Laughing, prophetic, smart and brutal: RoboCop at 35

Tom Jolliffe looks back on RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s avant-garde masterpiece, as it turns 35…

Okay goosebumps. Dead or alive, you come with me… to look back RoboCop. The dead part might be a little too much, but I’m sure you’re in for it. The iconic science fiction actor is 35 years old. There is a huge weight behind the legacy of the original film. Somewhere in the last 35 years, RoboCop went from a surprise B-movie package that became a box office hit to a benchmark of its kind.

With a director largely unknown to American audiences, RoboCop quickly came off the blocks, amassing fans, a cult following, and would act as a cinematic cornerstone in the lives of countless 80s kids who grew up watching a movie they shouldn’t have watched. For my generation, my friends and me, RoboCop is a childhood staple, the impact of which is only a few notches below star wars.


Not to claim a more special relationship with the movie than anyone younger (or older), but when RoboCop made its way to cinemas and then to VHS, the film not only tapped into the happy inner child of adults, but for 8 year olds (like me) seeing it for the first time, its over the top comedic violence and his obligatory foul language, and the cool costume, visuals, and ED-209’s nemesis were too cool for school. Its pop culture appeal was greatest when I was the perfect age for such a cool movie. RoboCop by its very concept and its inherently goofy title, it seemed to have been designed by and for boys aged 8 to 12.

That’s not to say it’s dumb of course, and therein lies the genius of Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s screenplay, as well as the very distinct styles of Paul Verhoeven. A robot cop throwing one-liners in his sleek metal armor, with his easy-to-imitate walking style, appeals to the inner child and the actual child (especially the boys of the era). On the surface, he was ripe to attract a large following despite his R rating. Like Freddy Krueger, it didn’t take long to RoboCop to gather a willing audience of those who have not reached the age threshold for such violent films. RoboCop would eventually spawn a ton of merchandise, sequels, anime spinoffs, comics, video games (I particularly liked the albeit flawed Atari ST version) and more.


Beneath that surface, however, is a film imbued with Verhoeven’s wry gaze. Even Orion couldn’t have expected the film to have as many layers as it did. A little like The Terminator, it’s essentially the little B-movie that could, far exceeding the genre’s expectations and budget limitations. They wanted a money maker for the here and now, buoyed by the success of their previous film and no doubt not expecting the same critical acclaim Cameron’s film received. The sustainability of the legacy was often a secondary concern.

RoboCop laid a marker for Verhoeven, whose characteristic blend of excessive but gruesomely humorous violence would combine so well with satire and silliness. He was loath to take concepts too seriously. He’s never been one to hold anything back, dialing all the basic operating genres up to eleven in this, Total recall and Starship Troopers. Few but Paul Verhoeven would cast a three-breasted mutant sex worker in a scene like he did in Recall (and he wanted four).


RoboCop came during a booming American period personified by the yuppy Wall Street, big business and booming tech industries. This period of the 1980s, which was beginning to emerge from the Cold War, was one of Reagan-infused optimism. Consumerism was on the rise and Verhoeven was tackling it. With a tongue-in-cheek stab, he satirized greed is the mentality of God and the pettiness of the material consumer. The Yuppies straddle each other, and more, as they climb to the top. Criminals preoccupied with stealing the latest fashionable cars or weapons.

Verhoeven, though a little joking, took a slightly pessimistic attitude about the direction of American culture. This prophetic vision rings true. Infomercials were actually a booming thing around the time the movie was made. The internet and the targeted ads that dot your social media channels suggest that buying unnecessary bullshit is more important than ever. How many of us bought trash out of boredom during lockdown?


A particular and relentless side gag in Robocop is the slogan-dependent, almost formless spectacle that attracts mass fascination. “I’d buy it for a dollar!” Insane television and short-form entertainment came together near the point of a satirical gag from Verhoeven. by RoboCop the dollar dude would certainly feel out of place in Schwarzenegger’s equally prescient vision of entertainment The running man.

by RoboCop The view on content in the 2020s wasn’t far from wrong, especially in the Tik-Tok era where the simple act of repetitive idiocy can make someone an unmissable star. That said, one thing that Verhoeven did not quite prophesy (but conversely the wrecker did it brilliantly) was a “waking” world ruled by fear of offense.


by RoboCop view on technology, advances in robotics have certainly served their purpose. You now have huge strides in limb and organ replacements, halfway to prophesying Murphy’s transition from human to machine. The film is also relevant with Ed-209. Even this machine’s comical inability to descend stairs was somewhat prophetic of a time when so much modern technology is still subject to blatant scrutiny (whether it’s exploding phones or self-driving cars that run over people). spectators). It’s the fact that the world is increasingly reliant on AI rather than the human element (Johnny Cabs in Total recall was another gag that won’t be far off).

In effect, RoboCop is set in a time and place where privatization is destroying neighborhoods and poverty is directly contributing to rising crime (Verhoeven even has an ironic sting at the lust for guns). Areas are left to rot and degenerate, to be gentrified and redeveloped for the benefit of the super rich. Like many Western countries, we see paralyzed public services. The police, where Alex Murphy plies his trade, are underfunded, understaffed and plagued with corruption, bureaucracy and more. The corporate branch wrapped itself in what should be a public service (unable to adequately provide said “service”).


Verhoeven’s ability to weave in clever prophetic touches, humor and social commentary was something that took time to fully appreciate. Apart from all that, brilliantly constructed sets, simple but effective design work, and world-building, Verhoeven’s film is anchored by an emotional core. Peter Weller is brilliant as Murphy. He’s the shitty cop and family man, somehow unprepared for the neighborhood he’s about to find himself in, alongside his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen). There’s also good chemistry between Weller and Allen, but Murphy’s unconventional looks and demeanor serve him well here. There is a charisma and a childlike charm.

After being brutally (like…really fucking brutally) offended by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith, who is immensely evil), he is resurrected as the titular RoboCop. Gone is this childish charm, replaced by the semblance of humanity remaining within the machine. Murphy’s memories, driven by pain and loss, push him beyond his programming. He slowly drifts away from his routine responses as some of his old personalities return. More tragically though, RoboCop struggles to feel more human, hurt by the loss, knowing his former family mourned him and is gone.


In the end, Murphy took down the criminal outfit that obliterated his body and discovered the corporate overseer orchestrating it (the ever-whisper-worthy Ronny Cox). We saw his mind battling against its own machinery and forced programming. We’ve seen Murphy resign himself to being inhuman, driven solely by this mission of justice. So when RoboCop sent Dick Jones plummeting from the top floor of Omnicorp to his death, the old man (Dan O’Herlihy) asked him, “What’s your name son?” The answer; greeted with a mix of heartfelt thumps and tears from me (and many others I should imagine), “Murphy.” The iconic theme of Cue Basil Poledouris, a piece from a huge soundtrack that only established him as one of the great composers of the time.

All of this proved that alongside clever humor, prescience, gleeful violence, music, cast, design and visuals, RoboCop really has a heart. Given that this is a movie with the title and concept that it has, it’s no surprise that it found a recent 4K release on Arrow Video, cultivators of great movie releases from gender. Plus, it should come as no surprise that the nerdiest movie purveyors, Criterion, have also released RoboCop in their catalog. It’s more than worthy, setting a bar for genre-blending action that few have come close to since.

SEE ALSO: Bringing RoboCop to the Screen: 35th Anniversary

Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled for 2022, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) , Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you will ever see…

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