Dead or alive, you come with RoboCop
The release of the science fiction film RoboCop July 17, 1987, was the start of a slow rise to cult status.
It took a while for audiences to grasp the complexity of the film – after all, the title would seem to suggest a cheap pre-B movie.
Set in a near-future dystopia where Omni Consumer Products owns the entire city of Detroit, it’s the story of street cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), brutally murdered in the line of duty, who is resurrected by the company and rebuilt as a cyborg officer, described as “the future of law enforcement”. Hence the name “RoboCop”, created by a marketing manager to be user-friendly.
But of course it’s not that simple. OCP owns the police department but also the criminal gang that runs the underworld, led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who had killed Murphy. As parts of his memory leak through his Three Directive programming, RoboCop discovers how corrupt the city is, and also that OCP has installed a secret Fourth Directive, which prevents him from acting against society.
“They killed me on purpose and put me in this machine,” Weller explained during filming. “These powers that run the police and are also behind the idea of the cyber cop. They are also the people who fuel the wars on drugs, so they can build more robots and fight the wars on drugs that they themselves have created! All of these people are guilty – not just those who shot me, but also those who created me.
Watch the original ‘RoboCop’ trailer
RoboCop was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s breakthrough film, and his trademark character cut through him deeply. The violent scenes were so deliberately extreme that they remain fond memories for many early viewers. Desperate studio executives insisted on cutting seconds here and there in an effort to reduce the number of bullets to get an R rating. Verhoeven resisted every edit, arguing that children would find his violent scenes comical, especially in the context of its realization. He was right – while the shocking disintegration of Murphy by Boddicker’s gang lingers in memory, so does the comic book moment when acid-soaked mobster Antonowsky is splashed in liquid by Boddicker.
“Initially I rejected the script because it was so different from what I was doing in the Netherlands,” Verhoeven told the Guardian in 2022, explaining that he struggled with the American slang language because he knew so little about it. “There were so many moments where I could have been wrong. In the script, someone was like, ‘Hey brother,’ and I was like, ‘Who’s the brother?'”
Watch the violent death of Alex Murphy
Context was everything. If the violent scenes were so extreme that they were funny, so was the social commentary in Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s screenplay. The dangers of neoliberalism in the wild are exemplified by the OCP’s ability to take control of an entire city, including its police, while an unhappy mayor attempts to persuade an indifferent electorate to think about what is good for the future rather than accepting tax breaks and consumer benefits. News readers making gratuitous political commentary during stories, tampering with the space between fact and truth for political gain, is now a global norm. While laughing, the audience is asked to consider that, if the worst of humanity is the worst of all of us, how bad do we allow ourselves to become?
The roots of this approach came from the comics – Neumeier said he wanted to create a character that felt like “a superhero with a headache”. Especially, 2000AD The Judge Dredd breakout band was a huge influence. An early version of RoboCop’s costume even featured a helmet similar to Dredd’s, and the future non-cyborg cop (who is a clone, however) was referenced in the line of dialogue: “Your move, creep.”
It was essential for Weller to portray the human inside RoboCop’s metal casing, and to that end he spent four months working with a mime to develop a style of movement in his costume. “We wanted to take a human being and turn them into a robot, walking around in a costume in a stylized, attractive, but computerized way…we wanted to breathe a bit of humanity through this robotic thing,” the actor explained.
But the costume, designed by special effects icon Rob Bottin, caused serious problems when it arrived. Weller was supposed to start filming the same day, but instead spent all day fighting to put it on. It took several days of fitting before the costume worked, by which time the film was shooting near the deadline. “Really, it was a matter of willpower,” Weller said. “I thought to myself, ‘Look, in all this madness about whether the suit will fly or not, it’s going to be me in the suit. get there !
Luckily, it worked, along with a stack of stop-motion scenes from lead man Phil Tippett, whose portrayal of the ED-209 police machine added another strong element to the story. Quite the opposite of the cyborg RoboCop, the animal nature of ED-209’s AI shined through, his senseless viciousness (murdering the staff who worked there) and stupidity (when he fell down the stairs) proving again that he there is a lot to be said for humanity – if I may say so.
Watch RoboCop Fight ED-209
Underlying it all, in the end, was the concept of a dystopian second coming of Christ. Verhoeven wanted Murphy to suffer horribly for our sins and then return as a digital messiah, but struggles with responsibility. “The scene where Peter’s character is executed is extremely violent – like a crucifixion,” Verhoeven said. “And what happens after is a kind of resurrection. I started watching the movie in those terms – and I’m not a Christian. It’s one of the reasons RoboCop walks on water when he kills villain Clarence Boddicker at the end. I felt he was like the American Jesus – whereas Boddicker is evil personified.
Weller cited the moment when RoboCop tells his partner he no longer remembers his wife and son, but can feel them, as the moment of “emotional catharsis” that defines the film’s humanity. Verhoeven observed: “[P]People think the movie is not just science fiction, but also something with a certain warmth. RoboCop is a victim but he overcomes victimization.
With a box office of $53.4 million against a budget of $13.7 million, RoboCop was a hit that launched a franchise. Two sequels would follow, along with a reboot in 2014. Another film, RoboCop Returnswould also be in production, based on a story by Neumeier and Miner that had been scrapped because the studio wanted RoboCop 2 on the screen in 1990 and they did not have time to complete their planned script.
Watch RoboCop’s violent confrontation with Boddicker
According to Weller, the appeal of the original film came down to its very human foundation.
“It’s a tight, very commercial action adventure, but it’s very centered,” the actor explained. “The core is the discovery – the sadness that this guy’s life has been taken away and he’s been instilled into a killing machine. But the wonder is that he’s beginning to discover what he once was, and he chases it like a dream. Ultimately, to some extent, it gets it back. He added, “Apart from the action-adventure, corruption, corporate machines gone mad, etc., the heart it’s all about morality. It’s like The beauty and the Beastor the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz. It’s a great little gem of human history.
Looking at it again, RoboCop is more violent than we remember, but also more impactful in terms of its conscience. If the worst in humanity is the worst in all of us, how much worse have we allowed ourselves to become over the past 35 years? And isn’t it time we did something about it?
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