1987 in Film – RoboCop

Release Date: July 17th
Box Office: $53,424,681

If there was one thing about the 80s that was really great it was the way that science fiction was proper smashed into action films, The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) being the gold standard of this. In 1987 we also had Predator (1987) to make it a proper Holy Trinity of sci-fi action films.

But what about if we had one more?

Alex Murphy is a cop on the mean streets of Detroit. But this is Detroit of the near future, one nearly bankrupt and falling apart. Luckily the corporation OCP now owns the police and is looking to rebuild the city. They have a plan to fight against the rising crime levels that involves a whole heap of robot stuff and the next dead cop.

So it’s a pretty straightforward sci-if premise with a bit of body horror thrown in for good measure. But what makes this film really sing is the fire in its belly.

It’s a big old satire of American culture and corporations and masculinity and all sorts of stuff.

Paul Weller plays Alex Murphy both before and after his transformation. His work as RoboCop is pretty amazing when you get down to it: even underneath a helmet and a huge heavy suit he gets across the character so well. He spent weeks practising the type of movements he would make as RoboCop before even putting on the suit. The seriousness he takes this character stops it from just being “a guy in a suit” and becomes a proper character.

Which only helps to ground the film. Despite the crazy robot stuff everything else that happens feels even more real now than it did then. The corporate suit saying to “lose the arm” because it was cheaper is still one of the truest lines in the film. In an era of downsizing and offshoring the treatment of the police department by OCP is painfully honest.

This probably marks RoboCop as a film where the view of the corporation was shifting. Previous films we seen this year like Mannequin (1987) or The Secret of My Success (1987) have a corporation in there but always with a nice family person in charge to sweep in and save the hero. Not so in RoboCop, OCP in this film is a den of vipers in braces and pin stripe shirts, all trying to bump each other off to get further up the food chain. And at the very top? The Old Man in charge is the worst of them all.

Is this because the man in charge of the film is Paul Verhoven, in his first US film? He had turned down the script initially but after his wife insisted on him re-reading it he could see the depths in it. He always saw Murphy/RoboCop as a Jesus allegory, suffering for Detroit’a sins and being reborn. Hell, he even crafts a shot towards the end of the film that has RoboCop appearing to be walking on water.

But these depths and meaning and satire don’t get in the way and the violence. And make no mistake, this film is properly violent. In an era of violent films RoboCop somehow manages to stand out, thanks to how over the top each bout of violence is. Gunshots cause fountains of blood, things explode all over the place and bad guys get their comeuppance in glorious detail.

The audience baiting ultraviolence helped it top the box office and to also cement RoboCop in the pantheon of eighties films. That poster of RoboCop stepping out of the car is one of the iconic images of the decade. It more than deserves to sit alongside the Terminators and the Xenomorphs, serving the public trust, protecting the innocent and upholding the law.

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