RoboCop: Ghost in the Machine

PART MAN. PART MACHINE. ALL COP.

Paul Verhoeven is a lively fellow. At work, he tends to use his entire body to show the cast and crew of a film exactly what he expects from them. Judging from taped interviews, he appears to be someone who knows what he wants and stops at nothing to get his vision across. And it took someone with balls to make something out of a script bearing the silly title of “RoboCop”.

Set sometime in the future, RoboCop portrays a Motor City plagued by a crime wave. Cops are killed every week and OCP, the powerful, evil corporation that owns the Detroit police department, experiments with introducing a robot that never needs sleep or pay… and can’t be killed. One of the junior executives (Miguel Ferrer) decides to use the half-dead body of the rookie police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) and transform it into a robotic cop. The experiment is a success, but RoboCop turns out not to be the perfect machine. He starts having memory flashes from his previous life as Murphy, his former partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) recognizes the man she thought was dead, and he also turns out to have an enemy inside OCP that wants him extinct.

This may sound like some kind of superhero flick, but it is closer to bloody science fiction with touches of left-leaning satire. The unthinkable has happened in the future – the government has given up on trying to protect and serve the people and allowed a big company to buy the police, naively thinking businessmen can do a better job. There’s no humanity left anywhere in this society, except inside a robot that used to be human. The newscasts are filled with absurd stories about a world in chaos; the environment is hurting badly and Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative has gone terribly wrong. You’d have to be blind to miss the political message here, but it’s all conveyed with a great sense of black humor.

Funny in a scary way
As always in Verhoeven’s films, even in this one, the first he made in Hollywood, the violence is very brutal, almost cartoonish (especially in the director’s cut). There’s a terrific, shocking sequence where theOCP research department proudly presents another law enforcement robot at a board meeting; the robot goes out of control and almost obliterates a guy, pumping rounds after rounds of bullets into him. When the massacre is over and there’s barely anything left of the poor victim, someone suggests calling for paramedics. It’s such a gruesome sequence but funny in a scary way, and very Verhoeven-esque.

The robot, by the way, is ED-209, one of stop-motion animation wizard Phil Tippett’s best creations, an intimidating machine with unexpected weaknesses. This was of course before the age of CGI, but the sequences with ED-209 hold up reasonably well in comparison. The design of the RoboCop costume is also very effective and Weller is good at portraying a machine one wouldn’t pick a fight with, but also a tragic figure who has lost everything and begins to realize what has been done to him, what kind of Frankenstein’s monster he has become. The science depicted in the film is pure nonsense, but the filmmakers nevertheless make it all work.

The three actors who portray the villains, Ronny Cox, Ferrer and Kurtwood Smith, have a take-no-prisoners attitude to their portrayal of these horrible characters, and they’re fun to watch. “Grand” is the right word to describe their performances, and the same goes for the score written by Basil Poledouris, by turns emotional and violent.

It would have been so easy to make a shambles of this concept, but it’s good to know that you can depend on Verhoeven’s balls.

RoboCop 1987-U.S. 103 min. Color. Produced by Arne Schmidt. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner. Music: Basil Poledouris. Visual Effects: Phil Tippett, and others. Cast: Peter Weller (Alex Murphy), Nancy Allen (Anne Lewis), Daniel O’Herlihy (The Old Man), Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer.

Trivia: Michael Ironside was allegedly considered for the part of RoboCop. Followed by two sequels (beginning with RoboCop 2 (1990)) and two TV series, one of them animated. Remade as RoboCop (2014).

Last word: “In the case of ‘Robocop’, I got that script while I was still in Europe, and I threw it away because I thought it was so child-like and infantile. And it was only when my wife started to read it and said, ‘You should read it again, because there’s a lot of extra layers there that you neglected – it might not be what you think.’ And so I read it again… and again. And I started to realize what really had been written, or could be seen, in the script. It was vaguely phrased, but not accentuated. And I think, what I do in a case like that, is to push those elements I see in a script – that is hyper-realism – to push that even beyond the intentions of the scriptwriter. I mean, I can’t do a script if I don’t see anything personal there, and it’s really my sense of reality – or creating, let’s say, a certain reality that I feel is as consistent as possible – that is one of the ambitions or energies that keep me going as a filmmaker.” (Verhoeven, RoboCopArchive.com)

IMDb

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