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April/May 2007 : Feature:

Retro Robo

One of the highlights of the month of February for me for nearly thirty years now is the annual Boston Science Fiction Film Festival. It's a 24-hour marathon of SF movies that was renamed a "festival" when it started snagging the occasional premiere. Over the years I've been introduced to many of the classics on the big screen, revisited favorites, and also seen some of the worst movies ever made. This year's discovery was the hilariously inept Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965), a movie I fell in love with the moment I learned that it was also released under the alternate title Mars Invades Puerto Rico. (Guess where the producer spent his vacation.)

The annual event gives attendees who have already seen many films the chance to take a fresh look at titles they may not have seen in some time. Some, like Forbidden Planet, clearly stand the test of time. Others are not so fortunate. This year there were several films that I had seen first-run in the theaters, but hadn't watched in ages. The one I was most interested in taking a fresh look at was Robocop, which I had reviewed when it came out in 1987 and seen maybe once more in the twenty years since then. How had it held up?

Memory had dimmed, perhaps because the two theatrical sequels were so mediocre, and I never really paid attention to the subsequent TV series and miniseries. I was surprised to learn that there have been several. However the first film (which, though R rated, is slightly less gory than the unrated "director's cut" on DVD), turns out to feel fresh and original. The only thing that really dates it is that we now know some of the then-unknown cast from their subsequent work:

  • The sadistic villain Clarence Boddicker is played by Kurtwood Smith, an actor who had been working on TV and in small film roles, here getting his first real standout part on the big screen. Although he is an absolutely vicious thug here, taking pleasure in the pain and death he causes, it's hard not to be reminded of his best known subsequent role, as "Red" Forman on That 70's Show.
  • Ray Wise, who plays corporate executive Leon Nash, would go on to a variety of memorable roles, including that of Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks and Vice President Hal Gardner on the fifth season of 24.
  • Slimy executive Bob Morton was played by Miguel Ferrer. He also turned up on Twin Peaks, as FBI agent Albert Rosenfield, and more recently has been Dr. Garret Macy on Crossing Jordan.
  • Paul McCrane was Boddicker's henchman Emil, who comes to an especially gooey end involving toxic waste. He's been seen more prominently in recent years on the small screen as Dr. Robert Romano on E.R. Last year he had a short but notable run on 24, as Jack Bauer's duplicitous brother Graeme.

And, of course, there's Peter Weller. Already a fan favorite from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984), his star turn in the title role in Robocop would solidify his SF stardom. It's a genre he would return to on occasion (such as in Screamers or guesting on Star Trek: Enterprise). He would also make the Robocop alumni association's obligatory appearance on 24, playing Jack Bauer's mentor-gone-bad Christopher Henderson. For the actor, taking the title role was a daring choice. During most of the movie he is almost completely encased in his robotic costume, and his "performance" is limited to his voice and his lower face. There's only so far a heroic chin can take you.

The story, for those who have somehow missed all its incarnations, is set in a near-future Detroit. Crime is out of control, and drug dealing and murder are only the most obvious felonies. We see that the corporate powers that be like it that way, since it presents new business opportunities, some of them even legitimate. Alex Murphy (Weller) is a good cop newly assigned to a particularly gruesome precinct. He's paired with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), who may be a woman but is as tough as nails. It's not racism or sexism that plagues this future Detroit, it's lawlessness and anarchy. Murphy finds himself trapped by Clarence Boddicker and his gang of plug-uglies, and they sadistically toy with him, brutally maiming him before Boddicker finally puts a bullet in his head.

Enter OCP. This is a megacorporation that has won the contract to start providing robotic policing to the city. Their hope is the ED-209, one of those robots obviously unfamiliar with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. Brought out for demonstration at a board meeting, it goes horribly wrong, killing a hapless junior executive who had already complied with a demand to put down his gun. Bob Morton sees his chance, sucking up to the "Old Man" (Dan O'Herlihy) by proposing a different remedy: a half-man, half-machine cyborg. The half-man part will be provided by Murphy, who is legally dead and beyond help.

Now what's most interesting here is Murphy's legal status. The plot of the film has him slowly recovering his memories and Officer Lewis realizing who he is. There are questions here the film doesn't resolve, though there were attempts to do so in later entries. For one thing, Murphy has a wife and child. When Robocop enters his old apartment—which his widow has departed—he starts to recollect happy times there. Is Robocop merely Murphy with prosthetic body armor, or has he become a new being with residual memories from his human past? The film seems to lean in the latter direction, which is in keeping with its cynical, take-no-prisoners attitude.

However if Murphy is now a new being, is he to be considered a citizen—a sentient, living being with all that implies? Or is he, as Morton seems to feel, merely property of OCP with no more "rights" than a computer keyboard? The contempt the scientists and executives have for their machine is seen through his "eyes" in a series of shots where Murphy/Robocop regains consciousness. No attempt is made to help Murphy adjust to his new situation, and the food created for him (the human part still needs nutrients) resembles nothing so much as raw sewage. Clearly, they don't care in the slightest about him.

Why should they? The world we see here shows a culture where life is cheap and meaningless. For all the glimpses of Murphy's happy pre-Robo home life—and the satirical images we see on TV screens such as a family enjoying a nuclear war-themed board game—this is a world where one executive thinks nothing at all of hiring a contract killer to take out a rival. Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner even make us complicit in this violence when Robocop tracks down the people responsible for his fate. It's one thing to watch Clarence Boddicker get his well-earned death. It's quite another for audiences to cheer—as they did in 1987 and again this year at the film marathon—when slimy executive Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) takes a hostage knowing that Robocop's programming ensures he can't harm any OCP employee. The Old Man's "Dick, you're fired," freeing Robocop to act, is immensely satisfying. It also means we accept a world where violent action is the remedy.

At film's end, Robocop is accepted by his police colleagues and, seemingly, the law-abiding public (of whom we have seen very little). We are led to believe that with the deaths of Dick Jones and Bob Morton—note the bland names—the rotten eggs at OCP have been removed. There's no real reason to believe this, given that the corporation has obviously rewarded these men with promotions and power along the way, nor is there any reason to believe that the Old Man and the other executives have any more scruples.

We're left with the most honest and trustworthy character in the film being the cyborg Robocop, where both humans and robots have fallen short. Robocop is a great action film and remains hugely entertaining, but one can't watch without wondering if its dark vision of our future offers even the slightest glimmer of hope.


Copyright © 2007, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

May 14, 22:11 by IROSF
A thread to discuss the merits of RoboCop -- or the strange confluence of actors reconverging on 24.

Daniel M. Kimmel's article can be found here.
May 15, 19:55 by Steven Francis Murphy
Robocop has always been a favorite of mine (not because the protaganist was named Murphy). But I see Murphy's plight as humanity overcoming adversity, not one of exploitation and devaluation. Murphy as Robocop does go on to find a new family.

He adjusts, he adapts and he overcomes even his programing to follow his own moral code (warp though we may view it).

I don't know that I see this film as a sign of the future per se. I simply see it as a human overcoming technology.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy
May 16, 03:36 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Perhaps he finds a family in the sequels or the TV series, but I was considering this film by itself. At the end he's a cyborg who acknowledged his human past, and has not yet reclaimed it.
May 16, 10:08 by Adrian Simmons
Considering he just had body language and (for about the first half of the movie) the lower half of his face, Peter Weller did a fantastic job of conveying emotion and non emotion. It's an even trickier play during the second half of the movie, when he's got his whole face, but mostly keeps a vacant look on it, with the occasional hints of anger or profound sadness.

Kirkwood Smith, on the other hand, has to make up for Murphy's lack of animation, and he does so in spades! In fact, I can't watch "That 70s Show" without expecting Red to pull out a gun, kneecap Fez, then drop a live grenade into the basement to watch the kids scramble.

May 17, 00:45 by Montgomery Cantsin
Paul Verhoeven, the director, also appears to be commenting on the American criminal system. For Robocop to become such an icon just goes to show how far he succeeded.
May 19, 06:41 by Nader Elhefnawy
I'm glad to see a piece about Robocop here. The film was unique in its treatment not only of the issue of consciousness, but privatization. While the sequels were comparatively silly (and their handling of Murphy's identity issues just an inferior repetition of what the first film did), their satirization of the economic and social issues raised by Omnicorp and the building of New Detroit was very clever and funny, if over-the-top.
May 19, 06:41 by Nader Elhefnawy
I think that would be the best episode of "That 70s Show" ever.
May 19, 11:08 by Bluejack
I'm with you all on that 70's show! I'd pay good money to see that.
May 21, 12:49 by Garen Daly
One prescient theme in ROBOCOP is how myopic a corporation's vision is, especially when it comes to creating products for the military. Bob Morton's complaint about Robocop wasn't merely it's unholy merging of man and machine, but how ED209 was designed to supply the military. This was to be an income stream for generations. The thesis posited is simple. Military suppliers are less interested in what they are supplying, but how long, and hence how much money they can make, by providing the 'service'.

We need only to look at Halliburton and the other companies 'working' in Iraq. Reports of shoddy construction, malfunctioning equipment and siphoned off millions, should remind us all, corporations serve one master - their bottom line and the bottom line doesn't particularly like, or dislike, humans.
May 21, 13:19 by Robert Urell
You want prescient themes of corporate myopia, read Melville's BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER. That's prescience. As for ROBOCOP, well, if I saw the DVD in the bin at Walmart, I'd buy that for a dollar....
Nov 26, 22:05 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Here's a P.S. to this essay:

Add Kurtwood Smith to the actors who were in "Robocop" who went on to appear on "24." From the preview seen during the recent two hour telefilm, it seems he plays a senator who has Jack appear before his committee to answer questions about torture.

How timely...

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