Robocop Retrospective

get it b/c he s both man AND machine , a manmachine get itg eT IT

If science-fiction movies have been having a rough summer, then the new Robocop is looking like the caboose on the same doomed track. For whatever reason only deduced on the higher levels of corporate financing, the rehash radiation has seeped into the television graves of Paul Verhoeven reruns and lurched them zombie-like back onto the stage in some grotesque vaudeville display. The first such undead offering was Total Recall, a film so deadpan and generic it could host its own late night tv show, and soon we’ll have another Starship Troopers to mirror our modern times all over our face. I’d swear there’s some grand conspiracy, fueled by a distant and shadowy cinema oligarch, determined to wipe out the Verhoeven name from history and satellite programming. The new Robocop looks like it has the same techno-cgi gloss that befell its Colin Farell-led cousin, albeit copy and pasted inbetween more modern urban environments. It’s still early to say if scenes like “lets go with black” are played straight or part of the deeper lampoon (the militarized step-out shot gives high hopes), or whether the film can overcome a simple love-beats-all wrap up it looks like it’s gunning for. What is apparent is all the producer quotas they apparently had to fill. Modern Hot Topic Tech? Check. Dark Knight Enough? Check. Catchphrase? Definitely. Something For The Parents? You betcha (hahaha).

In the interest of actual content, this would be a good time to check out why the original Robocop was such a feat for its time. Although I’ve seen it many times, I can’t call myself an uber-fan like the guy who made a rap out of the whole thing. But two posts from a certain cinema message board by Robocop nerds Geekboy and Jay Dub highlight different noteworthy bits and make you appreciate some of the detail better than I could. These were originally posted about a year ago and recreated here in full. They’re a long read but definitely worth it.

Geekboy:

Part Man. Part Machine. All Jesus.

Robocop, on its surface, is a simple science fiction tale that’s been told in different, many different variations: A young, idealistic cop is gunned down in his prime and then brought back as an unfeeling cyborg with no memory of who he was. The story, in lesser incarnations, would be nothing more than an exploration of the strength of the human spirit. There’d be a scene where someone said something like, “Remember who you aaaare,” with lots of soft focus and an orchestra of strings making you feel all gushy inside.

Thank God that isn’t the screenplay Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner shopped around to everyone in Hollywood (and overseas) before Paul Verhoeven’s wife finally pulled the script out of the trash and convinced him to give it a second look.

Instead, we were given the cinematic gift of a biting send-up of everything that can be loved and hated about 1980’s culture. There are indictments on greed, corporations run amok, economic disparity between the ultra-rich and the unemployed, soon to be displaced poor, and (ironically enough in a movie that had so much blood and gunfire that it was rated X the first 11 times it was turned in to the ratings board, despite only having about five seconds of female nudity total) the public’s desensitization to violence. The police are threatening to strike, pushed into a corner by the mega-corporation that runs them (and boasts about how they find profit in ventures that are usually seen as non-profit). Ultra-rich and masculine corporate sharks fondle each other suggestively in the bathroom. A short-haired, desexualized woman is the most proficient hand to hand fighter in the movie. Other movies might have shown the 1980’s for what we thought they could have been, but no other movie throws such a perfectly skewed mirror to what they actually were. Ultra-violence and mayhem reign in a world of money and excess gone wild. Cocaine swirls like the cigarette smoke in a noir film and women aren’t welcome. “Bitches leave,” indeed.

The film opens with an introduction of Murphy and the crime ridden city he lives in (including a stock helicopter shot that is actually the only shot of Detroit in the entire movie – it was filmed in Dallas).

“Hi. My shirt could only have existed in 1987.”

This is a near future that uncannily predicts the present of the real Detroit, as a plan is in place to build “Delta City” over the dried up carcass of what they all call “Old Detroit.” We’re introduced to this world through fake newscasts and commercials co-starring real life schlock newscaster, Mary Hart. The commercials are exquisite send-ups, advertising artificial hearts, family board games based around mutually assured nuclear destruction, and cars that use “8.2 Miles Per Gallon!!” as a selling point.

Peter Weller as Murphy is introduced to us and then very quickly he and his partner are thrown out on the streets amid a group of cops threatening to strike and lamenting how terribly their privately run police department is being handled. The death of a fellow officer hurts the cops huddled around his locker, being emptied by a Rick Moranis lookalike, but it’s an everyday, pedestrian hurt. In real life, every time a cop is killed, their funeral ends up on the news. Here in Old Detroit? “We lost five guys last week!”

Murphy’s partner Lewis, played by the usually pixie-ish Nancy Allen, is hard as nails and probably more man than anyone else we see in the film. She needs no one, never asks anyone for anything, and her only moment of weakness comes from, of all things, having a very male reaction to seeing the naughty bits of a member of the opposite sex. She’s undone in a way that typically only a man could be. Her normally curly hair is cut so short you could easily mistake her for a man at first. She’s hardly a feminist icon and I’m not saying the movie is a bastion of strong female role models, but in a decade where her character would usually have been played by someone who still sported stretch marks from the boob job her advance paid for (that she would just have to show off in the film), Murphy is refreshingly asexual. With a few tweaks, her part could have been male honestly. As a stupid teenager I wondered why the only girl we got to spend time with wasn’t prettier and didn’t show us her tits, but as a semi-feminist adult I love it and its one of the reasons the movie has managed to be so rewatchable for me.

The next scene is our first real exposure to the fat cats who run Old Detroit and its police department: Omni Consumer Products (OCP). The very name elicits thoughts of abbreviated giants like GE and AT&T, and just like so many of those companies, its name tells us nothing about what they do. We’re quickly introduced to the idea of this company who runs the police, experiments in cybernetics, builds insane robots, constructs cities from scratch, and dabbles in defense contracts. I still haven’t quite wrapped my brain around a company that does all of these things from a single board room, but this is the kind of thing you can totally buy in this film. We’re introduced to Dick Jones (played by Ronny Cox in a role some said reinvigorated his career) as the icy, confident and powerful executive waiting for his chance to take over the company, Bob Morton (played incredibly by Miguel Ferrer, who practically sweats cocaine), the rising young hot shot with no respect for “the way things are done,” and The Old Man (who is oddly unnamed on imdb) who runs the joint, played in an oddly grandfatherly way by Daniel O’Herlihy. The scene includes some of the last great work of stop motion puppetry and more squibs than your average film studio could eat up in a decade. Here’s a shot of the beautiful ED-209 (based on the Bell UH-1H Huey in a direct attempt to invoke imagery based on the Vietnam War) and a youtube link to the scene that made parents the whole world over realize they’d rented the wrong movie for their kids.

Will someone get a paramedic!?

The last of the main characters to be introduced are the group of thugs that Murphy and Lewis are about to hunt down. I could write a symphony about these guys. Okay, sure Token Asian Dude (who thankfully never does any kung fu) and Leon don’t have a ton of personality and the Token Black Guy is mostly just annoying (but memorably and hilariously so), but Paul McCrane and Kurtwood Smith turn in roles I would go so far as to call “iconic” as Emil Antonowsky and Clarence Boddicker. Emil is fairly dumb, but is possibly the best henchman on film and holy God does Boddicker fly off the screen. Smith has always been a fine actor, but nowhere is he louder and scarier than here, playing the perfect 1980’s psychopathic villain. He’s smart (but not too smart), he’s confident, he screams, he kicks his costars, he chews gum like it’s the scenery, and delivers near perfect readings seemingly designed to steal the movie from any and everyone who dares to be in a scene with him. I’m trying not to overdo the OP for this, but it’s really hard not to just go on and on about these guys (Smith in particular).

Now that I’ve established the characters and talked a bit about their performances (other than Weller in The Suit, which I’ll come back to), I’ll try to wrap things up as quickly as I can so we can get on to the discussion. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little about the Robocop Jesus Analogy. Verhoeven talks a lot about the Jesus imagery in the film, and this is where it begins. Like Christ’s hand getting nailed to the cross and made useless, Murphy loses his entirely.

Ironically, the only movie I can think of where the protagonist is treated so poorly (Murphy has his hand, then his arm blown off before taking at least two dozen rounds as his tormentors laugh and cackle) before they finally, mercifully die is Passion of the Christ. No matter how many times I watch Robocop, I am always shocked at Murphy’s death scene. It’s bloody, sure, but it’s just so damn cruel. This is a man who we’ve heard talk about his son. He’s a good cop on a force that’s visibly corrupt and falling apart. He’s done nothing to deserve this punishment. Hell, the only reason he’s working on this tough beat is because OCP has moved officers around to try and create a “volunteer” for the Robocop program.

A quick word about the montage as Murphy dies and is then resurrected in pieces:  I think the matter-of-factness in this scene is absolutely brilliant. The doctor trying to save his life is almost bored. There’s no screaming, no excitement, just resigned frustration. This isn’t the first patient this doctor (who probably isn’t even an actor, which I think works perfectly because as a guy who dabbles in his free time I don’t think I could have resisted hamming it up at least a little – I can’t imagine an actor who wouldn’t) has lost. It probably isn’t the first cop he’s lost. It might not even be the first one today or this week. In a movie so full of excess, this entire segment of the film shows such wonderful restraint. Well, until Bob Morton shows up anyway.

Okay. Two quick points, I’ll loop back around the Jesus Analogy, and then we’ll tl;dr out of here.

The suit. My God, the suit. Just look at this thing.

A masterpiece of practical effects, the suit took 10 hours to get into the first day time. Weller has claimed he lost something like 5 pounds a day in water weight and he had an assistant whose only job was keeping him hydrated and running a fan on him every moment he could. Between takes they would run an air conditioner and put tubing into the cracks in the suit to run cool air in to help him out.

Weller spent weeks working with a mime body movement coach coming up with the way that he would move when he was in the suit, but the first time he put it on he realized none of it would work. The original plan was apparently that he would move in a snakelike manner; his strange patterns making him harder to predict. Well, when he found out that he couldn’t even get in and out of a car while suited up that was right out.  Filming was stopped for days so that he could figure out how he was going to physically play the role. And what a performance it was. I read somewhere that Weller doesn’t like to talk about Robocop nowadays, but this is one of those times when someone who was far too good to be in this kind of movie threw himself into it heart and soul. Like David Prowse in the Darth Vader costume, Weller created a real character almost entirely through the way he moved. It really is an accomplishment that impresses the hell out of me. He’s reserved and mechanical, but still amazingly human. I love the suit and I love Weller in it.

Did you know Robocop won an Oscar? What won it? Well, I suspect it was this gun. I know you’re looking at it and salivating, but you need to HEAR it.

“That fucking gun!”

You see, Robocop won an Oscar for Sound Effects Editing. And it deserves it. It should win it based on this scene and the fight in the cocaine factory alone. The film is filled with fantastic sound effects, including the best sounding gun of all time and those great foot steps. I think I spent about half of Junior High trying to recreate those sounds with the bright orange squirt gun I managed to find that looked just like his gun. One of these days I’m going to paint it black. I swear.

Want some more Jesus imagery? Here’s Robocop walking on water. Truly he has died for our sins.

There’s so much more I can say about this movie, but this OP is long enough already. I could go on about color choice (mostly a wonderful, rusty lack thereof), I could quote the movie all day long (the Clarence quotes alone . . . ), I could gush endlessly about all the references to all things 1980’s (Lee Iacocca Elementary School), I  . . . sigh.

I’m sure I can find a way to express this in a more concise way. Hmm. I think I can get it down to three words.

Jay Dub:

One thing I really love about the Robocop suit (and subsequently the film as a whole), is how it blends influences from so many different film genres so seamlessly.

First of all, you’ve got the obvious sci-fi influence in the fact that it’s a robot suit.  It’s made up to look like a big and bulky piece of hardware, making Robocop into every bit the behemoth that Alex Murphy isn’t.  The movie goes pretty far out of its way to show us just how much of a machine this Murphy 2.0 has become.  I’m thinking in particular of the reveal of Murphy’s face late in the film, where it really just looks like Peter Weller’s face stretched over a plastic head.  There’s a touch of body horror to what OCP did to this poor guy (and one reason I’m sad we’ll never see what Darren Aronofsky would have done with the character).

Second is the western influence with Robocop’s sidearm conveniently stored within his thigh.  This one little design choice tells us a lot about the character, as well as the film.  It tells us that deep underneath all the machinery, there’s still a vestige of Alex Murphy that thinks of himself as the gunslinging sheriff riding in to clean up the town.  Look at the scene where Robocop shoots up the coke factory and tell me it doesn’t look like any number of old western shootouts.  It’s also an excuse for the film to keep this little nod to the western genre without having to deck Robocop out with holsters and attachments and whatnot.  They keep the exterior design simple by making use of the fact that he’s a robot.

Then take a look at Robocop’s feet:

Aside from the fact that it’s a large metal boot, it’s modeled to look like a metal version of samurai footwear.

So once again, we have another point of reference for Murphy’s “lone good cop cleaning up a corrupt system” character.  And I’d dare say there’s a bit of Yojimbo in Robocop (the character AND the film).  They’re both men of few words with a certain sense of honor, true, but also both films introduce similar characters who are established as a sort of perversion of the protagonist’s type.  Just as Yojimbo must defeat a samurai who lords the power of the gun over others…

Robocop must defeat the needlessly lethal enforcer that is ED-209:

image

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Revitalizing old properties isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but different priorities in both directors and the cinema landscapes of the times contort the work into something it’s not and generally make a mess of what made the original so good. There’s maybe a misguided sense to “go big” these days, as if all gloves are off and we can finally play god when it comes to visual effects, expanding the spectacle more and more until our actors aren’t acting anymore but modeling for computers and taking direction from flashing lights. Sometimes, it’s the limitations and restraints that can produce the best and most immersive work (call it the Star Wars principle).

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