Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Retro Review: ROBOCOP (1987)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, where we take a look at the best and worst movies released before the year 2000. This week, we're going back to the 80's to take a look at a beloved classic of 80's sci-fi action...ROBOCOP! 

Ask anyone what the best movies of the 80's were, and you'll get a few choice selections. Blade Runner, Back to the Future, the Thing, E.T., and Indiana Jones are just a few of the picks that would come up. But another film that's almost always in the conversation is Paul Verhoeven's landmark sci-fi film, RoboCop. Released in 1987 (30 years ago, in fact!), RoboCop hardly shows its age. Yes, some of the special effects are dated, but it's remarkable how well the film has aged, both in its writing and in its poignancy. For context, this review could very well have been done as a "Why Haven't I Seen That," as this was my first viewing of RoboCop (I know, I'm very late to the party!).Verhoeven taps into a particular nerve of American culture, crafting a story that is at once a visceral action flick, and a dystopian cyberpunk thriller warning of a future that the filmmaker had no idea was going to be even worse than they thought.

RoboCop follows new Detroit police officer, Alex Murphy, as he settles in to his new position on the force. Foolishly believing he can be the one who changes the city for the better, Murphy finds himself  at the end of the barrel of a gun, brutally mutilated and left for dead by the cronies of Detroit's biggest criminal kingpin. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), the police force's new private financeers, Omni Consumer Products, sees this as an opportunity to try out their latest product: the ultimate police officer; one forged from steel, programmed to mete out justice by the book, and one that can take a beating while doing it. That, of course, is RoboCop, a cyborg created from Murphy's remaining body and cybernetic enhancements, making him the ultimate servant of the law. The catch, however, is that not only has Murphy's memory been mostly wiped after his transformation into RoboCop, but when his memories of his murder begin to resurface, he begins an investigation that unearths a conspiracy that may go all the way to the top.

The film is known for two major aspects: it's social commentary and its violence. Let's touch on the violence first, which, in short, is pretty awesome. This was the height of practical gore effects, and much of that is on display throughout the uncensored version of the film, which is typically the most widely available. During its initial theatrical run, much of the violence was censored to avoid the then-highest rating, Rated X. On most home video releases, however, the uncut version is the default, which is a good thing. The visceral nature of the action is not only stunning to see, but also serves to tonally make the movie absolutely ridiculous and almost satirical in nature. This directly dovetails into the social commentary aspect of the film. While the film is set in the "near future," this is tonally the 80's through and through, and much of the film is very critical of what Verhoeven saw as a culture of excess and commercialism. The film is littered with commercials satirizing the 80's, all of which are very funny, and the over-the-top violence seem to perpetuate the idea that's always been connected to the 80's: bigger is better. The film also makes a lot of social and political points. One of the most surprising plot points was the construction of a new Detroit, called Delta City, discussed at various points in the plot. The film makes no bones about this being gentrification on steroids, and what's even more fascinating is that, while it keeps being mentioned, the construction of Delta City never really factors majorly into the plot. It's almost treated as an inevitability, and the audience is left to stew over what that means for the future. That, and themes of corporate overreach and corruption are all themes that are very much still topical in our modern day.

But under all of the commentary and excess, what we have is still an extremely compelling story as well. Peter Weller delivers an excellent performance as the titular RoboCop, both before and after his transformation. While it might at first seem like he's very monotonous, Weller is acting in very small gestures and mannerisms. This becomes much clearer later in the film as he fights for his memories more, but Weller gives a great performance as RoboCop. Most of the cast is serviceable, but Weller really shines as a man grappling with his own humanity, unsure of where the machine ends and where Alex Murphy begins, if Murphy is even still truly there. It's not a question we get a definitive answer to by the end, and in a way, that makes the question even more fascinating. The fight for his humanity makes Murphy extremely sympathetic, and the deeper it gets into how far the corruption goes, the more we root for our (very lethal) hero, especially as the action sequences get bigger and bigger.

Overall, RoboCop is an achievement in sci-fi storytelling, in action, in social commentary, and in just making a great film. Everything about this film works, it works well, and it still works well after all these years. As someone who was only just introduced to it, the film doesn't show its age one bit. I'm curious to see not only how the two sequels have aged, but also how the recent remake interpreted the themes and style of the original for a modern audience. I have my doubts, but I suppose we'll see when and if I do watch it. Only time will tell. Until then, I look forward to the next time I can hear the stern refrain of "DEAD OR ALIVE, YOU'RE COMING WITH ME!"

Tony's Score: 9/10

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