I’m always a bit shocked when I see Robocop classified as a straight action thriller. I mean, the flick’s called “Robocop” of all things, and it’s directed by Paul Verhoeven, the creative mind responsible for Flesh and Blood (1985), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997), all movies that, at first glance, seem to follow a reasonable fantasy premise but then turn out to be taking the piss out of the genre, political issues of the day, and human nature as a whole.
Robocop works best, in fact, as a balls-to-the-walls social satire. Consider the TV cutaways in which inappropriately cheery newscasters discuss various human tragedies and pause for adverts about heart surgery and family board games themed on potential nuclear holocaust. The running gag is that the characters inhabit a dystopian future but their wits have been so dulled by consumer culture they don’t notice it. I particularly like the report of a satellite weapon experiencing a “malfunction” and causing the “accidental” deaths of two former presidents.
What with all the tongue-in-cheek conspiracies weaved into the background, one really has to scratch the surface to appreciate Robocop. For example, before meeting his new partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), our hero, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), learns that Omni Consumer Products (OCP), new owner of the Detroit police department, has been transferring good cops like him to dangerous districts. Meanwhile, corporate upstart Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) mentions that he’s selected a few candidates for his law enforcement project and that one of them should be ready within ninety days. It’s not until Murphy gets killed in a bust gone wrong (he and Lewis only have themselves to blame) that we realise Morton was referring to fresh copses on which to experiment.
From this point, Robocop plays like a lurid parody of a super-hero movie, an impressive feat given it came out fifteen years before Hollywood established the formula. Murphy gets turned into the iron-clad Robocop and proceeds to clean up the streets in a series of vignettes showcasing his defining attributes: cybernetic efficiency and excessive violence. Then he stumbles onto his first big case, which loosely ties into his origin story, albeit not in a way that would significantly change his character because, let’s face it, a hero is only as interesting as his pathos.
Batman and Spider-Man have got nothing on Robocop, who trumps their self-centered grief and remorse with a demented existence that feels like a cruel joke at humanity’s expense. Our hero may not be aware of his past, but he keeps dreaming about it, reliving over and over again his gruesome demise as well as the loss of his wife and child: “She thought you were dead, Murphy. She started over again.” I love the scene in which the cyborg investigates his former home, piecing together his few remaining memories. The scene must have presented quite a challenge for Peter Weller, who, owing to his faceplate and deliberately clunky movements, could only use his mouth to convey the character’s hurt, anger, and confusion. I’m amazed at his performance.
The villains also display a surprising amount of charisma and personality, as cackling maniacs go. Fans of That 70’s Show will delight at seeing Red Foreman (Kurtwood Smith) lead a gang of trigger-happy sociopaths. Ronnie Cox also plays against type as an OCP executive who might’ve taken the expression “cutthroat business” too literally. My favourite antagonist, though, remains ED-209, a defective but lucrative alternative to Robocop that can’t walk down a flight of stairs, follow simple orders, or apprehend a suspect without turning the poor sap into Swiss cheese: “I had a guarantee military sale with ED-209: renovation program, spare parts for twenty-five years! Who cares if it worked or not?”
Again, I have trouble understanding how anyone could take this stuff at face value. For heaven’s sake, ED-209 squeals like a pig when it falls on its back. Would Verhoeven bother with such an offbeat sound effect if he wanted us to take his movie seriously? More to the point, the jokes land. I always laugh out loud at the bit wherein Johnson (Felton Perry), the inspiration for Smithers in The Simpsons, shrugs off his colleagues’ gory executions or when the newscasters cap off their report of 113 deaths with light banter. Then I take a step back and realise Robocop’s cynical vision of the future wasn’t far off the mark.