Dead Or Alive: A Robocop Retrospective – Part One

The awesomely violent and rather multilayered Robocop turns 35-years-old this month. Originally released on the 17th of July way back in 1987, happy 35th birthday to Robocop. Seeing as this is one of my favourite films, I guess I have to write something. So, I’m going to be looking at some Robocop video games in another article. But here, I’m going to explore Robocop on the big and small screen, everything and yes, I’ll even cover the TV shows too… along with some rather surprising appearances at the end. Starting off, chronologically, with the first film.

RoboCop

Part man. Part machine. All cop. RoboCop was one of the first films I ever saw on our own VHS player. I was about 13-years-old at the time and I remember being really shocked at the swearing in the film. Younger me had heard swearing but just not that much and that frequent. That fella robbing the store in the film and screaming ‘fuck me, fuck me, fuck me’ over and over almost made me want to cover my ears… almost.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, co-written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, Robocop possibly began life as a possible Judge Dredd film. You can see a Judge Dredd influence in the final film but the story goes that writer Neumeier began penning the story as a Judge Dredd film but could not secure the rights, so he then changed it to an original character instead. I say ‘possibly began’ as a Judge Dredd film because I can’t seem to find any concrete evidence that outright states this, just user-submitted ‘trivia’. Still, Edward Neumeier is a self-confessed Judge Dredd fan. Also, there was the early test sculpt of the RoboCop suit…

ROBOCOP DREDD

… yes, that one. Very clearly Judge Dredd influenced but still not proof the film itself was originally a Judge Dredd one. I’m leaving this tit-bit as inconclusive.

But anyway, getting back to the film. Director Paul Verhoeven first thoughts of the film were that it was utterly stupid. Apparently, he only read the first few pages of the script and then threw it in the bin. The idea of a robot/human police officer hybrid was something that Verhoeven just could not get past and he failed to see a film worth directing. His wife, Martine, took the script from the bin and read it herself. She then convinced Verhoeven to read the script properly as it had a lot more depth to it than he first realised. As Paul Verhoeven recalled himself:

“She read it in a completely different way: she felt there were elements that weren’t so far away from me, like [Murphy] losing his past, and the philosophy of losing your memory. … Even my films in Holland, if they were about a war, none of them were action movies. I was more interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the script. I saw RoboCop a bit like a futuristic Jesus.”

That really is the key with RoboCop, it does have a lot of layers and a lot of depth. Yet, you can misunderstand it as just being a stupid sci-fi action flick. Just going back to 13-year-old me watching the film on VHS. That was how I saw it. RoboCop was just a ‘naughty’ film with a lot of swearing that looked cool. But when I watched it as an adult, the film seemed so different… but still with a lot of swearing in it and that it looked cool. The layers on RoboCop really are impressive. You’ve got your satire of American culture and Reaganomics. Those funny little TV ads within the film take on a very different meaning when you realise what they are poking fun at.

ROBOCOP TV AD

Then you have the central character of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) himself. The fact he loses everything, including his memories, and is just used as a ‘product’ by a massive corporation. His humanity is thrown aside so some slimy corporate executive could climb the ladder. Which does bring me to the Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) character and ‘father’ of RoboCop. He’s a slimy snake in the grass for sure… but the way Ferrer played him made him a very likeable guy. He was a bad guy with a heart and one that did actually care for his creation. Speaking of bad guys…

Man, I adore Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and he is one of cinema’s greatest villains. The slightly nasally voice, the ‘Heinrich Himmler’ glasses, the one-liners. He’s a complete dick and has zero redeeming characteristics… but you can’t help but love him. A good film needs a great villain for it to work and RoboCop has one of the best. Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen) was used as the connection between RoboCop and Alex Murphy. The ‘Murphy, it’s you‘ scene really is one of my favourites in the flick. The way that RoboCop does that literal little step backwards and becomes Murphy for just a second or two, before snapping back into RoboCop and continuing on. It’s the really subtle acting that sells it. Acting that must’ve been tough for Peter Weller when we the audience can’t see his face. For an actor to convey emotion and reaction… without having the luxury of using their face is damn tricky.

ROBOCOP MURPHY ITS YOU

Which does bring me to the main man himself and the one who gets the big job of carrying the weight of the film on his shoulders. How Weller pulled off playing the titular character is incredible. I’ve read stories of just how damn uncomfortable it was to act in the RoboCop suit. Apparently, it took 11 hours to get Peter Weller into the suit the first time. They got better over the course of the film shoot but it still took a good few hours. Then he couldn’t go to the toilet easily, or at all. It was so damn hot that Weller would lose around 3 lbs a day via sweating. Yet, even with all of that, he still put in an amazing performance and one with so many layers and facets. Look, I’m more than 1,400 words into this retrospective, I’ve only briefly looked at the first film and I need to move on. I could most probably write a huge and in-depth article just on RoboCop alone, just not now.

Still, I really do love this film. Paul Verhoeven’s directing is sublime and RoboCop is a film that I have grown up with. From 13-year-old me watching this on VHS and being shocked at the swearing to 46-year-old me peeling back the layers and enjoying this film for its depth and (sometimes not) subtle digs as 80s Americana and culture. In the middle of all of that, you have this story of lost humanity and one of the best acting performances you’ll ever see in an 80s sci-fi flick.

RoboCop

What do you do when you have an overtly violent and very adult-themed film? You make a kid’s cartoon out of it, of course. Honestly, this was a bit of a trend in the 80s and 90s, taking an obviously adult-focused film and turning it into kid’s entertainment. Be it a cartoon, TV show or even kid’s toys, there are loads of examples of this happening back then. I mean, in the 80s, you could buy officially licenced Freddy Krueger pyjamas for kids to wear… just think about that for a second.

FREDDY PJS

This animated show only lasted for one season and 12 episodes. Originally airing in 1988, a year after the film was released. I mean, they didn’t even wait for the film franchise to begin and get stale before they turned into a kid’s show. RoboCop (animation) was released when the film was getting its home release. The film had been an unexpected hit and work on a sequel was already underway by then but why wait for a proper sequel when you can make a kid-friendly cartoon ‘sequel’ instead? RoboCop (animation) does follow the events of the film quite a lot but it also changes things up a fair bit. For example, Murphy is still killed by Clarence Boddicker and his gang to become RoboCop. But Clarence Boddicker and his gang are actually still alive in the cartoon. Lewis is in this too as are a few of the film’s characters. No Bob Morton though (well I guess he did die in the film) and Dr. Tyler is his creator. Now, Dr. Tyler was in the film but as a very minor character. Look, I could sit here all day and point out the differences between this cartoon and the film it is based on but I need to look at if the show was any good or not.

ROBOCOP ANIMATED 88

I never watched this show back then. In fact, I only watched it recently just for this retrospective. It’s kind of like a kid-friendly retelling of the first film that (obviously) replaces the violence of its source material with morals and lessons for children. Guns don’t fire bullets, they shoot lasers… ‘cos kids love lasers. It’s that kind of thing, very typical Saturday morning cartoon fare. None of the film’s actors reprise their roles but it’s not like you’re going to miss them here anyway. The voice cast are actually pretty decent, for a kids cartoon. When watching RoboCop (animation) for this retrospective, I tried to put myself in the shoes of teenage me and work out if I would’ve watched it back when it originally aired. I reckon I would’ve. A bit of Teenage Mutant Ninja (or ‘Hero’ as they were called here in the UK) Turtles, some Spider-Man, a portion of Rude Dog and the Dweebs and a helping of RoboCop on a Saturday morning. Yeah, I think I would’ve gotten into this.

It is very obviously massively diluted from the film but as a kid’s cartoon, it is pretty good. Some episodes even deal with more ‘adult’ content, in a kid-friendly way. Things like racism, terrorism, the environment, various prejudices and so on. The kind of subjects that these types of cartoons like to force in now and then. To be fair, RoboCop even deals with the character’s humanity pretty well too. It is 12 episodes of a very typical but still a fairly entertaining show. If you want to introduce your kids to RoboCop and not worry about scarring them for life via the original film, this is a decent way to do it.

RoboCop 2

Released in 1990, this sequel saw a few of the original cast return like Peter Weller and Nancy Allen. But throw in plenty of new characters, including an ‘improved’ RoboCop 2 (title) to contend with as well as a city-wide drug problem and a Detroit running out of money. Behind the camera, director of the first film, Paul Verhoeven was gone. As too were the original writers with Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. Sitting in the director’s chair was Irvin Kershner, with the film being written by Frank Miller and Walon Green.

ROBOCOP 2

There were several behind-the-scenes issues with RoboCop 2, mainly the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner began work on writing a very different and gritter sequel. But the aforementioned writer’s strike put an end to that script. So Frank Miller was brought on as writer instead and he penned a much darker script that involved corporate fascism and would explore the backstory of Alex Murphy more. Then, Walon Green was hired to rewrite Miller’s script and ‘lighten’ it, make it more fun and jokey. This new script also removed a lot of the backstory and ‘simplified’ everything. Then there was Orion Pictures themselves. With the first film, as it wasn’t expected to be a big hit, they left Paul Verhoeven to do whatever he wanted. With this sequel, the studio saw the potential of a franchise, and so they began to control everything much more tightly and perhaps played it too safe.

ROBOCOP 2 SCREEN

RoboCop 2 is a hard film to outright dislike but it is clearly a film that suffers from studio interference and horrible script rewrites. It is still ‘adult’… I guess. Yet, it had this undercurrent of trying to be broader and more appealing to a wider audience. RoboCop 2 is nowhere near as creative or deep as the first film, it’s very shallow and lacks heart. We do get to learn more about Alex Murphy and his (widowed) wife, yet it all feels very ‘off’, lacking in any real meaning. When speaking to avclub.com, Peter Weller said that:

“RoboCop 2 didn’t have a third act. I told the producers and Irv Kirshner up front, and Frank Miller. I told them all. I said, “Where’s the third act here, man? So I beat up a big monster. In the third act, you have to have your Dan O’Herlihy. Somebody’s got to be the third act.” “No, no, the monster’s going to be enough.” “Look, it’s not enough!” When you have a movie like the first RoboCop, where the bad guys are never the bad guys and it’s always the morality of the thing. You know, like the idea that progress in the name of progress can steal a man’s identity. Look, the first RoboCop’s got deregulated trickle-down social economic politics in it, way before Bush and Romney and the debates with Obama and Senator Clinton. It’s got a morality to it. If you don’t have that, man, you’ve got no flick, and I said that so much.”

He was right too, the lack of a real third act thing aside, there really isn’t much of a flick with RoboCop 2 at all. The whole film is just so lacking over the first one. The idea of morality, humanity and so on are just not here. It’s a very typical ‘oh look, we may have a franchise on our hands’ type of sequel. One where the studio were reluctant to take any chances and played it safe just to make a better-looking and bigger budget film but one with very little substance. RoboCop 2 is watchable, even enjoyable at times… but it is still a pretty poor sequel. One thing I will say about this film though is that it got it right about Detroit going bankrupt.

RoboCop 3

RoboCop 2 was a flawed but still a somewhat watchable sequel. RoboCop 3 was just fucking atrocious. Third film and third director with Fred Dekker at the helm. Dekker also co-wrote the screenplay with Frank Miller. Now, in Frank Miller’s defence, his original script was said to have been far better but once he handed it into the studio, it went through several edits and changes. To the point where Miller turned his back on Hollywood and refused to write another script until 2005’s Sin City. Miller turned his bastardised RoboCop scripts into well-received comic books later. Some of the first two film’s cast returned for this sequel… but not Peter Weller, he had good taste. Robert Burke stepped into the chrome suit this time around and he’s a bit terrible. But I think that has more to do with the awful script than the actor. RoboCop 3 was released in 1993 when Orion Pictures were going through bankruptcy.

ROBOCOP 3 SCREEN

There really is very little to like here. You have a film where RoboCop is now helping homeless people and going to get revenge because Lewis has been killed. To be fair, Nancy Allen as Lewis is about the only saving grace in the whole film… and they killed her off about a quarter of the way in. RoboCop gets an interchangeable hand-thing that feels like an idea from one of the kid’s toys. He uses a flamethrower, wears a jet-pack and takes on a ninja robot from Japan. Seriously, I’m convinced that the producers just looked at the RoboCop kids toy line that existed at the time and said ‘make a film like that’. RoboCop has gone from shooting potential rapists in the dick to babysitting an 11-year-old girl who makes ED-209 ‘as loyal as a puppy’.

You know how the first film had real depth. Yeah, it was in its most basic form, just a film about revenge. Still, it had some amazing writing, characters you cared about, satire, witty observations, good acting and more. RoboCop 2 lost a lot of that, yet it did still have some semblance that could be connected to what made the original great. This film, RoboCop 3 however, is just truly heinous. This one feels like a made-for-TV movie that was being used as a vehicle for a family-friendly TV show… which I will get to soon enough. The iconic violence is gone, the excessive swearing is gone and the social satire is gone to be replaced with cheap parody. What you have is a prime example of why the PG-13 rating should never have been invented.

Now, before anyone starts jumping up and down on my nuts for praising and liking the animated RoboCop show earlier for it being kid-friendly, whilst decrying RoboCop 3 for going kid-friendly… allow me to explain. First, I did qualify the animated show by wondering if I would’ve liked it as a teenager back then, not as an adult now. Plus, the animated show may have been the same characters on a technical level, but the show was a retelling of the first film and created its own continuity. Those ‘same’ characters existed in a different universe to the first film. With RoboCop 3, the characters are still supposed to be the same ones from the first two films and it is in continuity with the 1987 original. So RoboCop now being all ‘help a granny cross the road’ is stupid. The character hardly does anything in the film and spends most of it out of action and being repaired.

ROBOCOP 3 SCREEN 2

There’s always been something that bothered me about the film too. Well, there are a great many things that bother me about it, to be honest. But there is one specific thing that always annoyed me. When you see RoboCop moving and talking, the suit looked terrible. You could see the jawline flopping about when Robert Burke spoke. You could see the joins in the suit more than before and it just looked really ‘fake’. It really did just look like an actor in a suit. Whereas before, it looked and felt genuine, even if we did know it was just an actor in a suit. I later found out that the suit used was the same one from RoboCop 2. Now, there is nothing wrong with reusing older props in films but with the RoboCop suit, it was measured and built specifically for Peter Weller and his body. Robert Burke had a different build and his jawline was not as strong. One of the reasons Weller got the part in the first film was because Paul Verhoeven loved his strong jawline. So when Burke wore the suit, it didn’t fit, or it didn’t fit well enough. You can really see as much in the film too. I later learned that the suit was so uncomfortable on Robert Burke that it actually hurt him when he was acting in it and he’d be in that thing for several hours at a time. I genuinely feel sorry for Burke. He had a shit script to work with and spend hours in a suit that caused him pain… just to make a shit and utterly pointless sequel.


And this is just half of the ‘fun’ too. There is more questionable RoboCop content coming up in part two of this retrospective, including some of the most bizarre appearances of the character ever…

ROBOCOP 3 SCREEN 3

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