Criterion Sunday 23: RoboCop (1987)

© The Criterion Collection

It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).

All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).

I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.

Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Verhoeven | Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner | Cinematographer Jost Vacano | Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 8 February 2015)

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