RoboCop (1987)

220px-Robocop_filmIt’s not that I’m against remakes, I just don’t always see why they’re necessary.  I understand why they happen though.  Movie-making is high risk, big budget stuff and it’s hard to get a major studio to back an unknown.  Remakes of known commodities are easier to predict and therefore are seen as less risky.  That doesn’t mean I have to like them, though.

RoboCop is an action film released in 1987 on Orion pictures.  It was directed by Paul Verhoeven who was kind of like the poor man’s James Cameron in the 1980’s.  It was not a star-studded picture, nor was it a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, but it garnered a positive reception when released and spawned a franchise.  RoboCop came out in that odd period for action films where they were all R-rated violent affairs but would end up being marketed towards kids.  RoboCop earned an X rating on account of its violence and required several cuts to get down to an R rating, but that didn’t stop the studio from licensing the character for toys and comic books.  The film has since been restored for the home video market, first on DVD and more recently on Blu Ray, and while the violence present in the film would likely not earn an X or NC-17 rating today it’s still a strong R due to its graphic death scenes.

Special effects were certainly the name of the game in the 80’s when it came to action films, but RoboCop does possess a strong narrative to back the action up.  The story isn’t terribly unique as it involves a crime-riddled city (in this case, a futuristic Detroit) where cops struggle on a daily basis to restore order.  Officer Murphy finds himself in a pretty unsatisfactory situation on his first day in Detroit and ends up getting himself killed.  The weapons manufacturer that owns the Detroit PD has him converted into the first cyborg cop and they send him out to clean up the city.  Murphy’s memory is wiped in the process, and a lot of the film deals with him trying to reconcile the shadows of his past with his new life as he searches for an identity.  The other main vehicle for the plot involves two corporate executives at OCP, the employer of the police force and creator of RoboCop, as one executive is pushing an all-robot edition version of RoboCop called ED-209, and the other is behind the RoboCop property.  Woven throughout the story are little snippets of news broadcasts which provide more context for the current state of Detroit.  Verhoeven has a very dark sense of humor as his view of this potential future is certainly pessimistic.  There are also little bits of black comedy throughout such as when an orbiting “peace station” malfunctions and fires its laser cannon at a community or when a guy gets sufficiently blown away by a malfunctioning robot and a character calls for a paramedic.

The costume designers and makeup artists did a superb job in turning Weller into RoboCop.

The costume designers and makeup artists did a superb job in turning Weller into RoboCop.

Even without the solid plot, RoboCop would have been worth checking out for the visual effects and costume designs when it came out.  Today it looks a bit dated in places, specifically with the ED-209 character who was created using stop-motion techniques.  RoboCop was probably one of the last mainstream action movies to utilize the technique as computer generated imagery was just coming into form at the time.  Some shots looks better than I expected, but others make it plainly obvious that ED-209 is a glorified muppet.  The other effects are mostly practical ones with lots of exploding splatter wounds and excellent costume and makeup work.  RoboCop looks great and is entirely believable given the context of the film.  Even when his helmet is removed and Murphy’s face is exposed the effects are convincing.  Peter Weller does a good job of giving just enough humanity to the RoboCop character and manages to play the role of a robot without sounding too corny.  Kurtwood Smith, who younger readers are likely to recognize from his role of Red on That 70’s Show, is a scene stealer as the sadistic Clarence Boddicker and is the type of villain most will love to hate.

The film's R rating didn't prevent RoboCop from making the leap to Saturday morning in 1988.

The film’s R rating didn’t prevent RoboCop from making the leap to Saturday morning in 1988.

Nearly 25 years after its release, RoboCop holds up well, quite well actually.  Because of its hokey title and premise it’s easy to overlook RoboCop as just another sci-fi action romp from the 80’s.  I’ve seen it several times, both the theatrical cut and the uncut version, and I tend to forget in between viewings just how good the film is.  I’m hesitant to call it amazing, but I can’t think of an action film from that era that I’d prefer to watch over RoboCop, which brings me to the new film that just came out this week.  I have no plans to see it, not because of some anti-remake principle, but just because it doesn’t look very good.  Without the vision of Paul Verhoeven, RoboCop likely will be just another action piece.  Considering super hero films are so popular these days, I fully expect the new RoboCop to have a super hero feel to him complete with all of the cliches of the genre.  For any adult that finds the RoboCop concept appealing, I’d recommend to them they just seek out the 1987 original.  It’s not hard to come by and pretty cheap.  I think I paid ten dollars for my blu ray copy and while the release is extremely light on special features, it contains the full uncut film in HD (the restored scenes are not HD quality though) and that’s really what’s most important.  The only purpose the new film has is to restore RoboCop as a kid-friendly franchise.  The R-rated RoboCop was pretty easy to market to kids, so a PG-13 one figures to be even easier (Orion and MGM would realize RoboCop was too profitable to keep as an R-rated franchise for the third film, RoboCop 3).  It will be interesting to see how audiences respond to the new RoboCop, but even if it’s a flop, we still have the 1987 movie to turn to.

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