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Non-Review Review: Robo-Cop

I think Robocop might be on the shortlist of most influential B-movies ever made. Certainly, coming out of the eighties, I think that Robocop defined what an audience expected from an incorporated future – the notion that big business would eventually replace local government in the lives of citizens. It’s not a novel theme, it’s one that science-fiction has been throwing out for decades, but I think that Robocop almost redefined that argument. It’s hard not to detect the influence of the film in a lot of movies that followed, so effortless and all-consuming was the “not too distant future” presented by Verhoeven.

I wonder if that's a manual or an automatic...

Everybody is familiar with the character and the concept – a dead cop is revived as part of a programme to replace human law enforcement officers with robots that can and will do the job cheaper and more efficiently. His iconic metal vista has appeared in countless sequels (none of which really came close to capturing the beauty of the original) and a television show, alongside t-shirts, posters, comic books, videogames and a whole manner of other media forms. The cybernetic police officer is truly so much of a pop culture icon that Detroit is planning to erect a statue in his honour (much as Philadelphia has honoured the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa).

Watching it again, with this entire pop culture legacy in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of just how good a film this was, even on its own terms. I am a big fan of Paul Verhoeven and I dread the upcoming Total Recall remake. While it’s undoubtedly a ridiculous populist suggestion to make, I genuinely believe that there’s a strong case that Robocop is the director’s finest work. I think the movie just succeeds because it takes all of Verhoeven’s politically-loaded satire, and packages it in this wonderfully engaging manner. The biting sense of humour is present in spades, but the film also has a lot of heart – despite the inherent cynicism of Verhoeven’s failed look at Detroit, the movie still winds up feeling genuine.

Taking a stab at it...

A lot of this has to be with how earnest Verhoeven is with his subject. The director obviously tears Corporate America to shreds. There are some genuinely lovely moments in there, from the vacuous news cycle (“you give us three minutes and we’ll give you world”), inane entertainment (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) and incredibly depressing advertisements (“Nukem”, the game where you “get them before they get you”). This futuristic Detroit is a city state that hasn’t simply privatised waste disposal or even the healthy service – large multi-national corporations have been called in “to fund and run” local law enforcement. Imagine a world where the contract to protect and serve is tendered to the lowest bidder. That’s not a nice place.

Despite the clear hatred that Verhoeven has for the suits that run the place, the film has a genuine affection for the police officers who risk their lives day-in and day-out to keep the city a little safer. It’s almost sweet, given how cynical the rest of the movie is around it – even in Starship Troopers, one could detect a slight hint of cynicism in how Verhoeven treated the space marines fighting to defend their planet. Here, the officers are portrayed as over-worked and under-paid, but brave and well-intentioned. When somebody suggests a strike, another officer is quick to scrap the idea. “We’re not plumbers,” he informs the disgruntled cops. “We’re police officers. And police officers do not strike.” Of course, the force does eventually go on strike, so perhaps Verhoeven is treating the cops as cynically as he does anyone else, but I do detect a note of idealism in how he treats them.

want-ED?

Robocop in particular is a very curious case. He’s “a twenty-four-hour-a-day police officer”, who is controlled and programmed by the company that built him (and with a protocol so he can never turn on them – leading to a fantastic finale). One might expect Verhoeven to ridicule the robot as a fascist tool of oppression that is used to maintain the class system in Detroit – but instead the director digs into the robot’s silicon soul. A lot of sympathy is generated by the story of Murphy, the cop who provided the “raw materials” for Robocop, but even discounting the organic element, there’s something endearingly naive about the enforcer. “I have to go,” he excuses himself from an awkward situation. “Somewhere there is a crime happening.” That’s optimism and idealism right there – even as he’s wrestling with the contradictions in his programming.

Maybe I’m a softie, but I do like that emotional connection there, the sense of sympathy that Verhoeven creates for this post-modern Prometheus. It feels all the more genuine due to the dark satire built around him. It stands out even more when taken in the context of Verhoeven’s filmography. Being honest – although a lot of people will credit the wonderful social satire and depressingly bleak corporate future crafted here, I’d go so far as to say the central character’s sense of pathos is part of the reason he resonated so successfully with audiences.

At home on the range?

And it works so well because it isn’t a stereotypical sugar-coated movie. The schlock factor here is through the roof. Blood is splattered around like it’s going out of style, shotguns are used at close range, and even the technology behind Robocop himself isn’t pretty. These are all elements which make a B-movie – to the point where a lot of it seems trashy and exploitational. The violence is ridiculously over-the-top, but it’s handled incredibly skilfully. It is, as I mentioned above, one of the best made B-movies that I have ever seen, and I maintain that.

The cast is astounding. I honestly wonder how many geeky actors owe their success in someway to their involvement here. Peter Weller never really succeeded to the level he deserved, but the actor is beloved among film-fans for taking roles like this and running with them. Kurtwood Smith was never a “name”, but he has generally been a consistent indicator of quality. Miguel Ferrer is one of those actors whose face is easy to place, even if his name evades your tongue. Even Paul McCrane and Ray Wise pop up as a bunch of goons. However, I have an especially soft spot for Ronny Cox, an actor who played evil corporate types so well that it was perhaps almost obvious (if not a little sad) that his career sort of faded after the eighties.

Robocop is a great little film. It’s a B-movie through-and-through, but strong evidence that the label isn’t necessarily a bad one. It’s smart, cynical, biting – but it also has a lot of heart. It’s produced to the highest standards and still looks good today, even in CGI. It’s the start of a multimedia pop culture sensation, but it’s also just a really good movie on its own terms.

5 Responses

  1. Great review. Robo-cop is the perfect example of the idealistic hero in a cynical world. There’s almost a sense of comfort knowing that Robo-cop is out there fighting crime and evil.

  2. Seems like everyone is on “Robocop” this week: http://thedroidyourelookingfor.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/infographic-what-is-robocop-dreaming-about/

    Makes me want to pull out my copy.

  3. It was years after I first saw the film on TV that I actually watched the uncut version of the version. And there was me thinking it couldn’t get anymore violent! But a great sci-fi…I like the first sequel too!

  4. I’m always struck by how perfectly the film’s edited.

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