Tom Jolliffe looks back at RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s ahead-of-the-curve masterpiece, as it turns 35…
Okay creeps. Dead or alive, you’re coming with me… to look back at RoboCop. The dead part might be a bit much, but I’m sure you’re game. The iconic sci-fi actioner is 35 years old. There is a huge weight behind the original film’s legacy. Somewhere across this past 35 years, RoboCop has gone from being a B movie surprise package turned box office hit, to being considered a benchmark of its kind.
With a largely unknown director to US audiences, RoboCop came out of the blocks quickly, amassing fans, a cult following and would act as a cinematic cornerstone in the lives of countless 80’s kids who grew up watching a film they shouldn’t have been watching. For my generation, my friends and me, RoboCop is a childhood defining staple, the impact of which is only a few notches below Star Wars.
Not to claim a more special relationship to the film than anyone younger (or older), but when RoboCop stomped his way into cinemas and then on VHS, the film not only tapped into the gleeful inner-child of adults, but for the 8 year olds (like me) seeing it first time, its comically excessive violence and bad language compelled, and the cool costume, visuals and ED-209 nemesis were too cool for school. It’s pop culture appeal was widest when I was a perfect age for a film this uniquely cool. RoboCop by its very concept and inherently goofy title felt like it was conceived by and for 8-12 year old boys.
That’s not to say it’s dumb of course, and there-in lies the genius of Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script, as well as the very distinct stylings of Paul Verhoeven. A robot cop who spouts one-liners in his sleek metal armour, with his easy to mimic walking style attracts the inner child and actual child (particularly boys of the time). On a surface level it was ripe for attracting a wide audience despite its R rating. Like Freddy Krueger, it didn’t take long for RoboCop to gather a willing audience of those under the age threshold for films this violent. RoboCop would eventually spawn a tonne of merchandise, sequels, cartoon spinoffs, comics, video games (I particularly loved the albeit flawed Atari ST version) and more.
Beneath that surface though, lies a film imbued with Verhoeven’s wry gaze. Not even Orion could have expected the film to have quite so many layers as it did. Much like The Terminator, this is essentially the little B movie that could, far exceeding the genre expectations and its budgetary limitations. They wanted a money maker for the here and now, buoyed by the success of their prior film and undoubtedly not expecting the same critical praise Cameron’s film received. Lasting legacy was often a secondary concern.
RoboCop laid a marker for Verhoeven, whose trademark mix of excessive, but macabrely humorous violence would combine so well with satire and silliness. He was loath to take the concepts too seriously. He’s never been one to hold back on anything, dialling every exploitative genre staple up to eleven in this, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. Few but Paul Verhoeven would throw a three-breasted mutant sex worker into a scene as he did in Recall (and he wanted four).
RoboCop came during a booming American period personified by the wall street yuppy, large corporations and thriving technological industries. That 80’s period, starting to come out of the cold war, was one of Reagan infused, fist pumping optimism. Consumerism was on the rise and Verhoeven took aim there. With a wry stab he satirised the greed is God mentality and the vapidity of the material consumer. Yuppies stepping over each other, and more, on their ascent to the top. Criminals pre-occupied with stealing the latest in vogue cars or weapons.
Verhoeven, even if he was joking somewhat, took a slightly pessimistic slant on where American culture was heading. This prophetic view rings true. The infomercial was in fact something booming around the time the film was made. The internet and targeted ads which pepper your social media, suggests that buying pointless crap is bigger now than ever. How many of us bought rubbish out of boredom during lockdown?
One particular, and relentlessly quotable side gag in Robocop is the catchphrase reliant, near formless show which attracts mass fascination. “I’d buy that for a dollar!” Inane TV and short form entertainment has found itself near the point of a Verhoeven satirical gag. RoboCop’s dollar dude certainly wouldn’t feel out of place in the similarly prescient view on entertainment in Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man.
RoboCop’s view on content in the 2020’s wasn’t far wrong, particularly in the Tik-Tok age where the simple act of repetitive idiocy can make one an unmissable star. That said, one thing Verhoeven didn’t quite prophesise (but conversely Demolition Man brilliantly did) was a ‘woke’ world governed by a fear of offence.
RoboCop’s view on tech, advancements in robotics did certainly hit a mark. You have huge advancements in limb and organ replacements now, half way to prophesising Murphy’s transition from man to machine. The film is also pertinent with Ed-209. Even the comical inability of that machine to descend stairs was somewhat prophetic of an era where so much modern tech is still prone to glaring oversight (be it exploding phones or self drive cars that run over spectators). It’s the fact, that the world is becoming increasingly reliant on AI over the human element (Johnny Cabs in Total Recall was another gag that won’t be far off happening).
Indeed, RoboCop is set in a time and place where privatisation is destroying districts and poverty is directly contributing to surges in crime (Verhoeven even has a wry dig at gun lust). Areas are being left to fester and degenerate, to be gentrified and repurposed for the profit of the super rich. Like many Western countries we see crippled public services. The police, where Alex Murphy plies his trade are underfunded, understaffed and plagued by corruption, red tape and more. The corporate arm has wrapped itself over what should be a public service (unable to adequately provide said ‘service’).
Verhoeven’s ability to weave the clever prophetic touches, the humour and social commentary together was something that took time to be fully appreciated. Apart from all this though, and the brilliantly constructed set pieces, simple but effective design work and world building, Verhoeven’s film is anchored by an emotional core. Peter Weller is great as Murphy. He’s the hot shit cop and family man, sort of unprepared for the district he’s about to flat foot into, alongside his ballsy partner Lewis (Nancy Allen). There’s a good chemistry between Weller and Allen too, but Murphy’s unconventional lead looks and demeanour serve him well here. There’s a charisma and boyish charm.
After being brutally (like…really fucking brutally) offed by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith, who is immensely villainous), he’s resurrected as the titular RoboCop. Gone is that boyish charm, replaced by the remaining semblance of humanity within the machine. Murphy’s memories, driven by pain and loss push him out, beyond his programming. He slowly comes away from his routine responses as some of his old personality returns. More tragically though, RoboCop struggles to feel human any more, hurt by loss, knowing his former family have grieved him and moved on.
Come the end, Murphy has taken down the criminal outfit who obliterated his body and uncovered the corporate overseer orchestrating it (the always reliably hiss-worthy Ronny Cox). We’ve seen his mind battle against his own machinery and enforced programming. We’ve seen Murphy resign himself to being inhuman, only driven by this justice mission. So when RoboCop has sent Dick Jones plummeting from the top floor of Omnicorp to death, he’s asked by The Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), “What’s your name son?” The response; greeted by a mixture of fist pump and heartfelt tears from me (and many others I should imagine), “Murphy.” Cue Basil Poledouris’ iconic theme, one track from an immense soundtrack that only enforced him as one of the great composers of the era.
All this proved that alongside the clever humour, prescience, gleeful violence, music, cast, design and visuals, RoboCop really does have heart. Given this is a film with the title and concept it has, it’s no surprise it found a recent 4K release on Arrow Video, cultivators of great genre film releases. Further, it should be absolutely no surprise that the more high brow purveyors of cinema, Criterion, have also released RoboCop in their catalogue. It’s more than worthy, setting a bar for genre blending action that few since have come close to.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/