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Many films are credited with being ‘ahead of their time,’ a phrase that typically means the movie is entertaining enough, though perhaps a bit inaccessible for current trends, it’s themes and approach a little too left of center to catch on with mainstream audiences. With 1987’s RoboCop, that was more than the case when this ultra violent, scathing social evisceration was released, causing a stir among critics and viewers that nonetheless transformed the action landscape.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven, a Dutch filmmaker making his Hollywood debut, the movie was first slapped with an X-rating in the United States, a label to that point mostly used for pornography, forcing Verhoeven to edit the extreme graphic violence and gore until finally earning the theater-ready R. Naturally, the well-publicized controversy became the film’s calling card and had ticket-buyers curious enough to turn the low-budget film into a a huge sleeper hit. Furthermore, and perhaps the biggest feather in its hat, it won over critics, receiving acclaim for its progressive themes and sharp satire.
The story follows Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) in the near future where the city is on the verge of a massive financial collapse, leaving the place a dystopian wasteland of sorts where crime runs rampant. Murphy is transferred to the heart of the mess and on his first patrol with partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), is cornered by a gang of merciless thugs led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). In a scene of disturbing violence, they slowly shoot him to near death, gorily dismembering him as they go, something we the audience get witness to in all its gory glory. What’s left of Murphy is saved and selected by Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to be part of their new security program, keeping his face and brain and some lower intestines while replacing everything else with new state-of-the-art cybernetics. When the procedure is over, Murphy becomes the first RoboCop.
From there, lots of opportunities pop up for the new Murphy to put his skills to the test, along with some corruption that naturally weighs over the whole affair. A sleek production with some outstanding, if not repulsive, visual and special effects, the movie became highly-influential and produced a number of sequels and a reboot decades later. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
To be sure, the action is the thing here, with Verhoeven pulling out all the stops in a visceral experience that is still pretty great fun even today. But why it all works so well is because of the story and excellent script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner who flesh out these characters with some unexpected depth so that our investment in them is that much stronger when the consequences are laid on the table.
Murphy is a fantastic everyman who earns our trust early, and it hurts to see him so brutalized in the opening attack, and strangely, after he is transformed into RoboCop, as cool as he is, we feel even more sympathy, him having no choice and losing so much despite being alive. That’s a common theme in the robot/android genre, the Pinocchio effect where all they want is to be is human. Think of Data from the Star Trek universe or Robin Williams‘ in Bicentennial Man.
With Murphy, it is worse as ‘human’ is what he once was, and in truth, still is, just trapped in a body of steel. What Verhoeven does best, aside from some great direction with the action, is give Murphy opportunities to be both a sensational heroic figure but also grounded by the vulnerabilities that define us as human. He is constantly at odds with what the loss of his body means and the new power it has given him. Just like the Tin Man, he is without a heart but yearns to feel like has one again.
And so it comes to this moment in the film when Murphy does some digging on his past, inspired by Lewis who tells him who he really is, as his memory has been mostly wiped. Using the computers at the station, he uncovers his own data file, which pronounces him as deceased but more importantly, it displays an address where he once lived … with his wife and son. He gets in his patrol cruiser and drives alone to the home and discovers that is for sale. Entering, the place is mostly abandoned, but as he walks through the rooms, something happens with his programming as his vision becomes fuzzy, like an out of tune television before replacing it with images of the house as it once was, fully furnish and decorated, just like when he lived there.
More disturbing, he sees his son (in a slick shot that tracks back a few steps), who, in the recovered memory, talks to him about his own excitement at his father’s police history. Moving on, in the kitchen, he comes upon a pile of refuse on the counter that contains a torn picture of a family portrait, one that shows a boy, a woman, and Murphy, sparking another memory of a Halloween night. This incites some deeper emotions and he charges to the back bedroom where he sees his beautiful wife (Angie Bolling) in a loose robe, seductively telling him she loves him.
As Murphy’s real past becomes clear, and that all it is now all gone, RoboCop becomes enraged, and deviates from his official capacity to instead hunt down Boddicker, which as the story progresses, sees further entanglements from unexpected places.
What makes this small, emotional moment so effective is actually its inclusion in the movie at all, where the filmmakers could have foregone any familial attachments and concentrated purely on the action, making the story simply another shoot ’em up with a robot twist, which is what a lot of it is. However, layering in the deeper elements of why turning a man into a robot might not be so beneficial elevates this film in surprising ways, mostly in allowing the audience to keep some identity to the character. We are a species of attachments, our family the very thing that defines us, in a sense giving us a sense of mortality. Murphy, having been slain in the line of duty, as his wife and son are told, is robbed of the legitimate path he should have followed, something many who serve to protect face, yet Murphy, and his family have been lied to and this forms the real tragedy.
The sequence is a simple but well-executed sequence that follows Murphy in a straight line through the house, a man filled with curiosity initially, needing answers to some troubling questions. By using an empty house as a vessel to fill those gaps and filter in the memories of what once was, we as the viewer again get a familiar foundation in which to project our own interpretations. In a film that is for most of its runtime set in dystopia, populated by images of a future we can’t connect with, the sudden walkthrough of a warm family home feels jarring in itself and triggers some very specific emotions of our own. It’s an intelligent and carefully constructed sequence that truly helps to shape what Murphy becomes, despite its brief three minutes of screen time. (There’s also a terrific bit of score from Basil Poledouris that shifts the tone as well and marks a highlight in the movie’s music.)
RoboCop is a timeless film, one that feels a bit like a forecast of modern times, the production and ideas for what the world will become in the eyes of 80s filmmakers a little uneasy to watch now. While its violence is, by today’s standards, tame, it is nonetheless a trailblazer in the genre and is partially responsible for how action and violence in film evolved. That said, a walk through an abandoned home, free of the violence that defines he film itself, is reason why it remains so good. It’s a great cinematic moment.