Last week, I watched the original Robocop (along with Robocop 2 and Robocop 3) and I have to say that the first film holds up far better than I was expecting. Made and released way back in 1987, Robocop may be one of the most prophetic films ever made.
Consider the plot:
America is torn apart by crime and a growing gap between the rich and the poor. That was probably true in 1987 and it’s certainly true in 2021.
Throughout the film, we see news reports about what’s happening in the world. The news is always grim but the reporters are always cheerful and the main message is that, no matter what’s happening, the government is not to blame and anyone who questions the wisdom of the establishment is a fool. If that’s not a perfect description of cable news and our current state-run media, I don’t know what is.
The populace is often too busy watching stupid game shows to really pay attention to what’s happening all around them. I’m writing these words on a Wednesday, which means that Game of Talents will be on Fox tonight, immediately after The Masked Singer.
Detroit, a once proud center of industry, has now turned into a dystopian Hellhole where no one feels that they’re safe. Now, I don’t live in Detroit so I don’t know how true that is but I do know that most of the recent news that I’ve heard about the city has not exactly been positive. Also, this seems like a good time to point out that, even though the film is set in Detroit, it was shot in Dallas. Though the Dallas skyline has undoubtedly changed a bit since 1987, I still recognized several buildings while watching Robocop. Seeing Reunion Tower in the background of a movie that’s supposed to be set in Detroit was interesting, though perhaps not as interesting as seeing our City Hall transformed into the headquarters of Detroit’s beleaguered police force.
OCP, a multi-national conglomerate that’s run by the amoral but occasionally charming Old Man (played by the brilliant Dan O’Herlihy), has a contract with city of Detroit to run their police department. This certainly doesn’t seem far-fetched in 2021. Considering that we now have prisons that are run by private companies and that the government has shown a willingness to work with private mercenaries overseas, it’s not a stretch to imagine a city — especially one on the verge of bankruptcy — handing over the police department to a private company.
Two OCP executives — Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) and Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) — are competing to see who can be the first to create and develop a peace-keeping robot, a machine that will replace the need to employ (and pay) human police officers. Dick Jones goes with an actual robot, which malfunctions during a boardroom demonstration and guns down another executive. (The scene where the poor exec is targeted is both terrifying and darkly humorous at the same time. Particularly disturbing is how everyone in the boardroom keeps shoving him back towards the robot in order to ensure that they won’t accidentally be in the line of fire.) Bob Morton, however, takes a mortally wounded cop named Murphy (Peter Weller) and turns him into Robocop!
Robocop turns out to be a huge success and is very popular with the media. (Anyone who doubts this would really happen has obviously never watched news coverage of a drone attack.) As you can guess, Dick is not particularly happy about getting shown up by Morton and his robocop. Dick also happens to be secretly in league with Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), the crimelord who blew Murphy apart in the first place.
(A gangster and a businessman working together!? I doubt that was shocking even in 1987.)
Robocop claims that he’s just a machine, without a past or emotions, but he’s still haunted by random flashes of his life as Murphy. Working with Lewis (Nancy Allen), Murphy’s former partner, Robocop tracks down Boddicker and his gang. A lot of people die in outrageously violent ways. (The scene where Boddicker and his gang use a shotgun to torture Murphy is still shocking, even after all these years.) The violence is so over-the-top that it soon becomes obvious that director Paul Verhoeven is deliberately trying to get those of us watching to ask ourselves why we find films like this to be so entertaining. On the one hand, Robocop is an exciting action film with a sense of humor. On the other hand, it’s the type of subversive satire of pop and trash culture to which Verhoeven would return with Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls. This is the type of film that asks the audience, “What are you doing here?”
34 years after it was first made, Robocop remains a triumph. Peter Weller’s performance holds up well, as he does a great job of capturing Robocop’s anguish while, at the same time, never forgetting that the character is ultimately a machine, one that’s trapped in a sort of permanent limbo. I also really liked the performance of Miguel Ferrer, who takes a character who should be unlikable and instead makes him into a surprisingly sympathetic figure.
Of course, a film like this lives and dies on the strength of its villains and both Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith are ideally cast as Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker. Kurtwood Smith especially took me by surprise by how believably evil and frightening he was. As a I watched the film, I realized that it was his glasses that made him so intimidating. Wearing his glasses, he looked like some sort of rogue poet, a sociopathic intellectual who had chosen to use his talents to specifically make the world into a terrible place. Boddicker’s crew was full of familiar actors like Paul McCrane, Ray Wise, and, as the always laughing Joe Cox, Jesse Goins. Interestingly enough, all of the bad guys seemed to genuinely be friends. Even though they were all willing to betray each other (“Can you fly Bobby?”), they also seemed to really enjoy each other’s company. That somehow made them even more disturbing than a group of bad guys who were only in it for the money. The villains in Robocop really do seem to savor the chance to show off just how evil they can be.
(Incidentally, for all of the Twin Peaks fans out there, this film features three members of the show’s ensemble: Miguel Ferrer, Ray Wise, and Dan O’Herlihy.)
Robocop holds up well as entertainment, prophecy, and satire. Though not much was expected from it when it was first released, it became a surprise hit at the box office. Needless to say, this led to a sequel. I’ll deal with that film in about an hour.