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MMYIF: Robocop (1987)

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy
Released: July 17, 1987

In a dystopic and crime-ridden Detroit, a terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a powerful cyborg haunted by submerged memories.

What I Thought Then

I watched this movie when I was seven years old and wouldn't eat red meat for two weeks after. It was the awesomest thing I'd ever seen.

What I Think Now

In my defense, they marketed this to children. I mean, they didn't really, but they totally did. There was an arcade game, a Nintendo port of that game, even a Saturday morning cartoon. It was one of many not-in-any-way-appropriate-for-children movies that dominated playground conversation when I was in grade school. The only film series that got more talk was probably the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, because if there's one thing kids like talking about more than robot cops with targeting computers built into their faces, it's deliriously weird child murder.

Sometimes I worry about my generation.

Anywho. Robocop is one of those rare science fiction movies that actually gets better on rewatch. Verhoeven's sci-fi shoot-'em-up was only pretending to be an action flick. Under the surface, it's a savage criticism of the Reagan and Thatcher era of neoliberal* politics. In this movie's future, Detroit is a pilot city for a privatized police force owned and operated by a mega corporation called OCP--that's short for Omni Consumer Products. Knowing that the evil mega-corp has the word "omni" in its name will clue you in to the level of subtlety you should expect from this film, and that's exactly what the movie delivers. In addition to the rampant gore and violence, the film is littered with fake television commercials advertising oversized cars and a family board game called Nukem. There's a demented sense of humor underlying the proceedings here. Most of the deaths in this film are funny on some level or other. And many of the social criticisms feel even more relevant today than they did thirty years ago. Which is awesome for the movie, and horrible for the rest of us.

The film follows Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop who is savagely murdered and brought back to life in a robotic chassis as part of the Robocop program--an attempt to automate law enforcement that's not going well at all. Murphy's humanity makes him an effective cop, but it's clouding his programing, especially as his desire to see justice done starts to run up against the dirty secrets hidden by his owner, the evil mega corporation whose name might as well be Evil Mega Corp, Inc. This ends with appropriately hilarious irony including a bad guy plummeting from the top of a skyscraper. This was the 80s, after all. Murphy's robotic rival, ED-209, is defeated when he has to navigate stairs. Again, this movie is hilariously demented, it just never acknowledges that it is, in fact, joking. Verhoeven would pull essentially the same trick a decade later with Starship Troopers, a film that prompted think-pieces by idiots who wondered if it was, in fact, pro-fascism. Remember last week when I griped that writing satire is hard? Apparently understanding satire is just as hard.

Peter Weller is perfectly cast as Murphy. The man is handsome but extremely detached. He feels like he's part machine even when he's fully human. Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, and Kurtwood Smith all stop by to ooze bad-guy charisma all over the place (if you think you don't know who these guys are--yes you do, just google them). Nancy Allen is affable as Murphy's partner. The special effects are hit-or-miss. Robocop looks amazing, and the squib effects are magnificently bloody and disgusting. The other robots are clearly stop-motion animations that don't look great to modern eyes. The cars are supposed to look futuristic, but they mostly look dumb. And some of the matte backgrounds are just cringe-worthy. But on a story-telling level it works really well. There's a beat towards the beginning that stands out in my memory, before Robocop is completely online, where he flits to consciousness just for a few seconds in the middle of a New Years Eve party. Apparently a bunch of drunk techs decided to power him on to play with him. This little vignette tells you so much about Murphy's place in the hierarchy and how he's being regarded by his superiors, orienting you in world of the film and telling you what kind of obstacles Murphy is going to have to overcome, and it feels like a throwaway joke scene. It's a great little moment.

*The word "neoliberal" probably doesn't mean what you think it does, as it was neither new nor liberal, but rather described a push towards laissez-faire capitalism. Words are weird.


It's worthwhile, yeah, especially if you're a fan of Verhoeven's other sci-fi social satire bullet-fest, Starship Troopers. The sequels and the recent remake are completely skippable.

Tune in next week to find out if Wolfman has nards...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.