Friday, February 25, 2011

A Mr. Anderson Reboot: RoboCop

The science fiction genre doesn't get as much love these days. In pop culture, you see dozens of television shows in that vein (including some great shows like Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Battlestar Galactica) canceled due to lack of viewers. The Star Trek franchise even lost their latest show Enterprise to low ratings. Sci-fi films are infrequent and often dismissed by the movie-going public. Why is this? Perhaps the reason is that nowadays there are no longer any franchise-worthy creatures or characters for fans to follow. The eighties had a bevy of movie monsters and sci-fi icons, with descriptive and simple names like Aliens, Predators, and Terminators. Of course, these creatures were the bad guys, monsters that humans fought against for survival. But what about the iconic heroes? Besides the very human characters of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, one that is sometimes forgotten to time is that of Alex Murphy, who eventually gained the moniker of RoboCop, hero to the people of  Detroit. The character first appeared in the Paul Verhoeven film of the same name, eventually spawning two sequels, two live-action television shows, five video games, four comic book series and even a popular theme park ride. The citizens of Detroit have also made their voices heard, raising money for a statue of the loved character to erect in the city (thanks to Jeff for bringing that to my attention). But it all started in 1987 with the Verhoeven's first Hollywood release, creating arguably the most recognizable sci-fi hero of all time.

Never challenge Officer Murphy in a skeet shoot
In the future, Detroit is a mess. Yes, I know; even more so. Crime-ridden, the city's downward spiral is so out of control it has handed its police force over to a private corporation, Omni Consumer Products. This financial juggernaut, in the fine tradition of Weyland-Yutani or CHOAM, of course doesn't care about the people depending on their protection. They simply want to make a profit, to drive crime down so they can build their privately-governed utopia "Delta City" in Detroit's place. Yeah, it doesn't seem to make a ton of sense, but we're talking evil companies here; They don't HAVE to make sense if they don't want to. Anyway, OCP wants to create machines to replace the existing police force, and their experiments coincide with the violent death of policeman and family man Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) at the hands of a gang of murderous psychopaths. The result is OCP's own private cyborg, RoboCop, using what was left of Murphy's body but wiping his memories clean. Slowly however, RoboCop begins to remember the life before his ugly transformation, and begins to uncover the less-than-stellar motives of the people for whom he works.

Fun note: RoboCop was given an X rating 11 TIMES before getting it's R rating
At the time of its release, RoboCop was hailed by many as one of the best films of 1987. It's easy to see why; despite its status as an action film, the movie manages to reach beyond cliched characters and storylines and actually present itself as an intelligent insight to themes concerning the media and human nature. According to newscasts, the world is a mess, with war, hunger and poverty widespread and nearly beyond control. Despite this, the media is shown with shiny smiles and happy thoughts, and the people we see seem desensitized to violence in general. The film also draws from the decay of American Industry that had recently become prevalent by the use of abandoned factories in filming. While it's easy to simply sit back and enjoy an action film of this caliber, it's just as easy to turn your brain back on and appreciate what the filmmakers thought about where society was headed at the time.

Yeah, you might want to get that looked at
Like many action films, the best actors in Hollywood were not necessarily the best for the parts available. Case in point: Peter Weller. Though a talented performer in his own right, he had been to this point mainly been a character actor with very little to his credit at the time. Put on the spot here, however, he is allowed to take on two distinct parts - the cocky police officer Murphy and the robotic, deadpan RoboCop - and blend the two together over the course of the film. His subtle performance is easily the best on the cast. Nancy Allen by comparison is merely okay as Murphy's partner Officer Lewis. She's never really given a chance to step out of a comfort zone anywhere along the film's plot, and while she does a fine job overall, it's just not as impressive as most on the cast. Ronny Cox changed his tempo from playing genial characters to playing OCP's uncouth and arrogant Vice President Richard Jones. An example of Verhoeven's penchant to cast actors against type, Cox plays his part as a heartless corporate type, only really seeing the bottom line, not the damage he's causing to achieve it. Miguel Ferrer plays Bob Morton, another OCP executive, the one in charge of creating RoboCop in the first place. Like Jones, Morton really only sees the bottom line, but comes off as slightly more sympathetic due to actually caring whether his product works, very unlike his rival Jones. Kurtwood Smith also shines as career criminal Clarence Boddicker, the man whose gang runs the streets of Detroit for much of the film. Smith, who usually plays more intellectual parts, is decisively crude and possibly even more evil than Jones in his portrayal of a man who wouldn't hesitate to kill a man, rape a woman or rob a store if he was so inclined. Delighting in human suffering, Boddicker makes for an excellent villain, and between the ruthlessness of both Boddicker and Jones, RoboCop has his hands full in the best way for the viewers to witness it.

"Hostile Takeover" has a whole new meaning now
If there's one way the film disappoints, it's in the special effects. To be fair, the SFX in RoboCop are actually pretty good when taken on their own for the time. But one only has to look at fellow monster movies Aliens, The Terminator, and Predator, films release before or at the same time, to notice that the effects in RoboCop are sorely lacking. Perhaps it was lack of budget, maybe it was the challenge of placing these effects in an urban environment rather than an unfamiliar jungle or space ship. And give the effects guys credit: their innovation created much of the unique world we're familiar with from this film, including the unintentionally-funny ED-209 robot. However, the film just looked much older than its contemporaries, and that detracted from the viewing experience somewhat.

Only Chuck Norris smiles less
It's a shame there's currently no plan to revive the RoboCop franchise. Despite the many great things about this film, the two following sequels were universally panned by critics and may have dissuaded many filmmakers from attempting to take up the reins again. Even recent attempts by MGM to create a new installment have fallen to the wayside due to financial concerns. Still, fans of the series have this first film to keep in their film libraries, as it's one of the more under sung action films in recent memory.

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