Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Dead or alive, you're coming with me."

Robocop the romance novel

I swear, I have no idea why Robocop is riding a unicorn. No idea at all. But anyway:

Funny story about the first time I saw Robocop: I watched it on VHS with my parents because a coworker of my father's told him how good it was. I found that highly amusing, because from what I knew of Robocop, I knew that my father was exceedingly unlikely to enjoy it much at all. I have never known my father to have the least inclination toward science fiction in any way, and he's not terribly big on violence. And back then, I seem to recall he didn't much care for use of the word 'F***' in his movies. Robocop had three strikes against it, going in, and no, it didn't recover. Not his cup of tea at all. But I liked it.

The movie was a staple of our action-movie watching in college, but since then, I hadn't watched Robocop in a really long time (I don't honestly know if I've ever watched it in its entirety, uncut, since college), until the other day I saw it streaming on Netflix, so I decided to watch a little bit of it. Which turned into the whole thing. Go figure. Only problem was that I was doing this on a whim and I'd already had an afternoon snack, so I didn't make popcorn. And really, Robocop is one of the popcorniest movies ever made.

So I've always liked Robocop. The sequel was meh, but the original has always been a good flick. However, in my head I've always kind of viewed Robocop as a prep film for some of the better stuff director Paul Verhoeven would do later on -- Total Recall, Starship Troopers. I remember Robocop being perfectly good, but not extraordinary. Turns out that Robocop is a lot better than I recall.

The story is, I assume, familiar to anyone who is still reading this post. At some point in the future, things in Detroit have become so bad that the police force has been privatized by a company called OCP, which is looking for new, technological approaches to law enforcement. The first such approach involves big robots called ED-209's, which turn out to be a bit...overzealous. (During a demonstration at a board meeting, the ED-209 machine-guns a young executive to death, leading the CEO to do a facepalm as this young fellow's corpse is oozing blood from a hundred bullet holes all over the boardroom floor.) Enter another young up-and-coming executive, who wants to show up the guy whose pet project just splattered some guy's guts all over the board room. His notion is to turn a cop who has been fatally wounded into a robotic police officer.

He almost immediately gets his wish, when our hero, Officer Murphy (Peter Weller), is brutally shot a number of times by a very bad man named Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and then left for dead. Murphy is somehow 'saved' by doctors, but when he 'awakens', he has been turned into a robot. Robocop.

Now, why they need a human for this is never really explained, since the idea is basically the same as ED-209 – turn police work over to a robot. Presumably 'Robocop' is better because of the addition of human instincts and thought patterns, but without memories, which have been wiped clean. Nothing of Murphy remains inside Robocop.

Except, well, turns out that quite of Murphy actually is knocking around in there, and as the rest of the movie goes on, Robocop tries to put together who he really is all the while trying to capture the bad guys, who have powerful allies in OCP itself. Much mayhem ensues, with Verhoeven establishing his reputation in this movie as a fairly creative director of gore-filled action.

I was struck this time, after not having seen the movie in so long, by the pacing. In the first place, Robocop just doesn't waste any time at all. We meet Murphy in the first five minutes, and he's been fatally mutilated and wounded about ten minutes later after an action sequence. We're told almost nothing about him – he has a wife and kid, he started twirling his pistol before holstering it because his son saw a guy do it on teevee – and yet, the film somehow is able to make us think we know more about him than we do. Since we know so very little about Murphy, Robocop's frustration as he tries to recover his memories is all the more engaging. It's a brilliant device, and in a lesser movie, there would be about fifteen minutes of stuff letting us "get to know" Murphy before his killing. We don't really feel a sense of loss until Robocop himself feels a sense of loss.

The pacing also keeps the film focused on events and actions, and only in passing mentions the various moral issues behind its story. Verhoeven's suspicions of corporate capitalism are clear, but there are no big speeches about it in Robocop, just rapid-fire angry conversations between rival executives. ("Who cares if it works? Military contracts! Selling spare parts for twenty years!") The Robocop seems cool in itself, and it's chilling in retrospect that no one ever questions the morality of a project that is just waiting for some poor cop to get killed in the line...and worse than that is the fact that OCP has maneuvered cops around in order to ensure that one of them will get killed in the line, sooner rather than later. Risks and personality assessments are cited as methods for determining where to put the cops who may die, but again, in keeping with the film generally keeping us in the dark with respect to Murphy, we are not told exactly what it is about Murphy that makes OCP determine that he's likely to get killed in his new assignment.

In terms of design, Robocop himself is iconic, with his helmet that conceals everything except his jaw. I always find this a bit interesting – why not just cover his entire face? Of course, it's because we need some reason to still see him as a human being, and for most of the time he's onscreen, that jaw is it. He doesn't do much of anything else with his mouth except speak, leaving Robocop to show his growing frustration mainly through body language, such as when he is exploring his old house and experiencing bits of old memory and puts his fist through the teevee screen realtor.

We do get to look at Robocop without his helmet late in the film, and it's not the prettiest sight, but that's when we really know that Murphy-the-person really is inside there, and he hasn't been entirely erased. There's a moment prior to that, though, that hints that this is the case. It's blink-and-you-miss-it stuff: when the bad guy sics ED-209 on him, Robocop's visor is broken in a couple of places, and Verhoeven throws in a couple of quick closeups of his fear-filled eyes. It's enormously effective, and it really cements Robocop as a character in this movie, as opposed to...well, whatever he'd be otherwise. A prop, perhaps.

Robocop's prognostications of the future are mainly hit-or-miss. The world of the "clean future" is one of antiseptic concrete; wood and metal are mainly used to depict Old Detroit, the run-down place where chaos still reigns. There are newscasts which give a bit of "future news", telling us a bit of what's going on in the world. I'm not sure why they bothered; none of this really adds much to the film, except for the bits that deal specifically with Detroit, and in any case, the prognostications seem to take the various strifes of the 1980s and project them forward forty years or so. Thus we have wars in South Africa and Central America.

I also am of mixed mind on how the movie ends: Robocop dispatches the main bad guy, there are about two lines of dialogue, and then, smash cut to credits. I always find the ending vaguely unsatisfying – but then, I'm not entirely sure how to better wrap things up. The film certainly leaves open a lot to be explored in possible sequels, particularly, Robocop's explorations of whether he's a person or not. It's too bad only one relatively lackluster sequel was made.

Basil Poledouris's score is a highly-regarded piece of SF-action film music, and deservedly so; it's appropriately futuristic sounding without being otherworldly. I realized that the main theme, the Robocop theme, isn't heard until we've first met Robocop and he's gone out onto the street to do cop stuff. Of course, that main theme is one of the great earworms of film music history. Just try watching this movie and then not end up humming that tune for days.

It's too bad that Robocop didn't lead to anything more than what it already is, but one good film is more than a lot of franchises get, right?


mad photog said...

Robocop was definitely a great movie. Verhoeven, in this case, really did an outstanding job (don't get me started on Starship Troopers). I agree that the ending was abrupt. I've had a few discussions with filmmaker types, but it always comes down to, "how else could he have done it?" No good answer.

Nice review.


Call me Paul said...

I've always enjoyed Robocop, too. And if anyone doesn't agree, there's going to be... trouble.

Doug said...

I liked Robocop also, I only hope it isn't targeted for a remake. Oh wait, I see in IMDB a Robocop slated for 2013. It's been such a long time since I've seen it, it would be worth to get it from Netflix.

Jason said...

A couple of notes: there actually was a third Robocop film (with some other dude taking over the suit from Peter Weller, much to the character's detriment) as well as a short-lived syndicated TV series -- both were pretty lame, and are rightfully forgotten. (I've mostly forgotten Robo 2 as well, to be honest.)

Regarding the film's ending, I can see how it could be read as abrupt, but I've always felt it was perfect. Robocop is essentially about retaining a human identity in the face of a mechanized world and evil capitalists who would reduce a man to a mere "unit." And a faceless one at that.(Note that I'm not calling all capitalists evil, as "the old man" Robo/Murphy is speaking to in the end is arguably not such a bad guy. But Miguel Ferrer's and Ronnie Cox's characters unquestionably are evil, and their particular evil is motivated by capitalism.) This all works beautifully at a thematic level: after killing the thugs who were trying to kill him, Robocop drives to OCP, the seat of the evil that was done to him; he dispatches ED-209, the machine that represents this mechanized future; and then in his final line, he reclaims his own, original, human name. It's as humanistic in its way as Luke Skywalker shutting off his targeting computer: the man triumphs over the machine.

All of that action happens in a very short amount of screentime, true, but then, as you point out, so does the introduction and first act. I read both the beginning and ending not as "abrupt" but as "concise." They say what they need to say with economy.

For the record, I'm not a great van of Verhoven's later work. I think Robocop is his master piece. And despite the dated '80s references, hair styles and tone (especially in the fake news segments), it seems even more relevant to me now than it did 25 years ago. I love this flick.