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Dissecting the Classics – RoboCop

January 19, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Robocop Returns Image Credit: MGM

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Wide Release Date: July 17, 1987
Directed By: Paul Verhoeven
Written By: Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Produced By: Anne Schmidt
Cinematography By: Jost Vacano
Edited By: Frank J. Urioste
Music By: Basil Poledouris
Distributed By: Orion Pictures
Peter Weller as Officer Alex J. Murphy/RoboCop
Nancy Allen as Officer Anne Lewis
Ronny Cox as Dick Jones
Miguel Ferrer as Bob Morton
Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddiker
Daniel O’Herlihy as The Old Man

What Do We All Know?

“I’d buy that for a dollar!”

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 science fiction action film RoboCop tells the story of how detroit policeman Alex J. McMurphy is killed and reborn as the titular asskicking cyborg. The premise is pretty simple, but thanks to some extremely impressive practical special effects, a healthy serving of satire and an unhealthy serving of blood, it more than stands out from most action movies of the era. Yes, it spawned two pretty bad sequels and the 2014 reboot is pretty awful, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that an R-Rated movie with a toy line either doesn’t hold up or wasn’t all that good in the first place.
But you’d also be wrong. RoboCop is not just an awesome blow-em-up movie, though it certainly is that.

RoboCop is smart, and not just because of its satire of 1980’s consumer culture, police brutality, corporate overreach and government neglect, though that doesn’t hurt. No, when I say RoboCop is smart, I’m talking about a movie with a main protagonist is nearly invincible but with a screenplay keeps finding logical, creative ways to keep the plot going. I’m talking about a movie with almost no filler, with every character getting a complete story contributing to the larger one. RoboCop is just a good movie, period.

What Went Right?

On the base level, RoboCop is a great movie because it does what it set out to do at a very high level. The design of the suit is exactly what you picture a “RoboCop” looking like even if you’ve never seen the movie, and Alex Murphy is an interesting enough character that we like him for more than just being RoboCop. The movie allows the hero to be the almost purely good, idealized version of what we want a police officer to be; highly capable, but also possessing good judgment. And while we get to revel in how awesome Murphy is as RoboCop, the movie also undercuts the fantasy by flatout addressing the inherent problems of its premise… but put a pin in that for now.

By design, Murphy isn’t a particularly expressive character, but he is a cyborg of action and his actions define him. The first time we see RoboCop stop crimes isn’t just fun, meaningless violence. We see him protect the innocent and only resort to lethal force when necessary. It’s worth noting how well presented and edited all the action in this movie is, particularly in the chaotic yet easy to follow warehouse shootout. RoboCop’s first wave of crime prevention is one of my favorite scenes of all time, but the climax of the film is also very good and seeing him against ED-209 is a real highlight. If you want a fun popcorn movie, you will get that.

But what impresses me most about this film is how it finds ways to plausibly expand the plot. You could easily cut half an hour from this movie by having it be just a revenge movie where Murphy is killed by Boddiker, is reborn as RoboCop and solves his murder and either arrests or kills Boddiker. But when that happens, Boddiker lets RoboCop know he works for Dick Jones. Again, the movie could end when Murphy goes to arrest Jones, but then Jones planned for this and has the protocol that RoboCop can’t kill his own employer. It makes sense and allows them to have a really compelling third act with a clever resolution. Consider also that Bob Morton didn’t really need to exist, as Dick Jones could have been the one who proposed RoboCop. But having them both makes Dick Jones and everything going on at Omni Consumer Products more interesting.

That’s the other thing; this movie is more than just a great premise for a fun central character. RoboCop occupies a fully realized dystopian Detroit filled with interesting people, fun technology and hysterically over the top commercials. It’s fun to see Murphy take out Dick Jones and Boddiker because we get to know them and they are more than just boring assholes. Murphy is a more humanized character because he has a strong friendship with Anne Lewis, who is a well-realized hero in her own right who is neither a love interest or a damsel in distress. ED-209 is a great design realized through impressive stop motion animation, but the real reason it sticks out is because it malfunctions and doesn’t seem to be able to navigate stairs. Because OCP is very short-sighted and ill-suited to the task of running Detroit’s police force. Once again, the movie isn’t exactly subtle about it’s point that a corporation arming the police with invincible robots is a bad idea; most of the movie is an argument against its own existence. Which is pretty cool.

What Went Wrong?

From where I’m sitting, RoboCop is a movie with very few real flaws. I do think it stops short of being a masterpiece because the acting is hardly great. Peter Weller is fine, he emotes well, but I don’t think a great performance was covered up by prosthetics here. Speaking of, while the effects hold up to an astonishing degree, there are moments when the artificial quality of it all can be distracting. Beyond that though, the only real problem I could see someone having is with the film’s level of brutal violence, which for me is a virtue and not a detriment.

And In Summary…

Very few movies strike as perfect a balance as RoboCop. As a piece of popcorn entertainment, it’s one of the very best movies of the 1980’s. As a thought provoking piece of social commentary, it manages to stimulate your brain with ideas even while wowing you with sound and fury. It borrows liberally from A.I. fiction, superhero comics, and dystopian sci-fi, and is equally influential on how those genres presented themselves in later movies. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll likely be surprised that a movie called RoboCop is as smart as it is. If you loved it as a kid, no need to worry; it more than holds up.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard,
Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing

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