RoboCop was released in 1987, and it’s the sort of film that looks like it was made by somebody who knew America only from what he read in newspapers. Which may be close to the truth; Dutch director Paul Verhoeven had been living in the U.S. for less than a decade when he made this, his first big-budget Hollywood film. The script gleefully takes on every myth told about the U.S. during the Reagan ‘80s: Cities are dens of evil and full of constant gunplay, authority has been brought to heel by capitalism, technology has crushed our humanity to atoms, the media destroys the morals of children. RoboCop plays all of this out as a bloody farce – it’s both funny and violent as hell — but it also knows that there are kernels of truth in all those statements. Great science fiction sheds light on the real world by recreating it radically, and RoboCop is great science fiction – it’s one of the best dystopian fantasies about America put to film.
The place is Detroit, the time sometime in the near future. The part of the city known as ‘Old Detroit’ is a cesspool of grime, slums, and toxic sludge; ‘New Detroit’ is an empty promise of a shining new city that we see only on billboards. The police force is privatized, and one of its officers, Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller) is grotesquely wounded during a fight with a gang. OCP, the company running the force, has had back luck creating a purely mechanical cop. So it claims Murphy’s nearly-dead body and transforms it into a man-machine hybrid that’s programmed to perform police work ethically. On his first night on the beat, he stops a rape in progress, shooting the rapist in the crotch and telling the woman in a chill monotone: ‘You have suffered an emotional shock. I will notify a rape crisis center.’
That’s good for a chuckle, but it has some postmodern underpinnings. The idea is that in a techno-capitalist world, acting like a decent human being means mechanizing whole chunks of yourself and shutting off your emotional despair – one of the faux commercial breaks shows a family chuckling as they play ‘Nukem,’ a version of Battleship with nuclear weapons. It’s also a world where money trumps morals. OCP chief Dick Jones (a perfectly cast Ronny Cox) is a stiff and greedy lion drunk on his own power, and the slum denizens are constantly repeating the punch line from a bawdy TV show: ‘I’ll buy that for a dollar!’
Neither Verhoeven nor screenwriters Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier are particularly didactic in their social commentary; mainly, they wanted to make a movie that looked and felt as cool as Blade Runner, but with some more verisimilitude and a few laughs. Blood, too; RoboCop was remarkably violent for its time, though today it’s pretty much on a par with most sci-fi films. What endures, though, is the film’s ability to show what makes us human in an inhumane world. Though Weller doesn’t get to express much between his exoskeleton and vocal drone, he’s a great placeholder for a story about how humanity strives to do the right thing and be its most human against all odds. Paul Verhoeven never made a better film after that, opting for profit-taking fare like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. He forgot the moral lessons he put forth in RoboCop. He became an American filmmaker.
The new RoboCop box set offers all three films with copious extras. The original is an extended version of the film (you won’t notice any extra scenes), plus a commentary track, deleted scenes, and several making of featurettes. The sequels get less attention (and rightly so), but it’s still an awfully nice collection of DVDs, packaged in a nifty multi-folded box. I’d buy that for a dollar!