Today: May 18, 2024

RoboCop A Retrospective

As Jose Padihas’ much-anticipated take on the 1987 sci-fi classic, RoboCop opens in UK cinemas, Steve Lillie takes a look back at Paul Verhoeven’s original tale of dark deeds in Old Detroit.

“I’d buy that for a dollar.”
We live in an age of the remake. Yes, films have always been remade but it now seems as though perfectly good movies are remade for no reason at all. RoboCop is the latest film to get the “re-imagining” treatment, but why has it been remade? Will it be an improvement on the original?

There are many reasons for a film studio to choose to remake a successful film but the main reason is that movie studios exist to make money, not enrich our lives with good movies. Films nowadays can be a huge monetary investment and so a great risk to any studio. Naturally they want to minimise their risk and maximise their profits. Using a previously successful formula is sensible, RoboCop was one of the most popular film of the ‘80s ranking well in many best film lists. It even spawned two sequels, a TV show, two animated series, and several comics. So it was only a matter of time before it was given the big budget blockbuster makeover.

So why are studios investing in these mega budget superhero/sci-fi films? Why not make low budget films that might be better movies? Well, “art” films are a high risk. If an arty film is not received well it will lose money. If a CGI spectacular is reviewed badly, people will go and see it anyway, so they still make a profit (usually). That’s the theory at least. But does RoboCop need remaking? What is wrong with the 1987 film directed by Paul Verhoeven?

RoboCop is the story of hero, officer Alex J. Murphy (played by Peter Weller) who after being fatally injured by drug-dealers is converted into a cyborg police officer by mega corp Omni Consumer Products (OCP). A merry tale of crime-fighting and corruption in the near future Detroit.

Paul Verhoeven is a veteran of such films as Total Recall and Starship Troopers – films infused with dark humour, depicting a dystopian, fascistic future, and made in a time that now seems to have been a golden age for sci-fi. The age of Blade Runner, Terminator, The Thing and Alien. Many of these films were dismissed as schlock at the time but are now viewed as classics and often aired with reverence on Channel 4 or at the BFI.

RoboCop (1987) is a great film. Well paced, acted and scripted; it achieves all it’s objectives. This is not an art house film, only designed to be seen by an elite group of culture aficionados. By showing the evils of corporate corruption in a superficially right wing piece of popular entertainment, the artist is speaking to not only a wider, more numerous audience, but also those whose opinions he would like to challenge. Surprisingly, though, Peter Verhoeven initially rejected the script (by Edward Neumeier), only reading the beginning and dismissing it as a dumb action movie. It was his wife who convinced him of its satirical and allegorical worth.

Admittedly the majority of viewers will only see RoboCop as an avatar of justice dealing with all infractions to the law with unstoppable force. This can be hugely entertaining and cathartic as problems in real life are never so simply solved. You can’t solve inner-city crime, corporate greed, and be a good parent by just shooting people.

“Dead or alive you’re coming with me.”
The use of a cyborg gives us the chance to have Murphy – a good cop and family man – literally turned into a mechanised embodiment of oppressive authoritarian power. Not only is most of his body replaced with robotics but also his mind. He is no longer human. He is an OCP ‘product’, with no will of his own. There is no pretence that this cyborg officer is going to harmoniously integrate with the community. He is purely law enforcement, with military force and no will of his own. The ideal officer or soldier for the powers that be. So RoboCop’s story is also about Murphy’s battle to regain his humanity, not just slaughter drug-dealers. 

It’s hard to imagine anyone else bringing the same pathos to Robo as Peter Weller. He seems perfect for the role although other actors were considered, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rutger Hauer to name but two.

With echoes of Judge Dredd’s Mega City One, Old Detroit is a crime-ridden city that needs a specially uncompromising law enforcement to bring order and safety to the streets. Drug-dealers are an ideal adversary. No one likes drug-dealers – not even junkies – so it’s fine to kill them with wild abandon. However, clever casting adds an additional layer to the story. Choosing Kurtwood Smith to play Clarence Boddicker, the leader of the drugs gang, breaks the stereotype of the movie ‘hoodie’ drugs-dealer. Verhoeven cast Smith because he thought he looked like Heinrich Himmler and giving him glasses made him appear more intelligent – thereby emphasizing the fascistic and subtle nature of Robo’s adversaries.

“Old Detroit has a cancer. That cancer is crime.”
OCP is the distilled embodiment of all that is evil in large companies run purely for capitalist gain. A corporation dedicated to arms manufacture and boardroom backstabbing, where the bosses are ruthless cut-throats, working hand-in-glove with drug-dealers and the murderers.

In this sharply divided society, there is plenty of money about to build Delta City (a utopia for the rich) but not enough to fund effective policing of Old Detroit. So the bad guys run riot and OCP cash in by trying to bring the law under their control in the form of RoboCop.

Verhoeven shows big business as part of the cancer that is eating away at society – cleverly evoked by the advertising and ’30-second’ news clip, featured within the film. This device is also used in Starship Troopers.

On release the film had some criticism for it’s violence and high body count (30) but was largely well received. RoboCop is not only an excellent sci-fi action thriller, but has important things to say about the evils of big business, the pitfalls of capitalism, the perils of unwavering authoritarianism and the dehumanisation of individuals crushed beneath the system. The remake will no doubt have glossy special effects, but will it have the same allegorical content that raised the first film above a dumb action movie? Will Joel Kinnaman have the same screen presence as Peter Weller? RoboCop was so well cast with fine performances from everyone, It certainly did not need to be remade. It has to be asked: What is the new film going to add?

If you were in any doubt as to the dark satire inherent in the original RoboCop, Former President Richard Nixon was hired to promote the home video release. Let’s see if former President George W. Bush is hired to promote the DVD release of the remake.

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