Sunday, April 03, 2005

#23: Robocop

Robocop, 1987, directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier.

Movies set in the future are always in danger of becoming irrelevant, warning the audience against things that will not come to pass. I suspect that Alphaville will be that way (I'll be seeing that a few movies from now). Robocop was written 20 years ago, but it still seems fresh and relevant. In part, this is because the writers got lucky; they picked the right social trends to extrapolate from. They missed some things that they would have had a field day with if they'd been able to predict them: reality television, the internet, SUVs. And the last time I checked, there weren't any cyborgs running around. But they got a lot of things right: privatizing public services, corporate crime, terrible newscasts. And if the 6000 SUX (Detroit's hottest car in the movie) doesn't look anything like what people drive today, it gets about the same gas mileage as a hummer.

Robocop, for those of you who've been living in a cave, is about Alex J. Murphy, a Detroit police officer, who is killed in the line of duty and turned into the organic basis for a robotic police officer (or "robocop," if you will). He's the prototype for a line of cyborgs that are being developed by OCP, Omni Consumer Products, a megacorporation that has contracted with Detroit to run the police department. Robocop laughs, he learns, he kills bad guys.

Part of the secret of Robocop's world seeming so recognizeable is that the filmmakers consciously didn't change much. On the commentary track, Jon Davison (the executive producer) points out "the 7-11 of tomorrow. Which looks a lot like the 7-11 of today." There's only one really futuristic feature in the movie, and that's the robots; everything else is just slightly changed from America in the mid-eighties. This is something my writing partner and I have been talking about recently with regards to spec scripts; you're allowed to change one thing in the world of your movie, but you have to pretty much stick with the world we're living in for the rest of it. Robocop was actually supposed to seem more futuristic than it does. The film's police cars were supposed to be completely different, but when the first prototype of the police car of tomorrow showed up on set, the crew burst out laughing, so Davison just rented a bunch of Ford Tauruses instead. They look great.

Peter Weller plays Robocop, and he does a good job, though it's not what you'd call an actor's dream role. The really fun acting in this movie is done by the bad guys. Kurtwood Smith (the dad from "That 70s Show") is in top form as Clarence Boddicker, the leader of a crime syndicate. He has these glasses that were put on at director Paul Verhoeven's insistance to suggest Heinrich Himmler (Verhoeven grew up in occupied Holland and has some issues with Nazis). The glasses make the character, though; I think if I'm ever costuming a villain I'm going to have to remember that. The rest of the gang is the best cast you could hope for: Paul McCrane and Ray Wise, among others. A bunch of really interesting looking people, rather than just generically bad bad guys. Miguel Ferrer's in it too, as a corporate striver who's behind the Robocop project before his unfortunate demise.

Verhoeven's direction is solid; this is a movie that really gained a lot when going from script to screen. I get the impression Verhoeven had a lot to do with the final look of the movie, and good for him; he did it right.

The real triumph in this movie, though, is the production design, the art design, and the special effects. This is the first effects-heavy movie in the Criterion Collection, and the DVD features a lot of information on how the effects were done, from the life-sized puppet of Peter Weller that gets shot in the head to the rear-projection stop-motion that brings ED-209 to life. ED-209 is one of the best designed props in film history. He's OCP's original design for a robotic police officer:

ED was designed by Phil Tippet (who also designed the AT-AT and AT-ST walkers in The Empire Strikes Back). He's intended as a parody of poor American design choices; check out the quad hydraulic rams on each leg. According to Tippet, a robot like that would need one per leg at the most; he's been built Detroit-style, with big, stupid redundancies. His "mouth" is a gigantic radiator/cooling unit, perfect for people to aim at. He can't go up or down stairs. If you knock him over on his back, he can't get up again. He's very, very expensive. And the United States military has put in an order for hundreds of him. ED also functions as a pretty good metaphor for the sort of overkill the U.S. military employed during Vietnam (ED is introduced by a scientist named MacNamara). In the (really great) boardroom scene where ED first shows up, it becomes immediately apparent that he doesn't have much sense of restraint. And neither does Verhoeven; there's a lot of blood in that scene (and if you haven't seen the pre-MPAA version that's on the Criterion disk, you don't have any idea just how much blood there really is). Anyway, ED-209 is my favorite thing about Robocop.


  • Paul Verhoeven has a doctorate in mathematics. Really!

  • The writers are not big fans of capitalism. Sample dialogue: "Why do we have to make more money by selling coke? Can't we just steal it?" "There's no better way to steal money than free enterprise."

  • The most jarring anachronism for me was a television set in Murphy's house (in a flashback). It had dials on it, one for VHF and one for UHF. Not futuristic.

  • Nancy Allen arrived on set while Paul Verhoeven was shooting scenes from "It's Not My Problem," the sitcom that's on televisons throughout the movie (it's the one with the catch phrase "I'd buy that for a dollar!"). If you haven't seen the movie, the sitcom is deliberately terrible and unfunny. As a result, Allen thought she'd made a terrible mistake in agreeing to appear in the movie; she didn't realize those scenes were supposed to be bad and badly directed.

  • And speaking of agreeing to appear: this movie was sent to all kinds of American directors, then all kinds of European directors. They all passed, including Verhoeven, but after a year or so Verhoeven agreed to do it. Every a-list actor at the time also passed on it before they settled on Weller, so both the director and the star were last-ditch choices.

  • And for what it's worth, I would have passed on it too. Most of the things that make this movie great were added while it was being made, not in the script as written. And that's not just production design, it's plot points, too. That scene where Ronny Cox gets fired so Robocop can kill him? That was Jon Davison's idea.


Niteowl said...

I really enjoyed Robocop, but had no idea it was a Criterion movie. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

That tidbit about ED-209 being a satire on American design was incredibly interesting.

And might I add as a more or less film-illiterate, one of the things that made Robocop really work was that it was dirty. Dirty and beat-up and really lived in. I call it the Mos Eisley effect.

Great blog, particularly when you tackle the movies that seem to have made it on Criterion's list accidentally.

Matthew Dessem said...


Thanks, glad you're enjoying the blog. I sometimes think production design people like Phil Tippet put more thought into small details of their movies than the directors or actors do. ED-209's unusually well thought out, though. And yes, re: the dirtiness of the future making it seem realer in both the original Star Wars movies and Robocop. It's interesting to compare it to the production design on the later Star Wars movies and, say, Starship Troopers. Not that I don't love Starship Troopers...

Anonymous said...

I love Ferrer's line in the elevator straight after the boardroom scene: "Life in the big city."

Matthew Dessem said...

Jimmy Doyle,

Ferrer can deliver any line well, but that's a great one. I can't wait to see Traffic again, I loved him in that.

John B. said...

A pretty good litmus test of a film’s worth is how it holds up under repeat viewings. And so my initial reaction to Robocop’s inclusion in this catalog (“Robocop?. . .Really?”) ultimately gave way to a concession that the good folks at Criterion may actually know what they’re doing. This movie has a lot on its mind, for the most part explores its themes effectively, and much of it remains timely. Who hasn’t fantasized about shooting up a corporate boardroom these days? But Robocop hasn’t aged quite as well as you claim, and for the most part the acting is mediocre (although in a film where everything is over the top, broad acting isn’t necessarily out of place).

There is plenty, however, that I did like: Kurtwood Smith, the matter-of-fact approach to gender equality, the subjective camera angle in the sequence chronicling Robocop’s creation, the mediabreaks. And while the relationship between street and white-collar crime is developed in numerous ways throughout the film, I particularly liked how this connection was drawn in the strikingly similar scenes depicting Murphy’s grisly death at the hands of a gang of thugs and the ambush of Robocop by a corporate police force.

Violence isn’t a big draw for me when it comes to movies. I don’t shy away from it, but it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of entertainment. I approach the depiction of graphic violence with a bit of a bias against it. That being said, I think that the excuse that Verhoeven gives for the barbarity of Murphy’s murder (that this serves to make an undistinguished character memorable) is particularly lame. Possible solutions that never seem to occur to Verhoeven include writing better early scenes for Murphy or casting a more charismatic actor in the role.

In fact, I haven’t found Paul Verhoeven or John Woo to be particularly insightful or honest about their preoccupations with violence. Clearly cinema is a way for them to exorcise personal demons (Paul Verhoeven grew up in The Hague during the Nazi occupation; the Woos were a Christian family that fled to Hong Kong to avoid persecution in China), but instead we hear on the commentary tracks Verhoeven speaking of character development and Woo extolling his pacifism.

BTW: Another excellent use of glasses to define character: HRG in Heroes.

Timothy Liebe said...

Yep - yet another late-in-the-day comment!

ROBOCOP's inclusion in The Criterion Collection makes perfect sense, as I suspect it (along with THE ROAD WARRIOR, THE KILLER and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) will stand the test of time far better than some middle-brow Oscar bait like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE or THE KING'S SPEECH will.

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