Attend: Program Notes
RoboCop | Paul Verhoven | US | 1987 | 103 minutes
Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, July 6, 6:30pm»
In his Cinesthesia program notes, Jason Fuhrman argues that the bleak future envisioned thirty years ago in Paul Verhoven’s RoboCop seems curiously familiar.
At once an ultraviolent dystopian satire, a scathing indictment of neo-fascist corporatism, a formally ambitious cyberpunk phenomenon, and a poignant meditation on human consciousness and identity, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) continues to arrest the attention of viewers, while outshining its inevitable offshoots, sequels, and spin-offs (not to mention José Padilha’s bland 2014 remake). Thirty years after the original film’s release, the bleak future depicted in RoboCop looks less distant than ever.
Verhoeven’s film envisions a crime-ridden, near-apocalyptic Detroit in the late 1990s. Local newscasters flippantly report on World War III and a tragic defense satellite misfire prior to an advertisement for a family board game called “Nukem.” Meanwhile, the city faces bankruptcy and a shady multinational conglomerate called Omni Consumer Products (OCP) has just privatized Detroit’s struggling police department.
A fresh transfer to the southern precinct, officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) quickly finds himself in deep water when he courageously pursues a gang of brutal thugs without backup. Following his gruesome murder at the hands of sadistic drug lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), Murphy becomes the subject of a radical experiment in law enforcement headed by OCP scientist Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). Morton and his team surreptitiously transplant Murphy’s brain to a cybernetic body, thus creating the prototype for a new line of remote-controlled, programmable robot police officers.
Fusing trenchant social commentary and a kinetic visual style with pitch-black comedy and over-the-top gore, RoboCop tells the story of a post-human hero fighting to recover a trace of his former self as memories flicker into consciousness and he embarks on his own personal crusade. The plot develops more or less along the lines of a standard thriller—but this is a very different type of thriller. For the acid tone and bold stylistic flourishes are what truly set RoboCop apart from other science fiction movies.
Amid nonstop action and inventive, hand-crafted special effects, the film alternately takes aim at police brutality, union busting, mass-media brainwashing, civic corruption, vapid consumer culture, Reaganomics, and American industrial failure.
Throughout RoboCop, Verhoeven periodically interrupts the narrative with absurdist news broadcasts, parody commercials, and segments of an inane TV show in which buxom ladies entice a repulsive old man who incongruously exclaims, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” Such hilarious interjections of satire not only lighten the tone, but they also exemplify Verhoeven’s innovative formal approach. Most movies at the time would show someone turning on a television and then fade into that program. However, Verhoeven and his editor Frank J. Urioste abruptly cut to the commercial or news segment, as though the movie itself were part of the same satellite feed. This device has a slightly jolting effect. Verhoeven’s European sensibilities also elevate RoboCop to something like an art-house action film, with a noir atmosphere, extended low-angle tracking shots, and experimental point-of-view sequences that place the audience right inside Murphy’s glitch-ridden mind.
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the script of RoboCop derived inspiration from Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk thriller about cops employed to hunt robots. In a 2012 conversation with Paul Rowlands, Neumeier, who was on the set of Scott’s film as a young man, said that the idea of robots being portrayed as human intrigued him. As he related: “The key turning point in the development of the RoboCop script was the idea that the hero was going to be a man who is turned into a machine. It gave the story great dramatic tension and relatability. What does he remember about his past as a human and how does he feel about it?” RoboCop was the first screenplay Neumeier wrote.
Verhoeven was not the first director Neumeier and Miner approached. In fact, he initially declined the offer to direct RoboCop until his wife Martine, who grasped the script’s subtext and satirical possibilities, persuaded him to reconsider its themes as the story of “a robot-man seeking his own life,” in her words.
When it came to the question of casting the lead role, Verhoeven wanted Rutger Hauer and the producers wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the sheer bulk of both men posed a problem, as they would have to move around inside the hefty RoboCop suit. Instead, Verhoeven settled on Peter Weller, a lithe and diminutive stage actor previously known for playing the lead role in W.D. Richter’s 1984 sci-fi cult oddity The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! He was particularly taken with the expressiveness of Weller’s lower jaw, which would often be the only part of him visible on screen.
In contrast to typical action heroes of the time who were nearly invincible, muscle-bound characters with superhuman powers, Weller portrays a vulnerable, deeply conflicted protagonist. Murphy’s suffering and the residual emotions from his past life render the role more complex.
For Weller, the shoot was also especially demanding. The prosthetics for his face took six and a half hours to apply, and getting suited up another hour and a half. “We’d done an eight-and-a-half hour day by the time the crew came to shoot you,” Weller recalled, “and you just had to shoot that face out in five hours before the rubber collapsed. There were 27 days of absolute … I wouldn’t say ‘misery’, but it really demanded a Zen sort of discipline.” Amid 100°F temperatures, he was losing 3 lbs. a day, and a personal assistant had to be on hand with electric fans and other cooling aids at all times.
The story arc of RoboCop deeply parallels the life, death and rebirth of Jesus Christ. Verhoeven has had a lifelong fascination with the historical Jesus and even published a book in 2008 called Jesus of Nazareth. He sought to reflect this in the tale of RoboCop, who may be regarded as an American savior in the context of a futuristic world. The scene of Murphy’s execution appears so protracted and brutal because Verhoeven saw that the power of his narrative lies within his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection.
When the controversial director submitted RoboCop to the MPAA for certification, they were hardly prepared to pass it with the R rating he and Orion Pictures desired. Verhoeven’s cut received an infamous X rating and he trimmed the movie somewhere between 12 and 17 times until it passed as R.
Released on July 17, 1987, RoboCop was a smash hit at the box office, grossing $53.4 million domestically from a budget of just $13 million. It launched Verhoeven’s career as a Hollywood blockbuster icon, who would command five times that budget on his next film, Total Recall (1990).
In the hands of a less provocative, visionary and serious-minded filmmaker, this material could have easily become another piece of disposable popcorn entertainment amid a stale cinematic landscape. Verhoeven’s visually spectacular breakthrough film upgrades an ancient story with science-fiction hardware, while exploring issues of urban decay, political repression, and man-machine synthesis. Violently entertaining, sneakily powerful, and increasingly relevant, RoboCop endures as an incisive critique of American society and a deep reflection on human nature encased in a shiny genre package.
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herilhy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui.