There has never been, so far as I can recall, a period in my life during which I have not been obsessed by the cinematic form in some way or other. And while my tastes have continued to evolve or change over time, there have been a handful of films that have travelled with me throughout. One such film is Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987).
As a ten year old, I remember seeing a television commercial for the Friday night screening of a bizarre science fiction movie about a robotic police officer, set in the future. I knew nothing more than what I’d seen during this brief commercial, but the combination of robotics, explosions and bad guys was irresistible for a boy who’d developed a fixation on all things action. As was my habit, I elected to watch this movie whilst also recording it on the family VHS player. And as I watched this movie for the first time (who knows how I slipped this one past my parents), I was glad that I had.
Robocop proved to be, as far as I was concerned, the single greatest film in the history of cinema. I found myself riveted by the traumatic tale of a man (Peter Weller) who lost everything, even himself, yet was bound by a sense of duty to uphold the values that he believed in. This was a man whose only remaining connection to the human condition lay in his partner’s (Nancy Allen) unwavering belief that he did, in fact, continue to exist. But it wasn’t just this that grabbed me. I found myself suddenly exposed to a level of visual excess beyond anything I could possibly have imagined. Nightmares of violent bad guys and toxic waste were not enough to detract me, and it was not long before I’d watched my VHS tape to death (despite the fact that somehow, I’d missed taping everything prior to Murphy’s “death” scene).
I’m not sure that I ever left Robocop behind for long enough to say that I rediscovered it, so I’ll just say that as I grew older, the film appeared to grow with me. This seemingly juvenile comic-book entertainment began to evolve into a fully-fledged piece of social commentary. Here was a film set in the smouldering dystopian wreck of 80s avarice, cobbled together from its leftovers, that told the tale of an ever increasing divide between rich and poor. Here was a film that imagined (or suggested) a world in which government, and a dispassionate judicial system, seemed entirely absent. Indeed, this was some kind of an industrial nightmare world in a state of societal free fall, and entirely privatised.
And then there was the way in which the film was intercut with savagely satirical television commercials, news broadcasts and clips from an inane sitcom in which the protagonist’s catch-phrase looped interminably, always followed by that most American of traditions – canned laughter. This was a uniquely loaded piece of American cinema, whose violent excesses, fragmented structure, and straight-faced irony were a bizarre mixture of celebration and condemnation. It was almost as if the director were making a point of the viewer’s complicity – demanding that they acknowledge their own culpability in the very things that they were being asked to despise. And indeed, this was very likely the director’s intention.
The decision to have Robocop helmed by a young Nordic director of provocative art films, Paul Verhoeven, was an unlikely one – a big budget science-fiction cop movie was as far from his area of expertise as one could possibly imagine. But it resulted in one of the most subversive mainstream science fiction films in Hollywood history, and afforded Verhoeven the opportunity to repeatedly offend and question public sensibilities throughout the 1990s (with radically varied levels of success). In Total Recall (1990), he toyed ingeniously with notions of identity, reality and meaning. And in Starship Troopers (1997), he employed a hyper-commerical aesthetic to lull the audience into a false sense of security and demonstrate the subtle attraction of evil. I wonder how many viewers ever realised they had been tricked into rooting for a fully functional fascist state, as well as its imperialist agenda for conquest. But he has never again achieved the quality of Robocop, the slightly resentful parody of a director both compromised and given opportunity by the commercial forces with which he (at least at the time) was least comfortable.
I have, of course, been set upon this reflective course by the impending arrival of a Robocop remake. There is no doubt that the Brazilian placed at the helm of the project, José Padilha, has a body of work which clearly demonstrates an exceptional amount of talent. And one can only assume that the selection of a non-American director, whose film’s demonstrate a gritty sensibility, was an attempt to appease fans of the original, and perhaps to recapture that sense of the satirical outsider’s lens. Putting aside the fact that this new film looks far too family friendly, glossy, and far too “superhero” to capture the spirit of the original, I intend to give the film a chance before any scathing indictment. But the reality is, no matter how good or bad the film turns out to be, it’ll just never be Robocop.