***½/**** Image B+ Sound B- Extras A+
starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O'Herlihy, Ronny Cox
screenplay by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner
directed by Paul Verhoeven
by Walter Chaw I feel like I must've seen RoboCop, one of the key films slotted into my moviegoing sweet spot, at least two dozen times one summer on a shitty bootleg I made by hooking two VCRs together--the now-defunct Orion being one of those companies that apparently never adopted Macrovision to discourage such a thing. I watched it in regular rotation with the big movies of 19861 (Aliens, Big Trouble in Little China, Highlander, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Manhunter, Cronenberg's The Fly2, Blue Velvet) and 1987 (Predator, The Untouchables, Evil Dead II, Angel Heart, Innerspace, Near Dark, The Hidden, Full Metal Jacket, The Princess Bride, Hellraiser, Raising Arizona, The Living Daylights, The Big Easy, and Lethal Weapon). Those years in which I went from thirteen-to-fourteen in a haze of hormonal delirium (9½ Weeks, No Way Out, and Fatal Attraction are in my onanistic hall of fame) I consumed more film than I ever would again until fashioning movie-watching into a pastime resembling a career. I developed the ability to distinguish between popular movies and movies I was supposed to like (Manon of the Spring--the medicine of it going down smoother thanks to the not-shy Emmanuelle Béart) and began keeping journals of my adventures at the cineplex (Union Square Six, Green Mountain Six, Westland Two, Lakeside Two, Cinderella Drive-In--all gone now), carefully stapling my ticket stubs to the page as some tithe to my flickering, twilit devotionals. Movies were the angel/devil at war on my shoulders: morality and venality; virtue and hedonism; good and evil; Apollo and Dionysus; the sun and the moon. I ebbed and flowed with them. It would be another five years before I fully understood the import of cinema in articulating a good portion of my worldview--not to mention almost all of the strategies with which I deconstructed other mediums. I was lulled by the popular opinion of my generation that movies were not worthwhile objects of devotion and so I channelled my attention in formal education into poetry and literature--but the space between mattress-and-box-spring was always stuffed with this secret totem.
Located square in the heart of Reagan's United States, RoboCop was the most emotionally and viscerally violent film I'd ever seen. When heroic Detroit cop Murphy (Peter Weller) gets his hand blown off with a shotgun in a perversely-distended torture scene, what could I do but sit there with my mouth agape? It was so much more unpleasant somehow than Carl Weathers suffering a similar injury in Predator. Couldn't've helped that Murphy isn't allowed to die. In a way, Murphy's dissection is the first gang rape I saw on screen; I felt queasy. Watching it again, it's difficult to separate the me jaded by twenty solid years of experience with the child bride still inexperienced. It still makes me feel sick, and it reminds me of why I never liked "That '70s Show" (its Ward Cleaver being this picture's arch bogey Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), after all) while suggesting, quietly, disturbingly, that a lot of my mistrust of corporations and big government might have something to do with the film's privatized Detroit police force feeding noble Murphy to the meat grinder before resurrecting him as a mechanized public service announcement. The desire to transmogrify atrocity into heroism (note the "heroes" of 9/11 and their "tragic"--from "horrific"--fate) is skewered here: the most abominable failures of policy evolved somehow into triumph on the one hand, rationale for escalation on the other.
Not content with reconstructing Murphy as the titular cyborg crusader ("Dead or alive, you're coming with me"), the evil OCP ("Omni Consumer Products," of course) aspires to build a foot soldier entirely devoid of human emotion (the completely robotic ED-209) and thus predicts the Bourne series of the new millennium and the failure therein to likewise construct an inhuman soldier3--stark rejections, both, of the WWI irony mechanism in at once returning bloodshed to the realm of the lover-intimate and indicting the nature of murder as a state that is essentially bestial instead of machine-tooled. Blame the finger, not the gun. When the ED-209 goes wonky and kills an executive in the first of several surprising moments of slapstick, the tenor of the piece implies that expecting a robot to kill the right people is hilarious. (Only other people kill the right people. Irvin Kershner's pitch-black, Frankenstein-infected RoboCop 2--"Abby Normal," indeed--will explore how only other people kill the wrong people, too.) The key moment of the film could be when the morality of the creation of an unwilling cyborg is raised only to be dispelled by the reassurance of white-collar stooge Johnson (Felton Perry): "Well, he signed the release form. And legally, he's dead. I figure we can do anything with him we want."
As social satire, RoboCop is as bald and pointed for its time as any of the Fifties cycle of science-fiction pictures were for theirs. Where The Day the Earth Stood Still and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers dealt with the Red Menace and the threat of looming, mutual, nuclear Armageddon, RoboCop deals with Reagan's mad vision of a bellicose, secretive consumer wonderland as the City on the Hill. One of the film's several brilliant, if unsubtle, self-reflective television interludes features a cozy family gathering around a game called "Nukem"--which is as glorious as the OCP executives who hire out hits on upstart three-piece bucks and assure their superiors that one of their number getting sixty machine-gun rounds pumped into them is just "a minor glitch." It's a better full-frontal assault on '80s-era greed than Oliver Stone's Wall Street from the same year--maybe even a better examination of the theological conundrum of Christ's time on Earth than Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Indeed, Murphy is set up as Christ and resurrected as a technological demigod--armoured not in the peacenik New Testament, but in this rising Reagan-era Jesus cult built with bricks of segregation, intolerance, gluttony, and vengeance. Find here the primogenitor of Mel Gibson's steely-eyed saviour, shoving aside the rock and ready to kick ass. There's a scene late in the picture where RoboCop walks on water, warning his antagonists that he's not about rainbows and doves anymore: he's reset himself to Old Testament mode, just like Uncle Ronnie would have it. No accident that director Paul Verhoeven--tackling his first, but by no means last, science-fiction scenario--conceived officer Murphy's death as a Passion, as "Satan killing Jesus." Not to put too fine a point on it, that would make Murphy's Centurions the upper management drones worshipping at altars of filthy lucre and his Calvary Mount a city falling down, crushed by economic ruin and a pervasive corruption at every level.
Too packed with satirical details to list every one of them (set in Detroit, the picture contains a running gag about a gas-guzzling car called the 6000 SUX), RoboCop's primary achievement is its ability, through all the gags, to locate a heart. Credit Weller's remarkable turn: encased in a restrictive costume that covers most of his face including his eyes and cast in part for his jawline and marathoner's build, he's a genre hero to most children of the '80s (from Buckaroo Banzai through to the criminally underseen Screamers), and the pinnacle of his legend is forged here. Weller imbues RoboCop with humanity before the screenplay has a chance to; the little Red Ranger pistol twirl that threatens cheese (and unconvincing cheese at that) has the fascination of a certain childlike innocence buried in there beneath the machinery. Rob Bottin's sculpting job on the RoboCop suit is amazing, but it's Weller's invention that at the root of the Luddite horror Reagan inspired in his too-loose way with nuclear weapons and his too-loopy desire to fashion a laser defense system named after Star Wars is the boy's dream of going to the moon and befriending a robot. That's the real tragedy of RoboCop: that those romantic Robert Heinlein dreams (lest we forget that Verhoeven eventually tackled Heinlein with Starship Troopers) were tied to tenterhooks of satire and deep societal unrest all along. It reminds me of the title of the Philip K. Dick story upon which Verhoeven's Total Recall is based: "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." Our dreams, our memories of green, bought and sold and secretly packed with toxic subtext. Is nothing sacred?
RoboCop finally gets an admirable standalone DVD release everyone can afford. Though it comes home again courtesy MGM in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer at odds with Verhoeven's stated preference for the 1.66:1 aspect ratio found on the long-out-of-print Criterion release (and though the image remains a little underlit and surprisingly grainy, despite the (superfluous) application of DVNR), fact remains that it's sharp and vital where it counts. The stop-motion animation is a little too-crisp, it's true, but the detail of the digital timer on a certain grenade left on a certain cocaine-dusted coffee table is a hilarious revelation. An accompanying DD 5.1 remix is hit or miss, with the occasional rear-channel effect startling because there's really no rhyme or reason for it. A few explosions (especially the excessive destruction of a gas station) do land with gratifying fullness, however, making it all worth it. Verhoeven, screenwriter Ed Neumeier, and executive producer Jon Davison collaborate on a spectacular feature-length commentary so complete that it renders an attendant featurette, "Flesh and Steel" (36 mins.), largely moot. Davison bemoans the fact that the news clips instantly date the film (especially a bit about South Africa threatening to use a nuclear weapon on rioting Cape Town), but Verhoeven chides that the South Africans he knows are still doing their level best to flee post-Apartheid. I appreciate the comment Neumeier contributes later on that everyone was miserable during shooting--Weller, in particular--and that he swore off filmmaking for good for a period of time. While much of this commentary (recorded, it would appear, in 2002) is echoed in a passel of bonus docus, I have to say that I enjoyed all the special features. Fanboyism: it's an ugly thing.
Start with two period-documentaries: "Shooting RoboCop" (8 mins.) and "Making RoboCop" (8 mins.)--each standard fare, although the former finds an exceptional Miguel Ferrer in character as unctuous corporate climber Morton introducing Weller (also in character) as the "future of law enforcement." It's cheesy, no question, but I LIKED it. The first disc, sporting the toned-down theatrical cut, wraps with the abovementioned "Flesh and Steel", a newer piece that rehashes now-familiar stories but in a breezy, informative, passionate manner. Disc Two of this two-disc, 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition houses the slightly-longer uncensored version of the film; the restored footage looks great and is almost seamlessly integrated.
The second platter continues with "Villains of Old Detroit" (17 mins.), interviews with Ferrer, Ray Wise, Ronny Cox, Smith, and so on reflecting on how much fun they had portraying some of the most evil villains of the Eighties, with Cox waxing rhapsodic about the opportunity Verhoeven gave him to break out of his "nice guy" mold. Ferrer recalls Weller acting like a tool the first few days by staying in character to distraction, and Smith hilariously recalls how the English-as-a-second-language Verhoeven didn't know that "bitches" was a derogatory term. Cox recalls, too, how the squibs used in RoboCop were...excessive. Needless to say, it's an awesome documentary. Likewise "Special Effects - Then and Now" (17 mins.), detailing the extensive use of matte paintings and stop-motion in the picture, and "RoboCop: Creating a Legend" (21 mins.), which spends the most time on Weller and what he went through (reports have him losing up to eight pounds a day in the suit) as well as the models (birds, especially) he adopted to shape his deservedly-legendary performance. Smartly, the DVD's producers have incorporated gallery fodder (production art, promotional art, etc.) into the body of these supplementals, thus absolving me of the responsibility of flipping through actual image galleries. The whole shebang docks in a slim metal case. Originally published: November 14, 2007.
1. My celluloid catechism actually begins in earnest with 1984's feverish cornucopia: The Terminator, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Karate Kid, Blood Simple, Romancing the Stone, Sixteen Candles, Conan the Destroyer, Revenge of the Nerds, Splash, Red Dawn, Footloose, Starman, Repo Man, Body Double, Dune, The Last Starfighter, All of Me, The Company of Wolves, Moscow on the Hudson, Night of the Comet, Stop Making Sense, Iceman, and television's V: The Final Battle. 1984 was also the year I first saw Carpenter's The Thing (1982), rented by my mother on my request while I was suffering from a bad fever. It was the movie, for whatever reason, I chose to soothe me; maybe in my weakened state, suffering, I felt finally distracted enough--girded --for the coming-of-age the picture represented to kids my age. My "morning in America" was a carbon arc. return
2. One of the big thrills of my FILM FREAK CENTRAL tenure was interviewing Cronenberg about this film and confessing to him that I once made an audio tape of it, memorized the screenplay, and transcribed it line-by-line. "Why ever did you do a thing like that?" he asked--obviously still able to be freaked out after decades of strangers saluting him and hailing the ascendancy of "the new flesh." I wasn't sure. I wonder if I didn't learn about love from it and therefore studied it like a holy relic, trying to crawl inside of it. Perhaps explication therein of why I thought it a good idea to take my homecoming date the following year to Dead Ringers. return
3. Other attempts: the prototype of course, The Terminator, then Blade Runner, Soldier, Universal Soldier, and so on until the pinnacle in my mind of such things, Brad Bird's ageless The Iron Giant. return