Remembering Robocop: The smouldering dystopian wreck of 80s avarice

RobocopThere 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’d buy that for a dollar!”

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.

Nancy Allen as Robocop's long suffering partner, Anne Lewis

Nancy Allen as Robocop’s long suffering partner, Anne Lewis

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.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

28 thoughts on “Remembering Robocop: The smouldering dystopian wreck of 80s avarice

  1. The film I pray they don’t remake is The Fly. I find it annoying that all these remakes, such as The Thing (okay, a prequel), Total Recall and Robocop, ignore the brilliant special effects of the originals. 80s effects are so impressive because they didn’t have the CGI shortcut, and that shortcut cannot do texture. I haven’t seen it, but I bet that a fight scene in the Robocop remake is 95% CGI’d. I don’t want to go to the cinema and see what looks like someone playing a video game. (I’m talking to you Michael Bay!)

  2. The line:”I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Came from a little know SF book called the “Marching Morons”. Its premise was basically a classist & racist one, that the poor, the disenfranchised racial groups (genetically inferior) continue to have many babies, while the middle class had a low birthrate leading the human race being dumbed down. In it there was a sitcom where the constantly used line “I’ll buy that for a quarter!” in the background throughout the book.

    I threw book away but now I wish I hadn’t seeing it had such an influence on movies. Not just RoboCop but I know it was behind the movie “Idiocracy”.

    The fact that this book was read by those in Hollywood and it’s basic idea of poor = stupid was a part of two movies is telling.

  3. I has been a fan of Paul Verhoeven from the start, when his first movies had their US premieres at the Seattle International film Festival. When it was announced he was coming to Hollywood to make action pictures, I was skeptical, but Robo Cop astonished me. Blade Runner, The Terminator, and Alien had upped the bar for science fiction action pictures, and Robo Cop blew them out of the water. Outside of a few documentaries, it was the scariest portrayal of a fascist police state that I had ever seen. At the same time, it was hilarious. Total recall and Starship Troopers were equally magnificient. I couldnt choose a favorite among them. Together they formed a trilogy that brought the fascist subtext of the US action movie to the fore. With its compositional similarities to Triumph of the Will,Starship Troopers was the most blatant, and Total Recall displayed empathy with the victims of totalitarian brainwash. Thank you, James, for another excellently thought out and written piece. I hope I never see the remake, but am afraid the day that I meet it face to face will surely come.

  4. Sorry to use your site for a mini-rant James, but I have been thinking about this re-make thing all day, and it is really beginning to rile me. Remakes of True Grit, Superman, and countless others, it is all such a waste. A waste of talent, effort, resources, money; and just plain lazy. There will never be any development in the film industry (at least the US film industry) as long as they are just happy to churn out inferior re-makes of older, better films. What’s next? A remake of Blade Runner? (Don’t you dare…)
    Just as well we have ‘World Cinema’, to show us how it should be done!

    Rant over now. I should have calmed down, and thought about sending something in as a post instead.

    Regards from England. Pete.

      • Good call from the Fallen Angel. I looked at the link, but I am old enough to realise it has been around a long time. I was just hoping for better, from the newer generations, I suppose.
        Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

        • Best we can hope for with most remakes or “reimaginings” or reboots is an entertaining popcorn flick. Occasionally, we’ll get a Batman Begins out of it to make it worthwhile. Besides, in my old age I’m happy these days to skip over films that aren’t worth the time investment. 🙂

          …though I now want to track down the original version of the Maltese Falcon, as well as the ’36 remake.

          Finally, and not to be a dick, but True Grit is a bad example of a “remake”, being a new interpretation of the book, directed by the Cohens, and not being a John Wayne vehicle. By that logic, Dredd (2012) would never have been made and we’d be stuck with Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995). That would be a tragedy far worse than some bad remakes we can easily skip over. 🙂

          • OK, consider my wrist slapped over ‘True Grit’, but I still didn’t like it. As for Dredd, I wouldn’t watch any version, but then I am an old fuddy-duddy!
            Best wishes, Pete.

  5. And interestingly enough, the new RoboCop looks like a guy in a mechanised suit (*coughcough*IRON MAN COPY*coughcough*) instead of the original’s more creepy machine with a slab of skin for a face. But like you said, the reboot seems to be aimed at the popcorn-chewing superhero fanboys instead of being any attempt at injecting new life into the old tale, so…
    And btw, thanks for reading my blog. 🙂

  6. I haven’t watched Robocop since I was about 14, and feel like I probably missed the whole point of it at the time. Having read your piece, and being a huge fan of Starship Troopers’ barbed yet shiny story telling, I think I’m going to have to give it another go.

  7. “RoboCop” introduced me to Paul Verhoeven, who soon became my favorite movie director. I have virtually all of his films, Dutch and American, and will defend every last one of them! “RoboCop” was a perfect blend of satire and action, and not one character is miscast. The direction is flawless, the story is riveting, and the music is expertly used to heighten the cinematic experience. In short, it is a masterpiece (at least to my mind). I greatly appreciated your review of this unforgettable film.

  8. ‘Robocop’ is an absolute classic and equally appealing to those who simply want a dimwitted action and for those who like to pontificate on speculative fiction.
    PS. How weird is it that ‘The Terminator’ music is the score to the ‘Robocop’ trailer!

  9. I will jump the gun, and decry the remake before I have seen it, as pointless, and just annoying. Though not quite as excited by Robocop as you and your correspondents, ( I was 35 when it came out, after all) I thought Weller did well with an essentially cartoon character, and I do miss Nancy Allen.
    Perhaps controversially, I do prefer Verhoeven’s original ‘Starship Troopers.’ I never found the Fascist theme disguised at all, and saw it as an ironic indictment of Imperialism, and far-right ideals, with an irresistibly relentless enemy, in the form of the ‘Arachnids’. (Standing in for the Red Army, perhaps?)
    After all, he did make ‘Black Book’, that likeable soap opera about WW2 in the Netherlands. (Clarice Van Houten is eminently watchable, let’s face it…)
    A great appreciation James, even if it does make me feel my age!
    Regards from England, as always, Pete.

  10. Great piece, James. I like Robocop a lot, too, and definitely rank it up there as one of the quintessential movies of the 1980s. (“I’ll buy that for a dollar” and “I like it!” are two of my favorite quotable quotes from the era!) It’s so interesting: Films such as Robocop and Die Hard definitely carried a bitter attitude toward the very media that served to hype them, yet their lampoons definitely had point and helped make them more than just ordinary action pictures. The addition of super-villainous bad guys, including the one played by Ronny Cox in Robocop, added to the allure. I’m not as keen on Starship Trooper–I felt the script was forced and the satire blunter–but I love the original Total Recall, which had a similar sensibility. Excellent writing, as usual.

  11. “no matter how good or bad the film turns out to be, it’ll just never be Robocop.” – you summed up perfectly how I feel about the remake! And I also agree with the deceptive nature of “Starship Troopers.” I would add Peter Weller’s extraordinary acting under such amount of prosthetics to the list of reasons for “Robocop”‘s lasting appeal. Within the character’s obvious limits (most of the face hidden), he conveyed so many emotions. He was the only Robocop I care for.

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