The original RoboCop is very much a product of its time, taking the violence and fear of a criminal future that pervaded much of the 1980’s, and pushing it to a level most films would try to avoid. Despite the extreme gore, horrific violence, and pervading lack of hope, RoboCop stands as one of the all time great movies from the decade.
Before the character of RoboCop would become watered down by two unsuccessful sequels, a mid-afternoon television series, and a much bemoaned remake in 2014, the original was a total surprise to audiences, combining together ridiculous moments of humour and satire with shocking violence, all with a very deep narrative about what it means to be human underneath.
People weren’t sure what to make of RoboCop when it was first released in 1987 (or February 1988 for UK audiences), though it quickly became a success, earning back four times its budget in the cinemas and cementing the career of its director, Paul Verhoeven.
It may have been this mix of tones that helped to make the film a success. For some it was filled with heavy comedic moments, others were shocked and enthralled by the violence, and some were drawn into the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) being changed into a cyborg and struggling to regain his humanity and sense of self. RoboCop has more layers than would initially be believed, and this helped towards its popularity.
Despite being 30 years old and made with a relatively small budget of $13 million, the film still holds up well. Yes, there are some areas where the visual effects don’t quite hold up, such as with ED-209, but on the whole it looks spectacular, with the practical effects giving the film a very real and down to earth feel.
The fact that it isn’t a special effects heavy piece actually works to its advantage, and helps to tell the story. This is a version of future Detroit that is run down, besieged by crime, with poor citizens and people close to giving up, and not having big showy effects helps to realise this version of Detroit and to make it feel like a real place (despite none of the film actually being made in the real Detroit).
This is one of the things that makes the original RoboCop stand out against its recent remake. The grounded and more recognisable world of the 1980’s original compared to the high-tech and glossy vision of the 2014 remake means that it’s easier to identify with the human story within the film, especially that of Alex Murphy.
On that note it’s worth talking about the cast, all of whom are perfect for their roles. Peter Weller is astonishing in the lead role, able to bring more through his voice and chin as RoboCop than he was as the fully human Alex Murphy. Even before RoboCop removes his helmet in the latter scenes, you already know that there’s more going on beneath, that the real Alex Murphy is breaking through. Considering that the only part of the actor visible is the lower face, his voice has a robotic effect over the top of it, and that he moves in a very mechanical way, this is hugely impressive.
A large part of the success of the Alex Murphy story is the casting of Nancy Allen in the role of his partner Anne Lewis. Able to portray a hardened street cop in one scene, yet caring and understanding, almost motherly, in another, she acts as a perfect companion to Weller’s cyborg, giving him that real human connection to help the real him break through.
The film’s main villains, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), are incredibly well crafted, each playing a very different type of villain, yet working well together. Boddicker is the vicious street thug and gang leader, whilst Jones is the sleazy duplicitous corporate bad guy.
Smith may initially seem like a strange choice for a gang leader, with most people going on to remember him as the father from the 90’s sitcom That 70’s Show, he brings a level of sinister menace and subtly to the role that many films lack. As for Cox, he so perfectly fits the part of a corporate villain that its a role he would go on to repeat numerous times throughout his career.
On the face of things many would view RoboCop as an ultra violent shallow film, offering little more than guns and gore, but it has a lot more to say about corporate America, the decline of society and the rise of crime, and the human soul, than you’d initially believe. A great film with multiple themes, a sharp and witty script, and great casting, RoboCop deserves its status as a cult classic.