When Orion Pictures first sent out promotional material for RoboCop, they would indulge every possible comparison to Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), going so far as to use the latter’s orchestral theme in the original trailers before Basil Poledouris had completed his now-iconic anvil-marching score. If audiences were expecting a grim, foreboding future, they instead a found an entirely different film; a darkly comic media satire brutally transforming itself over 108 minutes into a gory showdown. The film compresses and pressurises soon after the credits and by the first time you see Bixby Snyder’s (S.D. Nemeth) nigh-totemic “I’d buy that for a dollar!” catchphrase in paranoiac close-up, the self-aware tone is set. Events unfurl quickly as the cops, the corporates and Alex Murphy / RoboCop (Peter Weller) all learn to adapt to the thoroughly botched product launch of a shiny new crime-free America.
After a very quick approval process on a script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, and a over-budget, lengthy production, RoboCop quickly gained an outsized positive press coverage that was unusual for action films of the time. Orion had begun showing the film to critics immediately after the first cut, confident they had something which would push through the noise of action cinema pablum and appeal to a cinema-literate crowd.1 The coverage and buzz around the film had been around the over-the-top action and the promise of a superheroic cop; but the strategy paid off as the film expanded in reputation and a long release window throughout the American summer of 1987.
Pauline Kael’s response in The New Yorker’s ‘The Current Cinema’ column wouldn’t fly these days; she accused director Paul Verhoeven of “not having a particularly subtle ear for English” and “working with only a rudimentary knowledge of the language”, ending her poleaxing of the film with an accusation that the film deals in cheap thrills to revive Verhoeven’s English-speaking career after the failure of Flesh and Blood (1985)2. Kael refuses to be let in on the violent joke, but in so doing misses the social calibration of the film so wildly, she reads The Old Man (as played by Dan O’Herlihy) as wholly sympathetic. In the documentary Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop, screenwriter Miner emphasised that Verhoeven approached America (and the process of movie production) anthropologically and was adding in elements up to the last day of production to fit in more satirical references.3
If Kael rejected the teenage energy of the film, the LA Times’ Michael Wilmington, by comparison, responded with the same mix of sly, winking boisterousness and right-on politicking that we recognise today as the film’s broadly romanticised reputation as a blood-red satire.4 He notes that “Verhoeven’s strong suits have always been visual energy and a Rabelaisian realism: a gusty, jovial way of ripping through social systems”. It isn’t just Omni Consumer Products (OCP) or the quickly-sketched criminals running around; it’s the crude jokes in the bad television ads, it’s Bixby Snyder getting so horny he goes cross-eyed, it’s the vox pop idiocy around the police strike scene.
As keen as many critics, like Kael and Wilmington were, to attribute RoboCop’s identity to comics – which for both meant a crude bombastic politics resolved through redemptive violence – we can look back at the film as part of a late-80s recognition of a social order that’s no longer worthy of anything but satire. There’s nothing to redeem but tickets to the ride. In a hostage scene where RoboCop’s new powers were about to be tested, a police negotiator agreeing to a list of demands yells “Let the Mayor go, and we’ll even throw in a Blaupunkt!”. Ten seconds later, after dispatching the hostage-taker through a window, we cut to coverage of the event on the approving newscast, which quickly edits in RoboCop appearing at ‘Lee Iacocca Elementary School’, name-dropping a highly obscure multi-bankrupted executive who introduced the Ford Mustang. The film we see today has less in common with a comic book than a flip-book of overlaid images, jokes, explosions and one-liners. The joke’s on us – more than any film in the 1980s action canon, RoboCop’s lurid fantasy world came closest to imagining our own. The first fifteen minutes of RoboCop once seemed like a dizzying, preternatural satire; but 30 years on we’re not laughing.
In the OCP boardroom, shit-talking executives joke about financialising the health, defense and education industries while hapless cops scurry away from the brutal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang. The real star of the show out of the family of ruthless bootlickers is Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). Morton is a cyborg himself; half-greed, half-cocaine. His over-the-top dialogue and grasping, banal instincts are the real OCP, the real corruption, the real villains of the piece. He appears whenever the point needs to be reinforced that the world requires a new start; a cleansing wash, a baptism.
Making it explicit, Verhoeven repeatedly stressed that RoboCop’s embrace of violence was never in question as he saw him as an “American Jesus”; he went through production wanting to produce a figure of resurrection and redemption who would justify violence against greed.5 With the benefit of hindsight, we can more soberly read the film like producer Jim Davison, who referred to the project as “fascism for liberals”; the boot of the oppressed on the neck of the oppressor. 6
RoboCop is still as tightly woven as it was in 1987; delivering on social satire in a way that other blockbuster action of the 1980s often threatened but could rarely deliver. Tempting as it was to attribute the politics and form of the film to comics; the film’s density belongs to that precise moment in the American action-cinema miasma when the waves of reactionary delight began to roll back. Sylvester Stallone’s high-pitched, manic Cobra (1986) seemed a million miles away; vigilantism was still the only story worth telling, but for what, for who? By the decade’s end, RoboCop’s level of cultural viciousness was the baseline. Not everybody was buying the film’s satire (not even for a dollar) but as a set of stereotypes rigged to explode against the decaying American polis, RoboCop set the standard.
RoboCop (1987 USA, 102 minutes)
Prod Co: Orion Pictures Prod: Arne Schmidt Dir: Paul Verhoeven Scr: Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner Phot: Jost Vacano Ed: Frank J. Urioste Prod Des: Dennis Gassner Mus: Basil Poledouris
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer
- Jack Matthews, “The Marketing of a Mechanical Hero”, Los Angeles Times, 21 July 1987. ↩
- Pauline Kael, “The Current Cinema”, The New Yorker, 10 August 1987. ↩
- Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop, MGM Distribution, 2001. ↩
- Michael Wilmington, “Robocop”, Los Angeles Times, 14 April 1987. ↩
- Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop ↩
- Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop ↩