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RoboCop (1987)

by on 2011/01/16

“Role models can be very important to a boy.  Okay, I get a kick out of it.”

* * * *

Sometimes you suddenly remember what you already know.  I was aware that Paul Verhoeven had directed a number of popular movies.  Basic Instinct I enjoyed, Showgirls I didn’t, and Hollow Man fell in between.  I own several of his videos myself, but hadn’t thought about how many were science fiction heavy hitters:  Starship Troopers, Total Recall, and today’s special, RoboCop.

Peter Weller (Screamers) stars as police officer Alex Murphy in a near-future Detroit.  Partnered with officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen of Carrie), and trying to arrest crime lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), he is tortured and mortally wounded, left for dead, his mission unfinished.

Meanwhile, Richard Jones (Ronny Cox) and Robert Morton (Miguel Ferrer) struggle for control of mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products.  OCP hopes to eradicate the rampant crime of Old Detroit, clearing the way for a major urban development, Delta City.  One of them has hit upon building a cyborg super-cop, if only a suitable volunteer could be found…

Standard science fiction?  Like RoboCop himself, that plot’s just the armour plating.  Throughout the story, at its core, and running through the background, are several deeper themes.  The obvious ones are the questions of life and death, of humanity, identity, and individuality, of the ghost in the machine.

Others hover nearby, however.  Are police an essential service?  Should they have the right to strike?  What threat does technology pose to employment, security, and privacy?  What price is too high for safety, for “progress”?  Do the ends justify the means?  In this complex tapestry, a gas station explosion is as much a question of collateral damage as eye candy.

The appearance of that tapestry is as varied as its themes.  On a sensory level, the movie works as well as any solid thriller.  We are introduced to the hero in parts, literally, as we see his components, and hear descriptive dialogue.  We catch quick glimpses in monitors, through stippled glass and gratings, often at odd angles.

RoboCop plays coy in other ways too, allowing us to see Murphy from inside out.  A cross between the viewpoints of The Terminator and Predator, the staticky first person perspective, heads-up display, and thermography is simultaneously visceral and confining.

If I had to take issue with this approach, I’d have wished for a handheld view instead of the “gliding” motion used.  Or perhaps our hero might transition between bobbing and gliding as his humanity and bionics engage in their tug-of-war.

Many of the visuals are successful, though, some perhaps too much so.  RoboCop enjoys a five-year lead over Reservoir Dogs for its disturbing dismemberment of an officer.  And the scene where a thug is “toxic wasted” across the front of a speeding car will stay with you for years.  Trust me.

Other effects are less successful.  I’d single out the ED-209 (RoboCop’s rival, the Enforcement Droid) sequences as having aged the most poorly except that their stop motion artifice was never convincing in the first place.  My choice to forgive them is twofold.  First, I have a soft spot for Ray Harryhausen.  Second, using this technique to animate a robot is somehow artistically apt.

Instead I’ll waggle the Finger of Shame at the wretched climactic compositing.  If a film of similar vintage could do a high dive convincingly — kudos, Die Hard — then why not RoboCop?

The shame continues in the audio realm, where the sound is a bit of a wash.  While there’s nothing wrong with the basics, I’ve become accustomed to discovering impressive surprises.  Here the only attention-getters were the irritants.  Quote me all the award-winnings you wish.  I’ve yet to be convinced.

On occasion, Murphy floats around in a personal space of bleeps and bloops.  He seems to generate his own Star Trek bridge ambiance the way one of his prey might generate perspiration.  Hardly menacing, authoritative, or even cool.

The Other Robotic Cop, the ED-209, has different issues.  It roars like a lion in attacking, and squeals like a piglet when bested.  Its garbled synthetic announcements virtually begged me to suggest, “The mortality rate on its rounds would have skyrocketed, because no one could make out the warnings.”

Finally, I’ll mention the score.  Let me spare the composer excessive attention by suggesting that his music resembles Michael Kamen’s.  I did enjoy one of the recurring motifs, when Murphy does his crime fighting rounds and, later, when he tours an open house.  Unfortunately, I found the song’s execution to be otherwise, meh, underwhelming.

Still, my viewing was marked by interesting discoveries overall.  The interstitial “media” breaks reminded me of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, as did the coed shower scene.  The faux Family Heart Center commercial foreshadowed his Total Recall’s ads.

More intriguing to me than any similarity to the director’s other work, however, is its dissimilarity to its own sequels and spinoffs.  The distinction lays in the depth.  Beneath an effective narrative layer, its corporate, political, and social themes simmer and inform.  Looking closely, one may find Christian parallels.  I personally thought of Frankenstein.  Whatever you see in RoboCop, it’s likely to be a good sight more complex than the simple cops and robbers of its successors.

* * * *

Rated R for drug use, language, nudity, and extreme violence

103 minutes

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8 Comments
  1. andymovieman permalink

    good sci fi movie from paul verhoeven besides total recall. just as good as any other film he did like basic instinct, hollow man and starship troopers as well.

  2. andymovieman permalink

    no one can play robocop like peter weller.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  6. The Gate (1987) « Geek vs Goth

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