Tasha: Part of what sets RoboCop apart from other 1980s action movies is its puckish humor, which comes across more via style and storytelling choices than actual gags. In outline, this is a standard revenge thriller—criminals and a corporation take everything from a man, who strikes back—and those films tend to be a dour, glowering breed. But while director Paul Verhoeven and writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner don’t compromise their story’s grimness, they liven it up with ridiculous fake commercials and artificially upbeat news broadcasts. And they find innovative ways to get across crucial information without exposition, like the way the characters and audience learn a wounded cop has died when his sergeant wordlessly slides his nameplate off his locker. (Then Verhoeven cuts to the similar nameplate on the locker of protagonist Alex Murphy, pointedly suggesting Murphy’s incipient fate. Not subtle, but telling.) Another example: the ridiculous cowboy-cop methods Murphy (Peter Weller) and his partner, Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen), use when first going after Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his crew. No one has to explain that we’re in a lawless, desperate future: Just watching a car chase that starts with Murphy leaning out of his police cruiser to empty his pistols into a van, without warning or dialogue, makes it clear that this isn’t our world.
But my favorite storytelling sequence in the film is the montage of Officer Murphy becoming RoboCop, as seen from his intermittently activated POV. That sequence communicates so much: The months going by, Murphy’s helplessness and lack of functionality, the tech team’s indifference to him as a person, their delight and nervousness over him as a project. The moment where project leader Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer, such a perfect sub-villain) casually tells them to further mutilate poor Murphy (“Lose the other arm.”) is brilliantly complicated as a way of communicating his callousness and ambition, while openly equating him with the giggling criminals who blew off Murphy’s first missing arm. RoboCop is visceral revenge-film fun, but its storytelling choices are also tremendously clever.
Scott: Part of the stylistic genius of RoboCop is how the film’s world is abstracted like a comic book, yet primed for maximum visceral impact. Today, starting a movie with the title alone and waiting until the end for a full credit roll has become commonplace, but in 1987, it felt bold of Verhoeven to put the title up there and immediately get into the action. The culture’s venality is comprehensive: In the callousness of corporate board meetings, in the inanity of local TV news broadcasts and shows, in a dog-eat-dog crime syndicate where wounded henchmen are used as projectiles, in a police station where justice is overseen and second-guessed by suit-wearing goons from the private sector. Verhoeven brings real sharpness to RoboCop, extending the cutting-edge action of James Cameron’s The Terminator into the realm of politics, and turning the 1980s action movie on its head. Just the TV segments alone—so crucial to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, also scripted by Neumeier—bring a satirical context to RoboCop’s mayhem that’s entirely absent from other action movies, which are more interested in crime and punishment than in savaging the culture that not only nourishes it, but makes a business out of it.
Tasha: Speaking of comic-book abstraction, I’m convinced that part of RoboCop’s style was a conscious attempt to make the story more like the comic books of the time, with short, punchy dialogue written for quotability, and delivered as though each line happens in isolation. The characters rarely seem to be talking directly to each other: The lines are delivered emphatically and separately, as if each one takes place in its own panel. The separation helps punch up quotable lines like “Bitches leave!” and “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!” and “Old Detroit has a cancer. That cancer is crime.” One notable exception: When head villain Dick Jones, played by Ronny Cox, confronts Bob in the executive washroom, he delivers an actual speech instead of a one-liner, in a smooth, intimate cadence that’s unusual for the rest of the film. Part of what makes that moment so squirmy, besides the hair-touching, is that sense of unwarranted, unnatural intimacy in a movie that’s more about individual comics panels than film scenes.
Keith: Yet for all the satirical, punchy, comic elements, I appreciate that Verhoeven keeps the violence real and ugly. That late scene where one of the baddies gets doused in toxic waste aside, RoboCop is believably visceral. Murphy’s death at the hands of the thugs, the poor Omnicorp schlub’s encounter with ED-209, and other moments are scary, bloody visions that keep the action from feeling jokey. The media within RoboCop tries to put a smiley face on the turmoil, but the movie never does.
Matt: RoboCop often gets lumped in with The Terminator, another franchise-launching 1980s science-fiction action movie about a futuristic cyborg. They’re very different films, but the one thing they do share stylistically are those POV shots from the perspective of their respective robots. The Terminator’s are tinted red, while RoboCop’s feature green lettering and grids, but they both serve the same function: giving the audience the chance to look at reality as an artificial intelligence might. I always love these shots, especially when they include long scrolls of blocky text that pass too quick for the human eye to read, showing just how inferior our minds are to those of our computerized counterparts. These images are particularly effective in RoboCop because the title character begins the movie as a flesh-and-blood man who becomes a robot(-cop). The POV shots let us experience a small sample of that transformation for ourselves.
Violence and dark comedy
Nathan: Since we all watched Los Angeles Plays Itself, I’ve seen a lot of films through that film’s filter, particularly Dan Aykroyd’s adaptation of Dragnet, and RoboCop, which almost plays like a parody of Dragnet taken to its satirical ends. RoboCop’s hero doesn’t just act robotic and stiff: He literally is a robot, and before he reconnects with his humanity, he behaves like a machine built to serve a specific commercial function. RoboCop gets a lot of big, dark laughs out of the disconnect between the icy formality of RoboCop’s simple directives and the brutality of his actions. The film’s violence is often exaggerated for maximum impact, and played for laughs of squirming discomfort, like the scared-shitless executive who’s obliterated due to a glitch in his company’s new product. RoboCop isn’t a subtle movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it does feature some wonderfully subtle gags, like the hulking death-robot stumbling to its doom, because while it can deliver death in great volume, it’s incapable of negotiating stairs.
RoboCop is gloriously, deliberately excessive, but there’s a moral component to the excess. Verhoeven wants us to laugh grimly at the hyperbolic violence, but there’s something incriminating about that laughter as well. As in his subsequent satires, Verhoeven makes viewers complicit in the hyperbolic action, so the laughter has a tricky aftertaste, The film may be stylized like a comic book, but morally, it’s anything but simple.
Tasha: I’m often dubious about the lurid violence in Verhoeven films. In interviews, he constantly returns to variations on the old “I’m just reflecting society” / “I’m just portraying reality” chestnut, but frankly, that’s hypocritical baloney. There’s nothing realistic about the cartoon violence in RoboCop, which features a man being shot such that his arm leaps away from his shoulder, with a velocity that suggests an offscreen stagehand tugging overenthusiastically at a prosthetic. It also features a man driving into a vat of toxic waste, emerging as a hideously melting mutant, then getting hit by a car in a way that turns his body into goo and makes his head pop off. There are some giggles in all this, but they’re the mildly discomfited, disbelieving giggles of “This is so over-the-top.” What bothers me about Verhoeven and violence, though, is that he talks a lot about morality and responsibility and exploring the issues violence raises, but in the end, he always seems to be enjoying his gore too much. The way the camera lingers on Murphy screaming, and being shot, and screaming, and being shot, and exploding in gouts of blood, and screaming some more, and being shot some more… that isn’t sober, responsible exploration of the themes and consequences of violence, that’s death-porn.
Scott: A couple of things on Verhoeven’s quote, Tasha: 1. What a director says about his own work isn’t terribly relevant to my mind—that’s the fallacy of intent, and his actual work should not be considered “hypocritical" because of something he said. 2. Even if you look at what Verhoeven is saying about violence “reflecting society,” should we really take that so literally? When a heavy comes crawling out of toxic sludge like Lloyd Kaufman’s famous avenger, is it really fair to knock Verhoeven for not being more realistic with his violence? As it happens, RoboCop does reflect the world in which we live—or the world that he perceives, anyway—but more in the sense of violence as a threat that not only comes from the criminal kind, but from the militaristic institutions that are supposed to keep us safe. To me, RoboCop is extravagantly violent in the comic-book mode, and Verhoeven often employs that excess to comic effect, like when ED-209’s programming glitch leads to a bloodbath of hilariously absurd proportions. That’s the sort of strategy the film employs throughout, and I think Verhoeven’s instincts with regard to violence and comedy are dead on.
Tasha: We’ve had the “Extratextuals: Do they matter?” conversation many times before, most recently on the Dissolve podcast, and we probably won’t ever fully come to terms on that question. But I’m getting at something different here. To clarify, I’m not suggesting we should analyze the film’s violence by way of Verhoeven’s quotes about it, I’m suggesting analyzing Verhoeven by what he says about the film’s violence. Frankly, I like the movie’s go-for-broke, over-the-top aesthetic more than I like Verhoeven’s wishy-washy responsibility-dodging. I’m uncomfortable with the film’s gleeful lingering over Murphy’s protracted shooting death, and I feel that overall, Verhoeven loves his squibs and arterial sprays too much. But I’m more pointing out that I don’t buy what Verhoeven’s peddling offscreen, because the violence in RoboCop is so happily, goofily absurd. I laughed at the monumental overkill of ED-209 blowing Kinney away, and at Emil exploding into a shower of mutant goo with a head bouncing away over the car that kills him. There’s nothing inherently wrong with comedic cartoon violence. I just think it’s silly to pretend that cartoon violence is somehow teaching us something about society and ourselves.
Matt: I just want to disagree with one point. There are not “some” giggles in the sight of a toxic-waste-spawned mutant exploding into goo upon impact with a speeding car. There are, in fact, many giggles. Many, many giggles.
Keith: Paul Verhoeven was a director with something to prove when he took on RoboCop. He was successful in his native Netherlands, making a series of acclaimed films with Rutger Hauer, and closing out his time there with the nastily entertaining thriller The Fourth Man. But his first film for a Hollywood studio, the unpleasant medieval action film Flesh + Blood, barely got a release. With RoboCop, he had to make something that satisfied all the requirements of a summer action movie while still making the sort of artistically fulfilling, boundary-pushing film he liked to make. It still looks like mission accomplished to me, and the best of Verhoeven’s American films. Though I find a lot to like about Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and especially Starship Troopers (with some qualifications on all of the others), RoboCop is so brilliant as both an action film and a subversive satire that it’s proven tough to top. He got the balance right with this one.
Tasha: Verhoeven has openly called RoboCop “the American Jesus,” which makes symbolic sense: He’s murdered, he spends some time being dead while his friends try to carry on without him, he’s resurrected, and from there, his legend just keeps growing. Also, the movie’s climactic battle literally features him walking around on water. (Granted, it’s extremely shallow water, and the villain is walking on it too, but that’s what happens when symbolism gets literalized.) This isn’t a one-off case of Verhoeven borrowing Christian imagery for impact, either. Plenty of people have noted the Christ imagery in his work—Johnny Rico being scourged in Starship Troopers leaps to mind, or the Virgin Mary showing up with a warning in The Fourth Man—though I’m not sold on some of the arguments, like Showgirls essentially being an extended riff on Mary Magdalene, and on not judging whores. Regardless, RoboCop is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Verhoeven’s fascination with Christianity and religious history: He’s authored a respected scholarly book about Jesus, he’s spent years trying to fund his own film about Jesus, he’s a member of the Jesus Seminar, and he often talks about his interest in religion and religious interpretation. It makes me want to revisit his films solely with that in mind as one of the Rosetta stones for understanding his work.
Matt: If you’re feeling auteur-y, there are a lot of similarities between RoboCop and Total Recall. Both are dystopian science-fiction, and both focus on heroes who are taken from their families. In each, the protagonists’ memories are erased and their personalities rewritten, and both must eventually go on the run from corrupt government forces who abuse their power and blur the lines between civil servants and corporate executives. Both also feature excellent bad-guy performances from Ronny Cox, and both eventually got remade. We already know how the Total Recall remake worked out (badly and blandly). I’m hopeful, though not hugely optimistic, that things will turn out better for RoboCop.
Scott: I’m always fascinated by filmmakers from other countries who make movies in (or about) America, and Verhoeven is among the most intriguing, because he’s been able to square a strong point of view about the country with the violence and spectacle expected of Hollywood entertainment. The word “subversive” comes to mind in relation to movies like Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls, which all double as wicked pieces of social commentary, and the same holds true of RoboCop, with its assessment of capitalist greed and exploitation, and the military-industrial complex that sustains a cozy, profitable relationship between the government and Big Business, with violence as a natural consequence. Verhoeven has also been on the cutting-edge of special effects, too: The years haven’t dated RoboCop or the Starship Troopers beasties, and the decision to let Phil Tippett loose on the stop-motion ED-209 remains an evergreen delight.
1980s crime and punishment
Matt: By sheer coincidence, I happened to rewatch RoboCop just days after I rewatched another iconic 1980s cop movie, Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon. Both movies—which were were released four months apart in the spring and summer of 1987—contain similarly paranoid visions of crime and the future of law enforcement. In each case, a new breed of criminals—vicious, relentless, with no respect for anyone or anything—seems to demand a new breed of cop. In each movie, voices that want to do things by the book are ultimately silenced, and police officers who can take the law into their own hands are celebrated.
Lethal Weapon’s Roger Murtaugh is initially unnerved by the reckless war on crime launched by his new partner, Martin Riggs. But after drug dealers kidnap Murtaugh’s daughter, he changes his tune; at the end of the film, he guns down the kingpin while muttering, “No way you live.” Meanwhile, in RoboCop, straitlaced Alex Murphy is transformed by into a one-man robot war on crime. His programming instructs him to protect the innocent and uphold the law, but he’s also capable of playing judge, jury, and executioner when necessary. In the film’s final scene, he doesn’t arrest OCP mastermind Dick Jones for murder; he shoots him about a dozen times and sends him falling to his death out of a skyscraper window.
In these and other 1980s cop movies (Cobra, Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard), the rule-breakers are the explicit heroes and saviors of society. Even if their Miranda-abusing actions are slightly regrettable, they’re also seen as entirely necessary, and the message seems to be that if criminals aren’t going to follow the rules, the cops shouldn’t have to, either. We’ve already talked about Paul Verhoeven and RoboCop’s dark sense of humor, so I’m curious whether you guys see the movie’s depiction of RoboCop as yet another remorseless killing machine as part of its satire or not. Is Verhoeven sending up the idea of the 1980s supercop, or reveling in it?
Keith: I think it’s rather brilliantly both. The film portrays the bad guys and their state-of-the-art bang-bang as a force no conventional police department could stand up against. But it also suggests that the thinning of police resources and the privatization of law enforcement has allowed crime to get out of hand. (Note that the pre-robo Murphy and his partner engage in their cowboy tactics because they know backup will be a long time coming, and they don’t want the villains to get away.) RoboCop is a solution to a problem that should never have been created in the first place. And at least he’s better than ED-209. There’s humanity in him somewhere, and in some ways, the film’s real triumph isn’t when he blows the bad guy away, but when he gets the Old Man to ask him his name.
Scott: It does more than suggest “the privatization of law enforcement that’s allowed crime to get out of hand”—it establishes a direct collaboration between OCP (which needs a crime-ridden city for ED-209 to clean up in order to further its gentrification agenda) and Clarence Boddicker, the crime boss who benefits financially from all this lawlessness and carnage. But back to Matt’s main point, I think part of the genius of RoboCop is how it satisfies the requirements of popular action movies like The Terminator or Lethal Weapon while expanding it into the realms of science fiction, dark comedy, comic books, and social satire. It’s a movie entirely of its time—the criminal “scum” could be out of a Death Wish sequel if they weren’t so colorfully cast—but also bold and forward-thinking.
Tasha: One thing we haven’t discussed at all about RoboCop: Nancy Allen’s lady-cop character, Officer Anne Lewis. She’s the romantic interest for a man who isn’t capable of romance anymore. Her face is soft and feminine, but her haircut is butch—or at least as butch as 1980s movie-punks got. (Verhoeven was supposedly trying to desexualize her with that hair, but she looks like a perky, flirty new-wave rocker, not like one of the guys.) She’s introduced casually beating down a perp who’s already taken out several burly policemen, so she’s obviously meant as a bad-ass, but she’s also constantly blowing cutesy pink bubbles with her ever-present gum. (She apparently came to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and she isn’t running short on either. Actually, that iconic line is a Rowdy Roddy Piper ad-lib from They Live, which came out one year after RoboCop. Any chance that Officer Lewis in RoboCop inspired it?) In short, she’s meant to be a woman of contradictions. Mostly, though, I think she just comes across as kind of blandly adorable.
Keith: I like that character a lot, and it’s a shame the sequels didn’t do more with her or her relationship with Murphy, which always seemed more chummy than potentially romantic to me. (And no, I don’t really want to ponder what RoboCop has going on below the belt.) One of the sequels’ many mistakes is the way Lewis doesn’t get much to do. And now that I’ve opened that can of worms, does anyone have any thoughts on the sequels? Both are scripted by Frank Miller, who seemed like the right man for the job. His Dark Knight Returns and the first RoboCop share the same satirical spirit, particularly in their reliance on newsbreaks to offer glimpses of a world gone mad. But—and I’ll admit my memory is hazy—I remember RoboCop 2 having some good ideas, but being kind of repellent, and RoboCop 3 feeling like a TV movie. (Readers, am I remembering correctly?)
Scott: Speaking of gender issues, RoboCop and Starship Troopers both take place in largely dystopian futures, but Verhoeven (and/or Neumeier) seems convinced that men and women in uniformed combat—whether they’re fighting perps or space bugs—will be on equal footing. That doesn’t eliminate all distinctions between the sexes, since Officer Lewis does feel something for Murphy, and the young officers in Starship Troopers are embroiled in a love triangle. However, the two films share one notable thing in common: co-ed showers. Presented without comment. So in a fascist future, there’s that little bit of sudsy progression.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote on how RoboCop’s hero reflects its Detroit setting. Tomorrow, Scott Tobias talks to the film’s writer, Ed Neumeier, about RoboCop’s origins and prescient themes.