Cinematic release: 1987
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui, and Dan O’Herlihy
Written by: Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Genre: Science fiction, action, ultra-violence
Awards: Won the Academy Award for Best Sound Effects Editing; nominated for two other Academy Awards and listed numerous times in various Best Film lists
Price: From £1.48 on Amazon at time of posting
The first photos of the new Robocop movie have been revealed online, and the Internet has already begun to turn its nose up at it. The robo-suit is being criticised for looking too much like Batman’s suit in the Nolan movies. I don’t know. In all honesty, the suit from the original movie does look a lot cooler, to me, but it’s an absolutely iconic image and it’s hard to step back and give a dispassionate assessment of the new suit in comparison. Does the new suit look like Batman’s? Not really. I mean, it’s black, but it does look a lot more like robotic armour, as opposed to a costume that is also designed to protect the wearer, which is what the Batsuit does.
They’ve also released an online ‘Omnicorp’ video – a faux advertisement for various robotic commercial law enforcement products, as well as a fake Omnicorp website.
It’s a fun idea, and the video is nice enough, but they’re making a few rookie mistakes. First off: if you want your video to go viral, you don’t call it ‘Viral’ – that is not how viral advertising works. I can’t see an official account that has this video up, but the two copies I found both labelled it as ‘viral’ and one was put up by ViralMan69, who ‘work[s] for multiple production company’s that promote movies and music and try and get the content to go viral’. Telling the denizens of the Internet that you want them to create hype for you usually makes them look sceptically at you in askance. It’s that stereotype of a dad trying to be down with the kids by doing something all the kids are doing and highlighting that he’s only mimicking them by calling attention to his own pretense. Not cool, daddy-o, not cool.
The second problem is that viral marketing works best when you’ve got something quirky and new that catches people’s attention from an angle that surprises them. But this isn’t quirky or new. The omnicorp advertising video is a slick and convincing duplicate of what was quirky and interesting in the original movie, which featured well-observed, dryly ironic excerpts from Omni Consumer Products advertising. It’s not that the humour isn’t still relevant. Indeed, Better Off Ted encapsulated exactly this kind of car-crash horror of soulless consumerist commodification in its genuinely viral videos of Veridian Dynamics adverts.
What’s problematic is that where Better Off Ted and the original Robocop were satirising this kind of fake, corporate chumminess, the new Robocop is unconsciously embodying that which it’s trying to send up. Fans of the old film already have their hackles up wondering why it needs to be remade in the first place, assuming that it’s a cynical attempt to cash in on sci-fi special effects remakes in a capitalist money-grabbing bid. I actually think that Robocop is a film with a lot of relevance today and a strong candidate for a knowing remake, not because the old film needs remaking, but because the themes of consumerism, creeping totalitarianism, and the privatisation of our public services have come full circle again from the 1980s. Science fiction is at its best when it grabs our attention and uses the mirror of the future to show us what’s wrong and dangerous in the present. A Robocop remake that highlighted the way the dangers of the original film are present again in our society today could be a valuable as well as entertaining movie. The trouble is, if the film looks like it’s trying to cash in on a trend it’s completely undermining itself. A cynical attempt to get on the viral bandwagon is not the way to go.
I’m on the fence. I want to be convinced by the new Robocop. I mean, it’s cyborgs, I’m going to see it anyway, but I’d like it if it were good, too.
So, anyway, with these thoughts in my head, and Robocop on Netflix, I decided to look back at the original film and see if it really was as good as I remembered.
Turns out, it was better.
Detroit is a city in trouble. Its over-stretched police force is being picked off by a criminal with a taste for killing cops, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and beginning to mutter about strikes. Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is poised to take advantage of the situation. They’ve been developing two lines of research in robotic law enforcement, the completely mechanical ED-209, developed by Senior President, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox); and the cyborg police officer, ‘Robocop’, developed by Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). The ED-209 malfunctions during a demonstration in the boardroom, killing a member of staff, and Bob seizes the moment to propose his project to the Chairman (Dan O’Herlihy), who is happy to give the go ahead to a more stable-sounding project.
Now all Bob needs is the organic part of the cybernetic organism package.
Enter Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a cop newly transferred to Detroit from a cushier posting. He’s partnered with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), who is young, but in many ways more seasoned. Despite some good-natured tussling for dominance over who gets to drive the car, they seem to hit it off, but their partnership is short-lived, as they get called to respond to a bank robbery headed by Boddicker. Having chased the criminal gang to an abandoned mill, Lewis and Murphy get separated. Lewis is left for dead after taking a lengthy fall, but Murphy is less fortunate. Believing his back-up (Lewis) to be dead, the gang take their time torturing Murphy, shooting off one arm to a gruesome stump, before taking him out with repeated and extensive gunfire, and finally shooting him in the head. Unbeknownst to Murphy or the gang, Lewis survived the fall and witnessed the whole, shocking scene. She calls for an ambulance, and although Murphy is pronounced dead at the hospital, he’s fresh enough for use in Morton’s project.
Murphy is re-introduced to the force as Robocop, an efficient and completely obedient officer of the law with apparently no memory of his life as a human being. As Murphy had only been with his unit for a day, no one recognises him, at first, but having watched him, for a while, Lewis begins to have her suspicions. It also becomes apparent that OCP were naive in thinking that they could completely write over a man’s personality in that way – Murphy sustained an extreme trauma, and elements of the memory begin to surface, disturbing the perfect veneer of Robocop.
Meanwhile, Morton has made a dangerous enemy in challenging Dick Jones – just how dangerous becomes increasingly apparent as the film goes on.
Can Lewis help Murphy remember who he was? Who will win in the struggle for power between Morton and Jones? Will Boddicker be brought to justice? You may be able to guess the answer to these questions, but the dramatic unfurling of the apparently inevitable is often surprising, as well as clever, shocking, and well-observed.
Made at the height of the consumerist, capitalist 1980s, Robocop is as witty and smart as it is violent. And it really is violent. Much more violent than I remember, although a friend tells me it was heavily edited for television airing in the UK, so that may be why. But even without the contrast with my memory, this film made me realise just how sanitised today’s movie violence has become. Dredd 3D is a notable exception. Nowadays, one rarely sees a bullet wound that is more than a tiny red spot. By contrast, the scene where the ED-209 opens fire on the hapless board member at OCP, early on in the film, makes a clear statement about where this movie is going in terms of graphic violence, and it only gets more graphic and more violent from this point in. It was quite a shocking moment to the eyes of a viewer in 2012.
And that’s a good thing.
Violence for the sake of violence is as boring and unwise as any poorly thought through plot element. Violence purely for shock value is just as dull. Violence intended to shock you and wake you up to something can be pointful, useful, relevant, powerful, and poignant. By explosively tearing apart an innocent man in the sterile, soulless perfection of a 1980s corporate behemoth’s boardroom, the ED-209 is metaphorically tearing apart our preconceptions of the clean and sanitsed nature of such businesses. The extreme violence used (and the almost prissy way the other people in the room respond to it) viscerally underscores the contrast between appearance and reality. This film doesn’t just say ‘There’s something very wrong here’, it punches you in the gut and forces your face into the blood until you can no longer deny that there is a shitpile of mess under the smooth, corporate veneer.
The almost omnipresent dirtiness of the scenes outside of OCP underscores this contrast, especially in the film’s other two main locations: the police station and the abandonned mill. The tensions in the police station are evident from its first scene, and one feels palpably both the justified anger and fear amongst the besieged cops, and the dangers of this force actually going on strike. They deserve better: the city would descend into anarchy without them. The city would descend into anarchy without them: how can they even consider striking? It’s a tension that speaks powerfully to our present times, as the TUC discusses a general strike for the first time since 1926. Robert DoQui as Sargeant Warren Reed marks an interesting figure as he strives to hold the police department together under these irreconcilable forces.
The irony is that Robocop is actually very good at his job – he seems to be exactly what the city needs, and, after all, he’s what we, the viewers, also want. What we paid to see. We are complicit in the dark desire to put other human beings into servitude – abuse their bodies and ignore their personal needs in service of the collective wants and demands of the whole. Western cinema is often accused of over-praising individuality and ignoring the honour to be found in placing the needs of the many above the needs of the few, or the one. But Robocop approaches the subject with nuance. We are presented not with an answer, but with the tension. Duty has a valued place in this world. Cops sign up to serve the people, and they shouldn’t abandon their posts. Headlong persuit of money and individual pleasures is dangerous and selfish. And yet society can also demand too much of the individual. If we ask sacrifice of our police, we can’t expect to keep on asking it endlessly without offering recognition and reward of that sacrifice. More palpably, what happens to Murphy seems wrong at a more visceral level. Yes, the alternative for him was death, but what sort of a life has he been left with? Shouldn’t consent have been asked of his family? Shouldn’t they at least have been told? One of the first things we learn about Murphy is that he has a son – a son that he is clearly devoted to – and that relationship is ripped from him. This highlights not only the emotional tragedy of Murphy’s condition, but the competing demands of duty. People are not one-dimensional existents. Cops can be fathers and husbands as well as keepers of the peace.
Has the film dated? A little. In some ways its embedding in 80s culture adds to the political critique, but despite good presentations of race like that of Sargeant Reed, at least one other black character occupies a painful stereotype as a humourous and incompetent henchman. By contrast, Lewis is a fantastic and refreshing female character. She is never sexualised, wearing the same uniform and bulky armour as any other police officer. She is allowed to fight side-by-side with Robocop as an equal (or as equal as any human being can be) and saves his life on multiple occasions. She is allowed to be as tough as nails without being forced into a caricature of a ‘butch’ woman. She may have a practical short haircut, but it’s fluffy with 80s style and she clearly knows her way around a make-up bag. She’s neither feminine nor unfeminine – she’s a character. Moreover, whilst she and Murphy clearly share a bond (I mean, seeing something like that happen to your partner has got to do something to you), there is no suggestion that this is a romantic relationship. Murphy was happily married; Robocop has other things on his mind – and so does Lewis.
People often look at me weirdly when I talk about the skill involved in making a good action movie, but there’s no doubt in my mind when I say this: Robocop is art. Art and knowing political satire. Films like this are important – they become iconic not because they are ‘fun’, but because they are both fun and powerful.
Robocop is even better than I remembered. Does it need to be remade? My jury’s still out. I think it has the potential to do something important for the current generation, and I don’t want to dismiss it just because I think there’s already a good movie called Robocop. I think we’ve all grown-up with movies and tacitly assumed that we know everything that they can and will do for us, but film is still a comparatively young medium. It’s evolving all the time, and not just in terms of technology. For a while it seemed like film formed a way of fixing stories in time. It created an illusion that if something had been done well and could still be experienced in its original form, then that’s how we should experience it. But no one ever batted an eyelid at reimagining Shakespeare plays with every production. Indeed, we tend to think a production unimaginative if we see it performed in exactly the same way by different troupes of actors. Stories emerged in an oral culture where they could mutate in every telling. We talk about remaking films as though it’s a new and somewhat lazy fad, but retelling stories is an old tradition in good standing as a way of using old tales to make new points, or to make the same points afresh for a new generation.
My main concern about the new Robocop is that at the moment it seems to be doing very much the same thing as the old Robocop. Chances are I will still enjoy a production like that, and I do think it may still be valuable for the new generation who, whatever we may wish, are unlikely to rewatch the old film of their own accord. But I would like to see it do something new and innovative. I love me some cyborgs, but it would be something of a sad inversion of the original spirit if this does prove to be another cynical attempt to cash in.