Film Reviews

RoboCop (1987) – 4K UHD Review

New to UHD is Arrow Video‘s release of 1987’s RoboCop.  Originally arriving with reasonably little fanfare, the film appeared at the apex of 80s excess and violence in filmmaking.  What could have been a cheap and tacky exploitation film became, in the hands of Paul Verhoeven, so much more.

Set in a reasonably near-future Detroit, this is the story of a privatised police force managing the decline of a city ready for its forthcoming money-spinning regeneration programme.  Officers are being killed in high numbers on the lawless streets and Omni Consumer Products (OCP – the company charged with maintaining law and order) are looking for a solution that takes the officer out of the equation.  After a failed experiment with the ED-209 programme, the rival RoboCop initiative – devised by senior executive Morton (Miguel Ferrer) – is given the greenlight to proceed, with Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) – a young married father of one, slain by the criminal Clarence Boddiger (Kurtwood Smith) – identified as the prototype.  Taking to the streets with his memories wiped, Murphy has to deal with echoes of his former identity coming through, and with the cancer at the heart of the organisation which created him.

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This release is a two-disc presentation.   Disc one contains the director’s cut.  This is something of a misnomer, as there is only a minute’s difference between this and the theatrical cut housed on the second disc.  There is no difference in vision or story, with the main difference simply between a few more shots of gore.  Originally rated R in the US, this is simply the non-submitted unrated cut.  Both versions have flawless widescreen presentations, with the HDR giving us colours that really pop.  Both cuts have an identical, and entirely competent DTS sound mix.

This disc features a commentary with Verhoeven and executive producer Jon Davison.  They talk together about shot choices, casting (with Arnie originally considered for the lead), and the concept of gender neutrality in the police service they designed.  This is the same commentary as feature on disc two, just re-edited to take account of the different timing of the film.  This can be heard in the two men hedging their bets on detail in certain scenes, as they are, effectively, commentating on both cuts.  It’s an enjoyable conversation that covers visual effects, the inspirations for the characters, and how Verhoeven had to be forced by his wife to consider taking the job.  The stories of trying to film around the physical limitations of the suit are a highlight, as well as the shocking revelation that Murphy visiting his former home was nearly cut from the movie entirely.  It isn’t new, having been recorded in the 2000s, but it is essential listening for fans.

Credit: Orion Pictures

There are two more commentaries on this disc.  The first from film historian Paul M. Sammon, who worked for Orion during the making of this film, as a marketing executive.  He talks on multiple levels: about the production, but also his theories of the film as both an anti-fascist and a Jesus allegory.  There is some overlap with the first commentary, but this is the perfect mix of a commentary of academic theories and an insider account who can speak to Verhoeven’s career and background.  The final commentary is from three fans – all British – focused on trivia around the film: such as Christopher Reeve, David Carradine, Steven Seagal and Mark Hamill all being considered for the lead (amongst a wealth of other famous names).  They do makes value judgements on what they are seeing too, however.  They are very knowledgeable, but this is almost overwhelming in the sheer amount of it.  However, it all adds to a set that leaves no stone unturned.

Other disc one extras, include: ‘The Future of Law Enforcement: Creating RoboCop’, a new interview with co-writer Michael Miner – just under 17 minutes. Miner talks of William Boroughs and Philip K Dick as influences, how he met co-writer Ed Neumier, and the genesis of the project.  He has a background of political activism around Vietnam, so predatory capitalism is an interest of his.  The script reflects his concerns of the workers as commodities.  He details how they sold the script and developed the project.  He also reveals how Orion was artist focused; the building in of Murphy’s family, rather than a Batchelor; as well as supporting characters and the end result.  This is packed for the time given.  He has a deep knowledge and understanding of his own material.

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‘RoboTalk’ is a roundtable with Ed Neumeier, and two other filmmakers (Nicholas McCarthy, David Birke).  It’s 32 minutes of Ed being questioned about his background and the project.  It makes interesting observations about the family stuff being minimised, letting us into his process, and we learn that the script had been in development for years.  It goes deep on structure and script and where the often-unconscious influences lay.  Neumeier’s memory is impressive, as he seems to remember the thought processes and the shooting days in detail.

We also get ‘Truth of Character with Nancy Allen’, which is 18 minutes long and new.  Nancy talks of how she built a character that wasn’t there on the page – though it was designed that way.  It’s fine, as a mixture of memory and description of process, as well as her thoughts on the project.  ‘Casting Old Detroit with Julie Selzer’ is eight minutes on the casting of the film and is also new.  Selzer was married to an earlier choice for director.  Verhoeven was relatively new to the US actor pool, and they didn’t always know each other.  She was not briefed to go after a ‘name’.  She talks engagingly of wanting to offset the violence with nice people.

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‘Connecting the Shots with Mark Goldblatt’ is a new feature with second unit director, and eleven minutes long.  Again, this features some background on the guy before anything project specific.  ‘Analog with Peter Kuran and Kevin Kutchaver’ is is purely about the visual effects, and is 13 minutes on how some of the shots were composed.  This is fascinating, chiefly as this type of filmmaking has now been lost.  Both of these men are visual effects artists.  There is too much background in all of these features for the overall short running time, but at least it has given key contributors their due – given they rarely even meet the onscreen talent – and it works better here in showing how they developed the skillset than in a short casting piece.

The second half of the extras is more specifically about the film, and is the more interesting.  ‘More Man than Machine: Composing Robocop’ is a new, twelve-minute tribute to Basil Poledaris, from film historians, a journalist, and producers.  There is a lot of reuse of stills from earlier features.  It contextualises the relationship of  the director with his composers, and looks at the composer’s ethos and specialisms.  It talks of the main theme as though it is in-universe branding for the product.  We learn that the score was seen as vulgar by the conductor.  It does delve into the themes, the variety, the subtle breaking of conventions for different kinds of scenes, and is very good for its running time.  ‘RoboProp’s is a fan’s collection, a little under 13 minutes, and exactly what it says on the tin.

Credit: Orion Pictures

‘2012 Q & A with the Filmmakers’ is with Verhoeven, Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ed Neumeier, Michael Miner, and associate producer Phil Tippett, shot at UCLA.  This is 42 minutes of moderated discussion with audience participation.  It is not unlike a ComicCon panel – though it’s looking backwards rather than forwards.  It’s insightful and enjoyable, although it repeats some stories from other features.  Verhoeven is very self-deprecating, as are Michael and Ed.  The key thing here is that everyone is fully engaged.  ‘RoboCop: Creating a Legend’ is a 21 minute, 2007 feature about the suit and its design, but also the physicality needed, and the prep work Weller did; the changes of mind, how it is assembled and worn.

‘Villains of Old Detroit’ is a short, 2007 profile of the film’s bad guys.  ‘Special Effects: Now & Then’ is also from 2007 and in same format – 18 minutes on the film’s effects work.  There are lots of old school matte paintings, optical reductions and stop motion.  It’s nice to see how it all used to work. There is also ‘Paul Verhoeven Easter Egg’; ‘The Boardroom: Storyboard with Phil Tippett Commentary’; director’s cut production footage; deleted scenes; trailers, TV spots, and image galleries.  And this is just on the first disc!

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Disc 2 features the theatrical version of the film, and an isolated score option (both composer’s original score, and the final theatrical mix).  There is also an edited for TV version, either playable in whole, or as a compilation of alternate scenes, running to just over 18 minutes.  The full feature is just over 95 minutes and is presented in academy ratio (4:3, as it would be for the televisions of the time).  It sports a decent picture quality but is not up to the 4k standard.  It is accompanied by a stereo mix.  This version of the film still works, even with 7-8 minutes removed – even though excess is central to this film.  This is rounded off by split scene comparisons between both theatrical and both Director’s and TV cuts.

Just listing the extras makes this an outsized appreciation of a wonderful release.  A great balance of old and new features, every commentary ever recorded, and every known version of the film – mostly restored to an outstanding quality – makes this the final word on a film that had no right to be the masterpiece it is.  A late-80s actioner turned out to have satiric social commentary that still applies today, and in presenting this, Arrow have done themselves, and the film, very proud indeed.

RoboCop is out on 4K UHD on 28th March from Arrow Video.

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