“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
Take one police officer in the wrong place at the wrong time. Add a host of state-of-the art cybernetic and computerized implants, all provided by a soulless, greedy corporation looking to “modernize” an overworked, undermanned police force while making a tidy profit for themselves as they design a “city of the future.” Give the resulting creation one gigantic mother-fucking hand cannon, and the keys to a police cruiser. What do you get?
Released on this date in 1987, RoboCop is filmmaker Paul Verheoven’s dark, violent, often satirical, occasionally funny and in far too many ways very prescient action-crime thriller doused with a liberal helping of science fiction.
The plot is pretty simple: Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is mortally wounded while attempting with his partner to apprehend a gang of nasty bad guys with absolutely no qualms about torturing and killing a cop just for something to do. Declared dead but also still the “property” of Omni Consumer Products, the private corporation that has taken over the Detroit Police Department, Murphy — what remains of him following the shootout with the bad guys — is used as the “organism” part of a “cybernetic organism” project dreamed up by opportunistic junior executive/first-class douche canoe Bob Morton (played by the late, great Miguel Ferrer). Morton’s dream project, “RoboCop,” is intended to give OCP a cheaper, more reliable alternative to the law enforcement droids championed by senior exec Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).
Murphy is to be the prototype. All memories of his past life are (supposedly) erased, and everything but his brain, face, heart, and other vital organs is replaced by cybernetic technology, turning him into a walking, talking armored tank with the ability to tie directly to any computer database and receive instructions the way you might program your own home computer. He’s also got a pistol the size of a damned baseball bat, that shoots like a Gatling gun and is stored inside his cybernetic leg. In short order, the new cyborg is given to the Detroit Police Department and he takes to the streets, and it doesn’t take RoboCop to strike fear into the hearts of evildoers everywhere and become the hero of a city beleaguered by crime. Everybody’s happy: citizens, the police force, and OCP.
Everything’s awesome until he runs into one of the bad guys who “killed” him, and his memories start to come back.
Then, shit gets real.
Thirty-five years after its initial release, RoboCop is still one of the absolute best science fiction films to come out of the 1980s. Though things like technology are of course dated by today’s standards, it’s the story — including peeks at the future of news and “infotainment” programming, the relentless quest for corporate profits at the expense of everything else including the people who provide those profits, the bitter view of the military industrial complex — that still holds up. In typical 1980s/1990s Verheoven style, the humor here is dark…I mean, dark, yo.
Peter Weller is perfect as Alex Murphy and his cybernetic alter ego, struggling to hang onto those few vestiges of humanity that haven’t (yet?) been stripped from him. Nancy Allen is criminally underused as Murphy’s partner, Anne Lewis, and Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer are ruthless as the OCP execs who want to cash in at any cost. But it’s Kurtwood Smith who steals every single damned scene he’s in, playing evil-as-fuck Clarence Boddicker with unrestrained relish. It’s Boddicker who leads the murder of Alex Murphy, including taking the kill shot, and once Murphy realizes who and what he is and how he got here, you just know these two are going to clash like Godzilla and King Kong. For my money, Smith’s portrayal cemented Boddicker as one of the all-time great screen villains.
The idea of marrying mechanical implants to a living being was already the stuff of SF film and literature well before RoboCop, of course. One of the more recent and popular manifestations of this trope had come along 15 or so years earlier, and also featured an unwitting test subject chosen by chance or fate to be “augmented” by cybernetic technology: Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man. Several themes hinted at or explored in RoboCop, particularly with respect to Murphy being a “tool of the state” and wondering if he can retain any of his humanity — if he is in fact more than the sum of his parts — are also found in early episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man as well as the novel on which that series is based, 1972’s Cyborg by Martin Caidin.
RoboCop was a critical and commercial success, spawning two feature film sequels as well as a TV series, a TV mini-series, and (incredibly enough) not one but two animated series…precisely none of which are anywhere as good as the first movie. It’s also been successful in the merchandising arena, including toys and videogames as well as a run of comic stories from two different publishers. As I write this, a new videogame, RoboCop: Rogue City is in development with a scheduled release of June 2023 and featuring the Peter Weller’s likeness and voice. Click that link to check out a trailer. Elsewhere, rumors continue to fly about RoboCop Returns, a supposed sequel to the original film which would ignore the events of previous sequels and television series. Whether Weller returns to the role is undetermined, at least for the moment.
2014 brought with it an inevitable remake, which isn’t quite as bad as some people would have you believe while still coming nowhere close to holding a candle to the original. I recommend watching it at least once so you can see what they were trying to do, and how they brought some interesting twists while still (at times, anyway) somehow managing to completely miss what makes the original the enduring classic it is.
But, then you should definitely go back and watch this one, because Hell. Yeah. As Clarence Boddicker might say, this flick is “state of the art bang-bang.”