Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Robocop (1987) - FilmReview

Article author: Alwyn Ash
"At the right time, in the right light, everything is extraordinary"

Robocop Image

After viewing the most recent 2014 remake by director José Padilha, I knew it was time to revisit Paul Verhoeven's classic affair.

The horrific memory of seeing a deadly ED-209 (Enforcement Droid Series 209) gunning down an innocent OCP (Omni Consumer Products) employee still lingers; a legendary moment in cinematic history that deserves status alongside the likes of the famous shower scene in Psycho (1960), the revelation that was "I am your father" in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), or the first Sarah Connor kill in 1984's The Terminator (poor Marianne Muellerleile). There is so much more to Robocop. First off, the casting of Peter Weller and Nancy Allen is just too perfect, a pairing that works well. Though my knowledge of Weller's career is limited, Allen has been a favourite of mine with a catalogue of movies such as Carrie (1976), The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), The Gladiator (1986), and Poltergeist III (1988). In Robocop she plays Officer Anne Lewis, opposite Weller's Officer Alex Murphy (aka Robocop).

Interestingly, American actress Stephanie Zimbalist was originally intended for the role but a commitment to television series Remington Steele meant that she had to opt out, instead allowing Allen to take the part. It is now difficult to imagine that Arnold Schwarzenegger, too, was believed to be in line for the lead role - how different this vehicle would have been with Schwarzenegger and Zimbalist firmly in the hot seat.

We now live in an era of over-the-top CGI, so it is good to look back at the stop motion visual effects of yesterday. The ED-209 was designed and built by Craig Davies, whose other work includes Willow (1988) and Jurassic Park (1993). The themes of Robocop are as significant today as they were in 1987. Though set "In the near future", the movie explores crime, privatisation and capitalism, and its use of media manipulation is to be applauded - we exist in a world of greed and exploitation. As for the former, plans are afoot to bring control back to the streets in the form of a cyborg. "Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law". If the scene with ED-209 malfunctioning and slaughtering an OCP board member was terrifying, then how about the death of Alex Murphy? One can only watch, open-mouthed, as criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his sociopathic gang callously blast the officer multiple times, severing limbs and leaving him for dead. Partner Anne can do nothing but secretly watch this heartbreaking assassination, or risk being murdered! Later, Murphy is rushed to hospital; he is later pronounced dead.

"He doesn't have a name. He's got a program. He's product". And so the dead officer is selected for the Robocop programme. A new law enforcer is in town. It is clear, however, that Robocop is far more than a "machine". That is another of the themes I find fascinating: identity of self... should a cyborg that contains Murphy's brain, and memories, consider itself to BE Murphy? Or, is everything that made the man now just a stream of data? What exactly makes us who we are? The conflict is obvious.

During the course of the movie we learn that Boddicker (the man involved in Murphy's "killing") has connections to OCP senior president Dick Jones, who is knee-deep in corruption and murder. And so, passionately, we rally for Robocop to bring justice against those whose own lives have brought terror and death to others. Anne Lewis, discovering that her partner is "alive", seeks to help him, even if it means risking her own life and career. This is where the bond between Weller and Allen develops, two buddy cops whose sense of right from wrong are maintained - it is perhaps a miracle, in such an unscrupulous world, that anyone is still capable of preserving a code of honour. The film might be called "Robocop", but it is as much about comradeship and duty; and Anne plays an active role in securing the outcome - let's face it, Murphy's sidekick could have been another male protagonist. I'm so glad it wasn't!

Did you know that Robocop was part inspired by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner? Well, it's certainly a nice idea. Writer Edward Neumeier, who also wrote the screenplay for 1997's Starship Troopers, stated that it was Blade Runner's concept that sparked his thinking of developing a robot cop; Scott's plot involved a cop hunting bioengineered androids referred to as "replicants". Another influence, for Robocop, was Mega-City One's Judge Dredd. And so, with writing partner Michael Miner, Neumeier developed the screenplay.

Robocop was a success, receiving positive reviews and is considered to be one of the best movies of 1987. Feminist author and journalist Susan Faludi went on record saying that in many war and action films of the 1980s "...women are reduced to mute and incidental characters or banished altogether". Personally, I cannot agree. Allen's character was far from incidental, in my opinion; Anne remains an important foil to Weller's character, the one human link that can be relied upon when the whole world turns against him. Without Allen there would have been far less heart in the film. Undoubtedly, Weller, too, should be admired for his portrayal of Robocop. Finding the best balance is not easy, and a lesser actor would have come across as far too... well... robotic. Weller, however, portrays both programme and emotion with such focus and depth that one feels drawn to Robocop's plight. One scene where he revisits his family home to find it empty, both wife and child moved away believing him to be dead, brings anger for a life lost. If this is, indeed, Murphy and not just a database of programming, then his new existence feels very cruel - how better to have just died at the hands of Boddicker?

I always remembered Robocop being extremely violent, mirrored by its adult rating. Perhaps I was shocked back then. But there was also fascination, for a future in which someone still believed in law and order. After all, why build Robocop unless you are seeking to change the way of things? How naive I was back then. Must we forget that a man who should have been given respectful burial was, instead, violated and recycled just like the OCP "product" they believed him to be... Never trust the corporations! If you have never seen the original Robocop, then now is the time to do so.

"Excuse me. I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening."

Follow @AlwynAsh on Twitter. Image source courtesy of Article © Alwyn Ash 2015. Quotes (if applicable) used for publicity purposes only; no infringement of copyright is intended.