I confess I was pleased (if not surprised) that Slate readers voted Robocop as the film I should go back and retroactively review (its closest competitor was Harold and Maude, conjuring the irresistible mental image of actual Robocop slugging it out with actual Harold and Maude.) The Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s breakthrough film in the United States, Robocop, a relatively low-budget sci-fi thriller, was a sleeper box-office hit in the summer of 1987—the summer between my junior and senior years of college, which I spent working at a bakery in the small, movie-theater-less town my parents had just moved to. I have no memory of the film from that time, but I imagine it struck me as a cheap Terminator knockoff (a conclusion that would have been easy to draw from the trailer, which straight-up lifted the theme music from James Cameron’s 1984 film).
Not unlike the murdered-cop-turned-law-enforcing-cyborg at its center, Robocop has enjoyed a surprisingly robust afterlife. In the years since its release, film critics and scholars of culture seized on it as a canny political allegory for the Reagan/Bush era or an exploration of the future of human subjectivity in an age of encroaching technology. (It still plays convincingly as both.) The film also shows up regularly on lists of the best movies of the '80s or the best action films of all time. It’s remembered and beloved for both its brawn and its brains.
So how does Robocop hold up? It’s a given that, a quarter-century after the film’s release, many of its animatronic special effects are going to look comically dated. Especially in the scenes where Peter Weller’s cybercop faces off with the hulking ED-109 robot, it takes a conscious effort to remind yourself that this was anywhere near state-of-the-art at the time. Nowadays, a child making a YouTube video of his Legos has more resources at his disposal. But if Robocop’s special effects have (charmingly) aged, the movie’s caustic political wit still feels modern, even radical.
It’s since become de rigueur for big action blockbusters to include some gesture toward political or social allegory, often taking place in vaguely defined surveillance states that could be designed to satirize the regimes of George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, or Joseph Stalin. But Robocop (scripted by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) goes way further in its critique: It’s embedded from start to finish in a detailed, fully imagined, deeply depressing political dystopia that we soon realize with horror is pretty much where we already live (in 2012 perhaps even more than in 1987). “You give us three minutes, and we’ll give you the world!” burble the TV news personalities whose broadcast opens the film, with chirpy sound bites about horrifying news items from around the globe alternating with ads for a family board game called “Nukem.” (The whole movie is studded with sharp, funny TV ads, many inserted by Verhoeven later in an attempt to lighten up the ratings board, who initially insisted this film be rated X for its graphic violence.) The story takes place in a future Detroit (soon to be forcibly renamed “Delta City” by developers), where police corruption, industrial decline, corporate greed, and consumerist oblivion have combined to create a chillingly familiar hellscape.
In the commentary track to the Criterion release of Robocop (a general note: There is no such thing as a Paul Verhoeven commentary track that is not worth listening to), the voluble Dutchman kicks off with the story of how he at first resisted when offered the chance to make Robocop. He had a reputation in Holland as an up-and-coming filmmaker and didn’t want to sully it by churning out a piece of substandard American schlock. It wasn’t until his wife pointed out the similarities between this story of a rebuilt cybercop struggling to recover his own lost humanity to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that Verhoeven began to warm to the script.
It was a brilliant stroke to cast the gaunt, ethereal Peter Weller as this melancholy techno-Frankenstein, who for most of the film is seen only as a mouth and lower jaw beneath a metal half-mask. Weller’s air of almost delicate melancholy sets the hero of Robocop apart from the lumbering golems in other action flicks of its time. (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rutger Hauer were both considered for the role, but the producers and Verhoeven decided they were too large to move well in the character’s bulky suit.) The setting of Robocop may be grimly dystopic, but its hero is almost Romantic in his idealism as he journeys from human to machine to some as-yet-unimagined hybrid of the two.
At a shockingly early point in the film comes a brutal scene in which a sicko crime boss (the bespectacled, physically unprepossessing, yet terrifying Kurtwood Smith) joins up with his gang in the horrific slaughter of Detroit beat cop Alex Murphy (Weller). What’s left of Murphy is reclaimed for the construction of a machine-cop prototype by the menacingly named OmniConsumer Products, headed up by that slick '80s villain Ronny Cox. (Another minor charm of Robocop is its abundance of memorably nasty bad guys—even though one of them dies horribly every 20 minutes or so, there is always another in the bullpen.) But neither the OCP executives nor the cops they’ve bought out are prepared for their creation to develop a memory, a conscience, and a sense of ethics. Robocop rejoins forces with his former partner (Nancy Allen) to take revenge on those who deprived him of his humanity—all the while obeying his pre-programmed directives to “serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and obey the law.”
Like Verhoeven’s best films—Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Total Recall—Robocop transcends schlock by embracing it. It’s a suspenseful, hyper-violent black comedy that’s at once skillfully exploitative and politically astute (even if viewers born after 1980 may have to Google the gag about the elementary school named after Lee Iacocca). It’s also an anxious meditation on the boundary between technology and organic life that still rings freakishly true. Robocop is set for a remake in 2014, with José Padilha directing and Joel Kinnaman in the title role. I don’t envy them the challenge of remaking a movie that was already so ahead of its time.