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Catching Up with Classics: RoboCop (1987)

After last month’s unexpected schedule change we’re back on form, refreshed and ready to dive straight into RoboCop. Now, when I mentioned this choice to various family and friends, many raised an eyebrow – is it a classic? I mean, who am I to question; I thought it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger (in my defence, RoboCop the character spends half the movie with his face obscured, so it could be him).

By now, at eight months in, I’d hope you know the score. I own an embarrassingly long list of films I’ve never seen, many thought of as classics, and decided to right these wrongs. When you’ve got an empty afternoon, why not catch up with my catchings up, but for now let’s say hello to August’s selection.

August’s pick: RoboCop

Set in a dystopian Detroit, we’re introduced to the city’s overrun police department, where fights break out in the front office and tired officers drink coffee and eat doughnuts out the back. At the same time, we visit the swanky main building of Omni Consumer Products, headed by Vice President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), who hopes to transform the city into a high-end utopia. Their first target for transformation? The police department itself, with the introduction of huge, overpowering law enforcement robot, the ED-209. But when the thing lets loose in the office, shooting and killing one of the employees, the bot is swiftly canned. In steps Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), a young buck businessman looking to make a name for himself and his new design, aptly titled RoboCop – part robot, part cop. They just need a willing participant to experiment on…

RoboCop

Enter new transfer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller). He’s been seconded to the Detroit department, partnered up with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) to take down the Boddicker gang, notorious in the area for their extreme violence. Tracking them down to an abandoned warehouse a shootout ensues, with Murphy taken down by evil ringleader Clarence (Kurtwood Smith).

Left for dead – he is, literally, dead – Murphy is rushed to hospital where his body is claimed by OCP and is transferred into the RoboCop suit. Once awake, Murphy has no recollection of his assault and is ready for action on the streets. But as RoboCop comes to life, it/he slowly starts to experience flashbacks to Murphy’s previous existence with his wife and son. These blips include the night of Murphy’s attack by Clarence and his crew, only strengthened when RoboCop takes down one of the accomplices when out on patrol.

Hunting down Clarence (who has just murdered Morton – what a small world!), RoboCop discovers that he’s in cahoots with the corrupt Jones, leading him back to OCP towers. Attempting to take down Jones, RoboCop learns he’s been programmed – he must serve the public, protect the innocent, uphold the law…and will be shut down forever if he attempts to arrest senior members of OCP. What is a robot cop to do?!

Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner (who both worked on the 2014 remake), the idea came about after Neumeier reportedly asked a friend what 1982’s Blade Runner was about – ‘It’s about a cop hunting robots.’ In 1984, Neumeier and Miner met and, coincidentally, Miner had been working on a similar idea, titled SuperCop. The pair combined their ideas, bringing Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Basic Instinct) on-board, but only after he’d binned the script and had to be convinced by his wife.

RoboCop 2

Before Weller was cast, Arnold Schwarzenegger (see!) and others were offered the title role, but Verhoeven chose Peter for his ability to emote with just his lower face (add that to your CV!) and his lithe frame, perfect for the RoboCop suit. Inspired by comic book character Judge Dredd, RoboCop’s costume was modelled on hockey padding, giving him enough room to move and shoot, with a helmet partially obscuring his face. Shooting in the Dallas summer sunshine, a fan was soon built into the suit to keep Weller cool, as he was loosing around three pounds a day just from sweating so much.

Released in July 1987, the film grossed over $53 million in America alone off of its $13 million budget. Nominated for Academy and BAFTA Awards for its sound engineering, editing, make-up and special effects, RoboCop was received well by critics at the time and regularly appears in Top 10 lists now.

Has it aged well?

Visually, I’d say so, but that’s because the story relies heavily on bloody violence. I wasn’t aware of the film’s certificate beforehand, believing it to be a UK 15. Halfway through, shocked by the up-close blood and mutilation, I did a quick google and found it was rated R in the US, making it an 18 over here. This totally makes sense considering how trigger-happy everyone is!

RoboCop 3

What I found to be quite charming about RoboCop was its inclusion of visual special effects; for example, when we first meet the ED-209 its as a stop motion animatronic. While The Terminator‘s use of animatronics for Arnie’s ruined face briefly took me out of its world, I was impressed by animation team Craig Hayes and Phil Tippett‘s work, making the robot look and feel intimidating. Later we see some fantastic make-up effects at play, as one of Boddicker’s cronies is covered in toxic waste, his skin bubbling and peeling off his body, leaving me both disgusted and delighted!

Hindsight is 2020

Set in a dingy dystopia, the cast of police, members of the general public and Boddicker’s gang after surprisingly diverse, reflecting the realities of a city like Detroit. The line-up of business men and (few) women sitting in the OCP boardroom was – unsurprisingly – very white, but I think we can let that slide considering this mirrors actual boardrooms of 2020 – no change there, then.

Something I picked up on while reading about the film’s initial release was a criticism by journalist Susan Faludi, that RoboCop‘s women ‘are reduced to mute and incidental characters or banished altogether’. However, Verhoeven himself has said that he intentionally depicted Officer Lewis as ‘gender neutral’, giving her short hair and masking her during the her first moments onscreen.

I can see what they both mean. Lewis, while integral to RoboCop’s self-reflection and actualisation near the end of the story, she’s not given a lot else to do aside from help him ‘discover himself’, while the flashbacks to Murphy’s wife see her as a busty woman in a silky slip, telling him she loves him. On the flipside, Verhoeven could’ve easily rewritten Lewis as a man, making it an all-male leading cast. We take what we can get, I guess.

Classy or classless classic?

I’m somewhat nonplussed by RoboCop. On the one hand, I was impressed by the visuals, the speedy chases and its thematic criticisms of capitalism, greed, gentrification and the media. On the other, it’s just another hyper-violent 80s shoot ’em up flick, something I easily confused with any other Schwarzenegger vehicle. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I watch it again? I don’t think I need to.

My Catching Up With Classics series returns in September with The Shawshank Redemption

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