Weekend Retrospective - State of the Art Bang-Bang


"Thank you for your co-operation. Good-night."

Aside from being one of my all time science fiction favourites, RoboCop is a film which contains so many things to enjoy. It's a story that goes beyond just being a blend of futuristic ideas and contemporary 80s culture satire. It's a film that has it all. It has the biggest squibs, and the biggest guns. It has the best mens' room scene. It's got a frequently horrifying mixture of grim, nasty violence, and offers a particularly bleak and cynical look at privatisation and greedy ambition. But at the same time it manages to be consistently funny. It's frequently excessive from the amount of blood to the over acting, but these ingredients are perfect in portraying a world full of, well excess. A film about a cyborg that fights crime is a recipe for some of the most trashy kinds of cinema, however the whole thing is crafted in such a way that all the moving parts are engineered to be exactly right, from the script, the performances, and the robot effects.

The story goes that when Dutch film maker Paul Verhoeven landed in North America, what he saw in the media inspired what would become his vision of 'old Detroit'. His television set showed him a mad world where shocking real life news was broken up with upbeat commercials. Stories of nuclear panic meeting with advertisements for cars and board games came from what was being broadcast in the year of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. The culture shock would lead to the ideas which became part of what is easily his greatest movie.

It's a script he initial reject simply because of the title, and I'm sure plenty of potential audience members did the same. It sounds big and dumb. Parts of it are big and dumb. However by twisting these elements something far smarter and infinitely more interesting begins to take shape. It quickly subverts expectations as jabs are taken at health care insurance schemes and mega corporations buying out public services; it immediately sets the tone. I doubt you would find this sort of thing elsewhere during what (on the surface) is just a crowd pleasing spectacle. Of course there is a nice variety, it's not all parody. There are plenty of well made cyborg action beats along the way.

Where else can you find such a layered sci-fi subtext being combined with such great stop motion and crime fighting drama? It's fun for the whole family (get them before they get you). Instead of being another throwaway robot movie it has real substance, and well as a central character that brings plenty of heart to the story. Some the best scenes are the quieter ones where the eponymous officer tries to remember his past life, looking over what is left of his old family home. There's barely any script at all at this stage, just the haunting melody of one of the scores least pronounced but most effective themes. 

The music itself by Basil Poledouris is pretty fantastic overall. It moves effortlessly between these emotive sequences to those with a far more sinister atmosphere, and of course into to that roaring theme tune during moments of action. Loss, resurrection and vengeance are all covered here with a nuanced sound that mixes the melancholy and the bombastic equally well. The orchestral range is pretty varied, but it also plenty of nice synthesized elements to bring out that sci-fi flavour.

While this is a futuristic tale, it's also a story that has a fairly comic book style in a lot of ways. So it's fitting many of the characters over emphasized to the point of them being caricatures. The over the top story ideas fit with the people who inhabit the world being presented. This is particularly true of the bad guys here, who are a selection of obnoxious criminal sadists and scheming yuppy scumbags. They're the kind of villains who are easy to both love to hate. The grotesque yet magnetic ensemble makes for an engaging rogues gallery, whether it's the slimy Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) or the truly evil Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) and Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his unruly gang of thugs. There are many other good turns from familiar faces such as Nancy Allen and Ray Wise filling out a great cast.

It goes without saying that the main man himself Peter Weller often steals the show. He imbues the armour plated body of OCP's latest product with a wry sense of humour with his verbal cadence, and also lends it a sense of weight and reality through his physical movement. His journey from death to robot back around to human would have never worked without all the ways he progresses as a character during the story. The core of the movie from his murder, to the crime fighting montage, as well as reveal of 'Directive 4' is all so effective because of the acting involved.

Great performances aside a big reason this all remains so memorable is the script, which offers so much great dialogue throughout the running time. It feels like a lot of the film is made entirely from punchy lines and classic sound bites. Amusing '80s movie quotes have never been better perhaps outside Aliens and Predator. Together they form a holy trinity of electric dialogue and silly one liners... however that's a story for another time. But the heightened reality here between the terrible taste people have in sitcoms and the sleazy antics of corporate executives gels so precisely because of way people act and what they say. By the time ED209 trips on the staircase and Emile dissolves in a wave of toxic waste, the whole thing is fully realised in a way that is totally acceptable as internal logic.

This is hardly a recommendation for all viewers, and yet at the same time it's a huge pop culture mainstay. It moves effortlessly from graphic violence, to humour to effective drama. Sometimes within the same scene (just look at Mr. Kinney's death). But that's all part of the magic. It also stands as a classic example of how to do things like real blood and believable robotic effects. It feels solid and heavy, and things like the squibs and pyrotechnics are still all so visceral. It's sad that the sequels vary from mediocre misfires to horrible disasters, but I guess that's the inevitable result of continuing a story which ends with humanity being achieved. A bunch of board members had to get together just to sate their desire for more box office revenue; I guess the message was too subtle for some people.