I, RoboCop: Paul Verhoeven’s Prescient Classic 25 Years Later


Uniquely designed robots have been present in science fiction cinema since the silent era, with Metropolis‘ Maria remaining an indelible image. Hollywood sci-fi of the ’50s gave us Robby in Forbidden Planet, who later entered homes via a variety of television programs, such as The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space. And even moving beyond just robots, cyborgs (human/robot hybrids for the uninitiated) made a very loud and furious appearance in 1984 when James Cameron launched both his career and one of the most profitable sci-fi franchises of all time with The Terminator.

So with this in mind, it continues to amaze me that RoboCop, a definitive robot/cyborg science fiction picture that hit screens in 1987, managed to so iconically and imaginatively rise above its seemingly derivative roots to become something wholly original.

Now, 25 years later, the movie remains fresh and exciting, only wearing its thin layer of accumulated ’80s dust in the glimpses of hairdos and fashion. Its mind is as sharp as ever. The acid wit of the movie’s satirical perspective is daringly deployed throughout. If anything, the satire has proven prescient. It certainly hasn’t lost any of its potency. Set in an unspecified future where Detroit is in rough financial shape (sound familiar?), RoboCop depicts and predicts the dangers of mass privatization. Soulless corporation OCP strikes a contract with the city to take control of the police force, which is the kind of deal that can only go wrong.

In an appropriate case of life imitating art, Omni Consumer Products (the exact breakdown of the OCP acronym) is now a real company, albeit one with a sense of humour and a penchant for making fictional products from movies and television come to life. The name is a playful nod to the OCP of RoboCop, so at least they’re being self-aware, because as the movie makes clear, the best way to attack OCP is with satirical force. The benefits of this approach are unveiled quickly and early when we witness a meeting with OCP execs where the impressive ED-209 (an Enforcement Droid intended to replace human police officers) malfunctions and wreaks havoc in a bloody display of unbridled firepower.

The scene is incredibly dark in its treatment of death, but it instantly and effectively establishes the comedic boundaries (or lack thereof) that writers Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner and director Paul Verhoeven wish to explore. Corporate excess backfires brutally and the incongruent distance between man and machine is eerily implied. That this scene is actually played for laughs makes it all the more memorable. It’s shocking, but not emptily so. It illustrates the careless disregard for human experience and ability that is shared by the corporate suits, plus it guides the narrative to its promised point of conflict.

Following the ED-209 disaster, OCP hits the jackpot (well, a boon for them, while a tragedy for others) when Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is savagely murdered by a gang of criminals. Since Murphy belongs to the cops, he also belongs to OCP, who decide to use the recently deceased remains of Murphy’s body as a subject in a cyborg program that should create a more reliable super-cop than the hulking ED-209. It works, of course, and RoboCop is born.

As straight-laced a cop as ever walked the streets, RoboCop is the ultimate good guy. He spouts inspiring messages and has a clean vocabulary, a fun bit of juxtaposition that unfolds knowingly alongside the foul language that everyone else is expelling. There’s a sense that the most civilized being in the whole city isn’t a human at all, but rather a machine. Of course, Murphy’s memories are still locked inside the metal suit and he’s haunted by images of the family he left behind. As he comes to terms with his previous (and perhaps current) identity, RoboCop has to accept that his family has moved on, that he can’t be the husband and father they lost. This dramatic underpinning is handled deftly and without resorting to tonally grating sentimentality.

Weller doesn’t have a lot of screen time without the RoboCop suit affixed to his body, so he has to quickly and succinctly establish who Murphy is pre-murder. He does a fine job with the character development, accomplishing the main goal by showing us a dedicated cop with an enthusiastic attitude and then illustrating the extent of the change once he becomes the titular hero. Murphy was always one of the good guys, someone unafraid to take a chance if it meant doing the right thing, so it seems his morality has been kept intact. But he’s clearly a machine now, a point made loud and clear by his suddenly stiff gait and the fact that he holsters his high-powered gun inside his leg.

The fate of Murphy and his subsequent transformation adds the theme of human experience to the mix. How much of RoboCop is still Murphy and how much is OCP programming? What does it mean to be a human? Or a machine? He’s both, but it’s not a clear cut down the middle. He wrestles with the pain of his current existence, a dead man in a machine’s body. Here, Neumeier and Miner’s script draws parallels to Shelley’s Frankenstein in that OCP is playing God and tampering with forces that are best left alone. That the co-writers don’t push the reference any further and instead take the movie in exciting other directions is a welcome development.

One of RoboCop’s greatest strengths is how the movie so comfortably and carefully straddles the space between smart satire (with metaphysical ramifications!) and popcorn thrills (with loads of gore!). It’s a special talent of Verhoeven’s and one that he employs with humorous heft in his unofficial Hollywood sci-fi trilogy (Total Recall and Starship Troopers round out the group, while the also expensive and science-y Hollow Man is shunned as the sort of bastard child of the bunch). I lump the 1990 Total Recall and 1997 Starship Troopers in with RoboCop because all three share a desire to boldly state a message by trading in preachiness for quick-witted comedy.

Total Recall doesn’t strive for satirical heights quite as ambitiously as the other two, but it’s a crafty action thriller on Mars that uses inspired sight gags and appropriately Arnie-friendly one-liners to carve out an identity. On the other hand, Starship Troopers teams Neumeier with Verhoeven once again for a sci-fi action flick with a lot on its mind. This is another sensational showcase of Verhoeven’s abilities, where he and Neumeier took Robert Heinlein’s military service manifesto and transformed it into a giddy, gory comedy about big bugs and the importance of satirizing media propaganda.

It has a lot in common with RoboCop, since both movies find their strengths in the same places. Combining a big brain with a lot of brawn makes for a delicious recipe when pulled off with gusto and imagination, two key components in RoboCop’s success. The movie mocks corporate America (as OCP exec Dick Jones says, “I had a guaranteed military sale with ED-209. Who cares if it worked or not?”) and skewers lowest common denominator media shilling (“I’d buy that for a dollar,” exclaims greasy-haired television personality Bixby Snyder, delivering his catchphrase with a pair of beautiful women hanging off his arms).

In the midst of all this playful poking and prodding, the brawn of the picture makes an impact with a series of boisterous set pieces. Each action sequence is executed with the kind of comically jingoistic flair that Verhoeven fans should recognize as a staple of his sci-fi work. The wisely unsubtle score by Basil Poledouris has a patriotic sound to it that fits proudly into Verhoeven’s self-aware depiction of a new American hero. This approach keeps the satire alive, but it doesn’t go so far as to turn RoboCop into some sort of posturing joke. He invites laughter in places, but we’re ultimately meant to care for him and specifically cheer for the shreds of humanity left within his metal body.

The dramatic weight of the character’s arc is tested when RoboCop takes revenge on the hoods who murdered Murphy. The assault is another exercise in ultra-violence as RoboCop lets his anger take hold and serves the villains their satisfying comeuppance. The sequence follows a shot of RoboCop removing his helmet and seeing the reflection of his face for the first time. We view the reveal as he does, so we learn together that underneath the mask there resides the face of Murphy. Foreign fastenings at the edges remind us (and him) that something is askew, but it’s still Murphy’s visage. This glimpse ties into the raucous action sequence it precedes because RoboCop has a greater acceptance of self at this point and so his revenge suggests that he is more capable of emotion than the mere machine he was once perceived to be.

As the tagline states, “he’s Part man, part machine, and all cop.” It’s a silly hook, but it’s true that RoboCop’s journey is one of accepting his duality and finding the point where his two sides intersect. He begins the movie as a man, then becomes a machine, and finally embraces his existence as both. It’s a superb character arc that unfolds in the midst of wild satirical observation and extreme violence. Like its hero, RoboCop the movie has two sides that must be welded together to create a singular identity. The connection holds, resulting in a movie that still feels fresh and sharp a quarter century after its release. It’s a fitting showcase for such a unique character. This incredible cyborg earned his place in the upper echelon of movie machines years ago and he shows no signs of relinquishing his spot. Not that anyone would want to challenge him. He is, after all, a pretty tough cop.