Robocop (1987)


Director: Paul Verhoeven

Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox, Daniel O’Herlihy

Words – Nathan Scatcherd

In today’s increasingly terrifying, existentially crippling, corporate-controlled, bought and sold disaster of a world, Paul Verhoeven’s viscera-splattered satirical masterpiece feels like it could have come out last week.
Robocop retains an incredible power today, it extends a razor-sharp middle finger to mindless consumerism and the vapidity of the media, snorting derisively at the kind of reprehensible ultra-capitalist sociopaths who run the planet while still functioning as a perfectly paced, blackly funny example of peak 80s sci-fi action goodness.

The setting is a dystopian future Detroit. After being brutally murdered by a gang of criminals led by the very hissable Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is rebuilt by the nefarious Omni Consumer Products corporation as a new type of law enforcement officer; the titular Robocop.
OCP are just as villainous as Boddicker and his gang (and in fact are working with them directly), representing the type of bloated, unfeeling, self-interested hideousness inevitable in big business as their executives scramble over each other in an attempt to manipulate this new crime deterrent to their own ends. Meanwhile, Murphy’s wiped memories begin to resurface in vague flashbacks to his life as a flesh and blood man, complicating his stringent programming as an agent of OCP.

The film’s extreme violence and black humour led to it being commonly somewhat misunderstood upon release – contemporary reviews tend to praise the special effects and costuming while missing the anti-corporate social commentary – but in the years since, the film has of course become one of the definitive go-to examples of satirical sci-fi cinema.
Its withering shots at the venality and ridiculous macho idiocy of boardroom culture resonate throughout the decades, and it also mines more philosophical ground, using its central character to pose questions of identity and humanity, exploring the divide between autonomy and slavery to the ideals of avaricious privatisation.

Of course, the special effects and costuming are legitimately impressive. The film boasts some excellent practical gore effects, and the simultaneously ridiculous and intimidating ED-209 robots that act as Robocop’s prototype predecessors – and eventual antagonists – are achieved through the wonders of stop-motion.
The Robocop suit was a fully functional costume attached to Weller in multiple parts, giving a verisimilitude to the physicality of his performance. Today it is of course iconic; an instantly recognisable marriage of form and function, without any extraneous VFX enhancements (or, indeed, any need for them). Robocop is old-school in the best way, while still dealing with themes that feel ripped from current headlines. I’d buy that for a dollar.