As the RoboCop remake arrives, Andrew Dickens looks at how the original changed action cinema – and predicted our future
A sharp-suited junior executive is pursued around a boardroom by a law-enforcement droid. As he scrambles for cover, his colleagues push him away, unwilling to protect him. Isolated, a hail of bullets turn the young man into an uncooked yuppie burger.
Blood, guts and really big guns – all staple ingredients of Eighties action films. But this is no ordinary example; this is RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic about a dead police officer, Alex Murphy, who’s turned into a crime-fighting cyborg.
It’s the film that took the genre and shot it in the face with an intelligence cannon. This week, the robot receives a reboot as a new version hits the cinemas and it’s safe to say it’s under some pressure to perform. It’s like being Nigel Clough or Jordi Cruyff – you’re playing the game your daddy changed. In short, no RoboCop equals no District 9 or Dark Knight Trilogy. “I really see it in District 9,” says RoboCop’s writer, Ed Neumeier. “I know that the director Neill Blomkamp is a fan.
"I wanted to make an action film that was funny, but also said something. I’d always been amused by the idea that business was seen as this adventure in which people lived and died. It became a story about corporate corruption and corporations running things such as the police force. The best way to do that was write a satire. Plus I really like robots and violence. It has a lot of layers.“
For anyone who saw it as a kid, RoboCop, like its hero, has two lives. To the mind of this 13-year-old who watched it on video in 1988 (when watching 18-certificate films was still exciting), RoboCop was uncomplicated: a hilarious orgy of destruction with, as was important then, a glimpse of boob.
Now, to the mind of a 39-year-old cynic, it is much more: still a hilarious orgy of destruction – but also a brilliant parody of its time, and a worryingly prescient view of today. What was once just a robot shooting up a yuppie, is now a robot shooting up a yuppie and a critical postmodern finger pointing at the potential ills of capitalism, egoist politics and humanity’s relationship with tech. As Neumeier says, layers.
The film’s story is startlingly familiar in 2014. The notion of OmniCorp – RoboCop’s creators – winning a contract to run Detroit’s police force is far from alien. As for building a Frankenstein’s monster in the name of ‘efficiency’ – well, you wouldn’t put it past some people.
Even that glimpse of boob has a message. It happens as the camera pans through a police locker room. Male and female officers let it all hang out without a hint of nervous laughter. It’s a deliberate point. Sex here is irrelevant; an idea reinforced by Murphy’s partner, the kicks-butt-with-the-best-of-men Anne Lewis.
“I wrote Lewis as a totally gender-neutral feminist character,” says Neumeier. “The intention was to play with that as an action trope. In the script I just called her ‘Lewis’, so you didn’t know if she was male or female until you saw her.”
Verhoeven also got in on the intellectual act. The Dutch director is known for having a ‘thing’ for Jesus and he saw Murphy-RoboCop as the perfect opportunity to flex, albeit subtly, some messianic muscle.
“It’s a Christ story,” he recently told MTV. “It’s about a guy who gets crucified in the first 50 minutes, is resurrected in the next 50 minutes and then is like the supercop of the world, but is also a Jesus figure. He walks over water… in the steel factory… and says that wonderful line, ‘I am not arresting you any more.’ Meaning, ‘I’m going to shoot you.’ And that is, of course, the American Jesus.”
RoboCop’s strongest theme, though, and probably the most pertinent today, is our relationship with technology. Automation – men being replaced by machines – was not new in 1987, so a ‘military drone’, such as the ED-209 that perforated our junior exec, wasn’t too hard to predict.
But what was new was the notion of a technological singularity in which the artificial and the human merge to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Ask yourself: are you a sharper, more efficient person with the internet or a smartphone to hand? It’s a theory Neumeier addressed with a shiny 7ft Gestalt-bot.
“I grew up on technological nightmare movies where tech is out of control, where the machine kills us, is the competition,” he says. “I thought, that isn’t how it’s going to be. I watched The Six Million Dollar Man. I knew they’d patch into people’s brains one day. What if RoboCop isn’t a robot, but a man turned into a robot? It’s a movie about man coping with technology, not battling it.”
Neumeier’s prescience is also visible in RoboCop’s details; the extent of his foresight would once have had him burned at the stake. Detroit is in post-industrial decline; police wear uniforms so familiar today you forget that they didn’t always dress like stormtroopers; a TV ad for a nuclear-proliferation board game offers the line, “Pakistan are threatening my borders”.
“Give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world,” the TV newscasters tell us, lampooning the ‘20-minute news’ emerging in the Eighties. BBC Three now does it in 60 seconds. RoboCop even records his ‘life’ and uploads it on to computers.
We see an uncomfortably recognisable brand-obsession as a hostage-taker demands the latest must-have car, before RoboCop intervenes by punching through a wall and grabbing the offender around the throat. Just in case we’d forgotten, in this satire storm, that this is still a film about a cyborg with a big gun.
“It’s easy to see things coming,” says Neumeier. “You look at what’s happening now and think: ‘How much worse could it get? Ha ha ha.’ Imagine the worst possible scenario, make it funny and you’ll be eerily accurate.”
Time will tell if the new film will be as farsighted, but we need to appreciate the original. On its release, esteemed critic Roger Ebert called RoboCop an “action film with a difference”.
By that, it’s safe to assume he meant “a brain”. And that brain, beyond the explosions and throwaway lines featuring the word ‘asshole’, changed cinema forever.
RoboCop is at cinemas nationwide from 7 February. The original is available now on DVD and Blu-ray
(Image: All Star)