With the remake of Paul Verhoeven's "RoboCop" lumbering mechanically into theaters nationwide this week, there has been a lot of talk, online and elsewhere, about how the remake simply cannot live up to the 1987 original. But what there's been precious little of is a discussion of why the original film is so highly regarded; instead the deafening pre-release backlash just seems like a general kind of foggy, nostalgia-tinged outrage that is both inarticulate and unhelpful. And, all things considered, the remake isn't all that bad; read our colleague's review here. Still, there's no question that the remake won't manage to have the same kind of impact the original did, so we're taking this chance (having longed for one for a while) to look back to the future of Detroit, and examine exactly why that original film felt so fresh and new.
"RoboCop," released on July 17, 1987, and based on a wickedly acidic script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, told the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), an average Detroit cop who, on one of his first days at a new precinct, is senselessly gunned down by a group of renegade thugs. The police department, under the private control of mega-corporation OCP, decide to turn Murphy into the next generation of law enforcement: a robotically enhanced, emotionally detached super-cop whose only limitations are in his programming and technical design. Of course, the movie, in true cautionary fable form, asks the question: what happens when you put a man inside a machine and the man wants out?
When the film was released, it was a sizable hit, spawning a number of offshoots, sequels and spin-offs, which continue to this day with the retrofitted "RoboCop" remake. But at the time, nobody had ever seen anything like it. It was a small bomb detonated in a rather stale cinematic landscape, in a political, cultural and social climate where claustrophobic conservatism reigned supreme. Here are ten ways the film felt like an explosion in a way that its decent, but forgettable, remake can't hope to match.
1. It Modernized Movie Robotics
Robots have been in movies for a very, very long time. As Verhoeven has noted, the two chief influences, from a design and performance perspective, was the creature Gort from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and, more importantly, Fritz Lang's monumental 1927 masterpiece "Metropolis" (he calls the RoboCop character, on a lengthy making-of documentary entitled "Flesh and Steel," "a male version of Fritz Lang's" robot). The Decade had earlier seen the release of Ridley Scott's seminal "Blade Runner," in which robots wrestle with existential alienation, but they look very much like humans. What made the lead character in "RoboCop" so groundbreaking was that it was a robot that looked very much like a Cadillac or something (the movie was set in Detroit, after all), but that grappled, quite violently, with the fears and desires more closely associated with humanity. (C-3PO, who owes a similar stylistic debt to "Metropolis," and R2D2, for instance, were never gripped with such heady concerns.) In "RoboCop," the character looked inhuman while still retaining its soul. One of the bolder flourishes in the movie is that Murphy, the slain policeman, only has memories after he's been transformed into RoboCop, and they come through like the fuzzy signal of some pirated cable channel. Call it the big-screen robot 2.0.
2. It Was Aggressively Satirical
From the very first moments of "RoboCop" (after its iconic, stock-footage-backed title card), you understand that this is a very different type of action movie. News anchors are covering the current state of the political and cultural landscape of this woe-begotten future world, where a defense satellite misfires and causes incalculable damage and, thanks to a commercial break, families engage in a board game called Nuke 'Em that gleefully sends up Cold War tensions. Elsewhere, Reagan-era politics become brutally realized as cutthroat businessmen literally go to war with each other, and local law enforcement becomes a privatized pawn in a system where capitalism has run amok. Elsewhere, union organizations, prime time television and the debate over toxic waste and nuclear power are all sent up. Co-screenwriter Edward Neumeier says in "Flesh and Blood" that he always thought the movie was a satire wrapped in an attractive genre package, while Verhoeven has said repeatedly that he wasn't out to make a political statement, most recently in a group conversation with the cast and crew that's included on the movie's just-released anniversary Blu-ray edition. "I don't make political statements, I'm just reflecting things in the culture," Verhoeven claims. It's probably inconceivable that anyone but Verhoeven, a loony Dutch filmmaker, could have, in the guise of an action movie, taken a look at American culture with the same insight and playful abandon. It adds up to a science fiction tale that is so much more.
3. It Was Also Very Religious
While it's easy to get caught up in the eighties political satire, we shouldn't overlook the fact that the saga of RoboCop (the character), deeply mirrors the life, death and rebirth of Jesus Christ. Verhoeven has long been obsessed with what he calls the "mythological" tale of Jesus (so much so that he published a book in 2008 called "Jesus of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait") and wanted to reflect that in the tale of RoboCop. When people asked Verhoeven why he was spending so much time on the hyper-violent sequence in which Murphy is executed by a gang of thugs, Verhoeven responded that, "You can't have Christ come back without the crucifixion." A shotgun blast that turns Murphy's hand into kibble stands in for nails in the palms, and Verhoeven instructed the secondary goons to laugh like jackals, mimicking the fabled response of the Romans to Christ on the cross. Verhoeven, on the Blu-ray, also assumes that when Christ returned, he was something of a "Che Guevara figure," and would have probably instructed his followers to take up arms, just like RoboCop. One of the last images of RoboCop in the film is of him walking through a shallow puddle, photographed like he's literally walking across water. This symbolizes his true transformation into what Verhoeven repeatedly refers to as "American Jesus," since, you know, he's carrying a big fucking gun.