethally during a demo. Robocop, as he’s now known, is not supposed to have memories of his human life, but his erstwhile partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) soon detects what’s left of the man inside the metal. Robocop is simply trying to do his job, but the criminals who did him in originally don’t want anything left of him and the OCP honcho in charge of the ED-209 project is boiling mad at being upstaged.
What’s really remarkable about “Robocop” is how it balances a fine interest in Murphy’s suffering and humanity with the ferocious action format. The version in the DVD box set is unrated rather than the theatrical R-rated version, which means that the bloodshed is massive. Murphy’s human death is one of the most gruesome gun deaths imaginable – as is pointed out in the supplemental material, Verhoeven wanted a crucifixion before the resurrection and indeed, we are solidly on Murphy’s/Robocop’s side thereafter. Weller is astute and skillful with split-second line delivery that finds deadpan humor and whimsy and poignancy in the subdued human reactions inside all that armor. The slimy executives are funny, hateful and oddly realistic, with Cox and Ferrer putting gusto into their roles, and Allen is an excellent sidekick who (rare for a woman in an onscreen cop partnership) is allowed to play concern without having to sexualize her role.
The movie’s jabs at the media (something Verhoeven, Neimeier and producer Jon Davison like to tackle whenever they work together – witness the “Starship Troopers” films) now seem more prescient than parodying, and indeed, a lot of the social situations conjured up in “Robocop’s” premise are now so close to reality that the social commentary stands out even more strongly, yet it’s woven so offhandedly into the fabric of the storyline that it doesn’t seem didactic.
The stop-motion special effects hold up admirably – probably helped by the fact that ED-209 is meant to move mechanically rather than fluidly. Sound is loud and punchy – you may have to play volume jockey to maintain a livable balance between being able to hear the actors when they’re speaking quietly and not having all of your neighbors complaining about the holes blown in their walls by the plentiful explosions and gunfire. The rears are quiet at first, but they liven up in Chapter 1 with radio chatter as Murphy and Lewis take off in their patrol car. Chapter 4, with Murphy’s bloody execution, has a lot of gunfire that is punchy but almost entirely in the mains. Chapter 5 has excellent contrast between regular police weapons and Robocop’s superguns as both are discharged. Chapter 11 has a really loud, impactful destruction of a metal door, followed soon after by directional bullet whooshes through the rears.
The DVD comes with a thorough and satisfyingly lengthy retrospective documentary, featuring interviews with Verhoeven, Neumeier, Miner and Davison, and two featurettes about the filming made during production. The audio commentary with Verhoeven, Neumeier and Davison is funny and informative – all three filmmakers are bright, enjoy riffing off each other and have no problem recalling how things worked (Neumeier brings up the fact that Verhoeven was so unenthusiastic about the script at first that he initially flung it on the floor, where it was rescued by Verhoeven’s wife). Five deleted scenes add texture.
“Robocop” holds up as a classic of its genre, combining character study, searingly intense action and the kind of blithely snarky social satire that other movies try to emulate but usually can’t pull off.
“Robocop” has been released in a boxed set with its two sequels. 1990’s “Robocop 2” is actually not bad, though it lacks the bite of the first film (likely at least in part because it also lacks Verhoeven, Neumeier & Miner), with Murphy/Robocop struggling more with his human memories and ultimately forced to face off against a robo-criminal (Tom Noonan). 1992’s “Robocop 3” isn’t exactly a bad movie, but by now, it feels like something being made because someone sees a successful format, rather than something they want to say – the rating is PG-13 and Robert John Burke is different enough from Weller to be a bit jarring as Robocop. It’s not that Burke is doing anything wrong per se, but he doesn’t provide the sense of automation warring with puzzlement that Weller continually brings to the character. Each of the two sequels has its own disc; neither have any extras beyond language and subtitle choices.
The original “Robocop,” with its iconic status and the wealth of bonus features, is well worth having. The sequels are less engaging, but if you’re a real fan of its universe, you might as well pick up the trilogy package.