Episode 88: RoboCop (1987)

Film chosen by listener Jamie Russell, introduced by Matt

I can totally recall my oldest friend, Rob, and I watching RoboCop together, possibly as young as 8, and gravitating towards ED-209. I’m not certain if we saw the theatrical version, or a censored cut taped off the telly, but I do remember the film adorning the top shelf of Kleer Vu—the first video shop I ever stepped into. That was the place where you could buy kitchen appliances and rent Beverly Hills Cop II on VHS in one fell swoop.

Another slight link was my childhood friend Dave (keen Rewinders will recognise him from my multiple anecdotes about the times his older brother acted out select scenes from Schindler’s List as if Liam Neeson was playing Taken‘s Bryan Mills, and not Oskar Schindler) having an Action Force (G.I. Joe for our American friends) figure, skillfully painted chrome silver by his other older artistic brother, to look like RoboCop. This character was frustratingly invincible, and naturally, every kid wanted to play as him.

Of course, at that age, we all missed the satire, the media jibes, and general skewering of the USA—filmmakers viscerally force-feeding America’s own violent appetite back to it, the majority of the darkly ironic humor, the political commentary; everything really—other than having a simplistic and shallow, boyish attraction to a crime-fighting cyborg super cop. Verhoeven duped us all again, aged 15, when we devoured his dual-layered, Starship Troopers in 1997. Just as RoboCop showed us grisly ultra-violence and humorous robotic effects, Starship Troopers gave us blood, bugs, and boobs and had us cheering for fascists. Any narrative subtleties regarding propaganda, American foreign policy, or allusions to Nazism and the Third Reich were entirely lost on us and sailed high above our daft little heads.

“If you can’t stand the heat, you better stay out of the kitchen.”

Dick Jones, RoboCop

Perhaps the most vivid memory I have of the RoboCop films relates more to the sequel than the ’87 original. To set the scene, I’m eight years old, watching a taped Film 90 with Barry Norman (which had been skillfully set to record overnight to VHS) and up pops a clip package from RoboCop 2—I can still recreate the scenes, shot for shot, in my mind. The first depicted a scientist, sweating profusely in the back of a soon-to-be-bombed mobile lab truck, as a SWAT team close in, retreat, then dive away from the ensuing explosion. This was followed immediately by an inventive street chase, which ended with RoboCop clinging onto what looks like an armored ice cream van, as the smug driver (Nuke Cult leader, Cain—played chillingly by Tom Noonan of Heat and The Pledge fame—an actor I would cast in absolutely anything and everything if I ever got the chance) borderline-comedically smashes our android hero into a telegraph pole to dislodge his robotic grip.

That was enough to hook me. I watched it, and rewatched it, again and again, until I could eventually get my hands on the real deal—a copy of the full film (I imagine on VHS rental close to a year later, around ’91), albeit missing a wee bit of carjacking, some graphic, prostitute heel violence, extra slot machine head smashes, a few of Cain’s surgical slices, several graphic shootings, and a RoboCain neck break, thanks to the perpetually overzealous killjoys at the BBFC.

This would mean I’d already seen and become a fan of the first RoboCop by 1990, although I have no memory of my first viewing. I can picture another school friend recounting Murphy’s death, and quoting the line, “Well, give the man a hand!” to me. That bloodthirsty scenario existed solely in my adolescent imagination for some time, marinating, until I could witness it for myself. This built expectation and tension, and unlike the typical letdowns of adult life, it did not disappoint. It was thrilling, terrifying, and extremely disturbing to see Murphy shredded by gunfire, left in agony as he’s taunted, and then finally executed with an ice cold nonchalance. This was by no means a common fate for the heroes in my film collection—and for it to happen so early in the running time too. It really shook me up.

The bloodthirsty ED-209 prototype intro, and the butcher’s shop carnage of Murphy’s grisly execution, in particular, still sit uncomfortably. As does Clarence Boddicker‘s spurting deathgasm, and Paul McCrane’s melty toxic waste truck collision. There’s really nothing quite like Paul Verhoeven and Rob Bottin’s movie gore (according to a making of, the Dutch director requested three blood pack squibs in place of the typical one, for the bullet hits in RoboCop) and for me, this and Total Recall remain his two greatest hits.

With Verhoeven’s perspective certainly shaped by the bombed, Nazi-occupied Netherlands of his infancy, he’s a smart, humble man, crediting the two writers, Mike Miner and Ed Neumeier, along with producer, Jon Davison—who coined the catchy phrase describing RoboCop as, “Fascism for liberals,“ with the US-specific political satire and social commentary woven throughout the movie.

Verhoeven drew inspiration from Dutch abstract painter, Piet Mondrian, in the sense that his abstract work often consisted of vivid blocks of colour, harshly divided by thick black lines. He used this concept to make leaps forward in Hollywood filmmaking, and editing, employing blunt cuts to TV news reports with no prior warning. For example, prior to RoboCop, it would have been far more likely to see a character watching television before cutting into a full screen scene of that particular programme, to give the scene context. But here, Verhoeven hurls us straight into the fire, and we, the audience, must rapidly calculate any context ourselves, as the quickfire edits and juxtapositions add up. These ironic news report vignettes were, in part, influenced by the CNN television coverage of the 1986 Challenger disaster, in which a space shuttle exploded in mid-air above crowds of onlookers, before cutting away abruptly to a commercial break. This struck Verhoeven as an odd, insensitive contradiction in tone, which simply wouldn’t occur in his home country at that time, but may reveal something about the America depicted in RoboCop.

RoboChrist or American Jesus are initially laughable pseudo-alternate titles to RoboCop, but they do hold some weight. The humiliation of Christ by passing priests with their taunts of, “Come down from the cross!” are echoed in the childish whines and taunts of Clarence’s gang. The rebellion against the teachings of Jesus, is mirrored in the disdain for Detroit’s police force. The post-resurrection simplicity of Jesus’s moral guidance is akin to RoboCop’s simplistic prime directives. Finally, walking on water, corralled by Verhoeven’s equivalent of the Walls of Jerusalem frames the denouement, and death of baddie, Clarence Boddicker.

“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”

Murphy, RoboCop

James Cameron’s The Terminator was an Orion release, and allegedly, The Austrian Oak also had his cyborg sights set on playing RoboCop—another indestructible, unstoppable robot which, in reality (and in Cameron’s original Lance Henriksen-teasing concept art), should have been played by someone a little more… human-lookin’. As we’ve discussed, everything Arnold touched turned into a Schwarzenegger film—RoboCop, however, is by no means a Peter Weller picture; it’s anything but actually, in spite of him nailing the performance, and becoming a real emoting machine. Here, it’s not the ego of the lead that dominates the movie—the story runs the game. With Verhoeven’s film, it’s decisions—sometimes micro decisions, that serve the tale, not the self-importance of the talent, or the projected ideology of a Hollywood star.

Weller‘s performance, especially in the “third act face” makeup, with his helmet removed, is exceptional, and not easy to pull off. As Alex Murphy, it’s all in Weller’s eyes, but what happens when the windows to the soul are obscured? Maybe it was his mime research, or the football pad rehearsals that gave him an edge, but the character seeps through the metallic suit, and pours off the screen in little splashes and bursts, whenever it’s required.

“Pretty fancy moves, Murphy.”

Lewis, RoboCop

Crucially for the filmmakers, Weller was a triple threat, as he boasted, “A good mouth, lips, and jawline,” not to mention, he was skinny enough to fit the suit, and was a physically fit marathon runner. During casting, Rob Bottin remarked, if Arnie had donned the RoboCop armour, he’d likely look like the Pillsbury Doughboy, or the Michelin Man.

Peter Weller is burned into my consciousness as Murphy and RoboCop. So much so, that I didn’t even entertain the idea of watching the franchise beyond 1990’s RoboCop 2. To this day, I have never seen RoboCop 3, because A. Weller’s not in it, 2. They apparently kill off Nancy Allen almost immediately, and D) I heard he has a jet pack, so why bother?

I was, however, a touch disheartened to hear tales from the set painting Weller as a RoboDiva, with him going all method, insisting on being called, “Robo,” and refusing to say the scripted lines as written—he was unhappy with the three prime objectives, in particular, and when he kicked up a fuss and stropped off set, it was stuntie, Gary Combs, who stepped in temporarily while Weller sweated it out, before returning with his tail between his legs when he realised he could be replaced literally in an instant by his stuntman, no less. By all accounts, he’s a bit of a kook. Talking of nutty actors in the orbit of Verhoeven, one of the director’s go-to thespians, Michael Ironside, was initially offered the part of RoboCop, and bewilderingly demanded to rewrite the script himself, and for RoboCop to have a harem—of women, presumably.

“I can feel them, but I can’t remember them.”

Murphy, RoboCop

In terms of sound design, when RoboCop enters the 7-Eleven, and the armed thug screams, “Fuck me!” over and over, there’s this resonant hum; a deep pulsing I can only imagine is non-diagetic, and informs us not only of Robo’s presence, but also acts as an omen of the impending action heading our way. That same vibrating drone happens again when Murphy enters the boardroom to eliminate Dick Jones.

RoboCop also boasts one of my favorite scores from any of the films we’ve tackled so far on the podcast. I found myself pottering about the apartment, just listening to the Blu-ray menu on a loop. I love the music in the Boddicker gang car chase with the truck, and Murphy and Lewis in hot pursuit the score there is terrific, and leads us trepidatiously (especially upon repeat viewings) to the bad guys’ hideout—the rusty-piped steel mill.

As a side note, I once heard Charlie Brooker rave about the Nintendo Game Boy theme for RoboCop on Desert Island Discs, and ever since, it’s never left my consciousness. It’s arguably the greatest video game music ever composed.

The look of the RoboCop character was designed and created by practical effects maestro, Rob Bottin—known predominantly for his work on John Carpenter’s The Fog, and his career-defining, most-impressive project, The Thing, Joe Dante’s The Howling and Innerspace, and for teaming up with Verhoeven again on Total Recall and Basic Instinct. The main reason I reject most CGI, is because I grew up with this guy launching unforgettably violent imagery into my eyes and mind—and he achieved it practically.

How could, the icy touch of CGI, ever compare to this craft? This tactile mess of palpable, textured tissues? As a self-confessed vinyl guy, Quentin Tarantino often says, “You can’t write poetry on a computer.” A touch dismissive, perhaps, but he’s onto something. It’s a paintbrush versus a mouse; a pen and ink versus a computer—tangible, practical effects versus the clean, digital pixels of CG. In spite of there being a human sat before each and every one of those monitors, somewhere along the way, to me at least, a great deal of humanity is lost. If you’ve ever seen The Thing ‘82, you know what I’m on about. Anything created on a computer surely pales in comparison to the icky insanity of its on-set, gooey, animatronic horror—and there are clear traces of the same mad methods in RoboCop, five years prior.

The practical effect when Clarence blows off Murphy’s hand is nausea-inducingly splattery—and the way Emil explodes as Boddicker’s speeding car ploughs into him, sending watermelons and pig intestines sky high for that weeping toxic waste death. I remember when I showed RoboCop it to my younger cousin, Marcus, who was very disturbed by Clarence’s extending spike to the jugular demise, and immediately uttered the words, “Why didn’t you warn me?”

“Guns, guns, guns!”

Clarence Boddicker, RoboCop

It was the Jaws syndrome once again—the suit wasn’t perfect, they hadn’t worked out how Weller was going to move in it quite yet, and all of his rehearsals with a mime artist had to be scrapped at the last minute—that’s the reason Robo is slowly revealed in layers. This problem would simply not occur today in the wasteland that is, “do it digitally, paint that out, we’ll solve that later, fix it in post,” etc. In ’87, if you couldn’t perform it for camera, and win the approval of the crew, execs, director, whoever—it simply wasn’t acceptable. Remember the scrapped Predator costume, which rightly sent John McTiernan and Stan Winston back to the creature design drawing board the very same year?

Although Rob Bottin’s extravagant make up is insanely impressive—and he’s justifiably lauded for his work on The Thing, the Murphy face reveal marks the point where the humanity within RoboCop is truly recognisable, and the character really begins to elicit empathy. Everything suddenly changes when helmet is removed. The world stops. It would’ve been easy and kind of mindless to keep that helmet on throughout, but it visually amplifies the fact there’s a guy in there—not just a guy, the man we met earlier, and liked immensely. It’s an effect I find quite disturbing—almost like someone you know has slipped into a coma right before your eyes. Or developed dementia. It’s them, but not quite. We catch flashes and glimpses of the person we knew, but now they don’t quite even know themselves. One of the most rewarding aspects of the film, and the character of Murphy, is that he manages to unlock his own mind. He solves his own mystery, and that final line of, “Murphy,” is moving in a way we don’t quite anticipate. We’re not quite prepared to be touched after the satire, and the gore, and the action that preceded that moment. It’s a rare treat in this genre.

Another instantly recognisable effects artist, who contributed immeasurably to RoboCop, before his untimely industry exit (of sorts) circa Jurassic Park in ‘93—unfortunately and unfairly rendered extinct by the seminal blockbuster’s successful leap from go motion animation to state of the art CG, was Phil Tippet—now thankfully appreciated for his epic, 2021 stop motion magnum opus, Mad God. Yes, there are some scaling issues on ED-209—sometimes it appears enormous, then compactly fits into a stairwell, but when it emits that eerie whirring, and barks out that menacing mechanical growl, it has an undeniable, handcrafted charm.

“Bitches, leave!”

Clarence Boddicker, RoboCop

It’s tricky to articulate why computers can’t quite replicate something weighty, and although stop motion is flawed and kinda old fashioned now, it had a charm that CGI lacks. To my eye, at least, it’s rarely on the money. JP ’93’s night time T-Rex attack on the cars blends animatronics and CG seamlessly and to this day stands up as one of, if not the finest computer effects of all time. Why? Because they had something to prove. Add to that the preeminent filmmakers on the planet were behind it from concept to competition. They were convincing themselves. Not a hotdog-scoffing, Coke-guzzling audience, and although CG is created by humans in front of monitors, that humanity is almost inevitably lost in translation.

Even an old soul like me understands that stop motion plays a little wacky to the modern eye, but it’s no more laughable than some of the slapdash CG I’ve been subjected to over the last thirty years. Besides, matte paintings can often be just as cinematic and spectacular as digital environments. My firm favourite in that regard, after stumbling upon a showing on Channel 4 during my filter coffee and TCM era of mind-expanding film consumption, is Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, which bewilders and spellbinds me on each viewing with its stunning painted scenic backdrops. Based upon that example alone, even contemporary CG-rendered backgrounds can look inferior to vintage, practical sets. Precarious to pinpoint why, but I believe it has something to do with the warmth and human touch of practical, versus the impersonal pixels of CGI.

“Dick, I’m very disappointed.”

The Old Man, RoboCop

A handful of modern moviemakers, such as Christopher Nolan, are strong proponents for, “If you can do it in-camera, do it in-camera.” Then you embellish, and enhance digitally. But originate on film, and use traditional craftsmanship in cohesion with the latest fancy trends. Don’t seek to replace—look to merge. The true enemy; the lazy approach we must steer away from, as soon as humanly possible, is the entirely green screen set. It’s the destroyer of imagination, character interaction, a sense of place, and physical setting. Remember when it used to be funny to say, “Look up there at the tennis ball on a string,” but it turned out to be the death knell—the first nail in the coffin of modern cinema. Dear trailblazers, like you, George Lucas—and more guilty these days, James Cameron. I, for one, don’t want that trail to be blazed. Leave the old path alone.

I still think there’s a forever home for miniatures, or “bigatures” (coined, I believe, by Weta Workshop on The Lord of the Rings) in cinema. Perhaps it’s my childhood fascination with action figures, train sets, painting miniatures, making models, and figurines, that has shaped my somewhat rigid view, or perhaps it’s something deeper. Maybe the ease of digital has replaced forethought, and essential, on-set trial and error. The impatient tantrums and control freakery of an auteur like Verhoeven, led to the pursuit, at least, of in-camera perfection—the likes of which post-production computer fakery, to this day, fails to equal or even rival.

“Your move, creep.”

Murphy, RoboCop

RoboCop remains a terrific ’80s action movie with intelligence to burn. Verhoeven nails the satire, the gore, the iconic imagery—albeit a tad rigid in its photography at times. It’s lamentable that there are, in all likelihood, very few 9 or 10-year-olds watching films like RoboCop. I dread to think what the modern equivalent would be—especially if the flashy, cacophonous, and ultimately empty suit that was 2014’s remake is anything to go by.

Grandad mode on! Kids (and big kids wearing shorts and baseball caps) these days are Marvel-obsessed—DC is about as dark and edgy as it gets in their infantile minds. They’ve never experienced a drug dealer being hurled through window pane after window pane, then skewered through the jugular by a giant robotic needle and spurting claret all over the shop. Or their hero protagonist getting his extremities blown clean off before being ripped to shreds by a hail of automatic gunfire. Or completely unnecessary coke-fuelled threesomes as a throwaway brush stroke to a scene. And I pity them, for they know not what they’re missing. Because, believe it or not, the best films were not made in 2022, or 2021 for that matter. We have to go back. We have to rewind.

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