RoboCop: Is The 1987 Classic Even More Relevant Today?

by Ben Martin

The world’s economy has fallen on hard times, striving every day to recover. In America,  some fiscal years are better than others. Hit particularly hard by the economic struggle is the city of Detroit, having lost its major industries. Throughout the country, the human business of police law enforcement leaves its officers with a difficult job and even harder decisions, leading the public to (rightfully) have opinions and questions about the current state of the relationship between the police and the citizens they protect. How will this system evolve with every industry moving in a more technologically based direction as opposed to a human one? Not to mention, previously public industries are becoming privatized at an ever increasing rate. That’s a bit of a grim, but a realistic, summation of the times in which we’re living.

Shockingly, it also sounds very similar to the story for 1987s RoboCop. Disenchanted with his job at Universal Pictures, screenwriter Edward Neumeier (Starship Troopers) decided to leave that position; doing so with a desire to write a film revolving around a robot. Shortly after that, Neumeier teamed-up with fellow screenwriter Michael Miner, who also wanted to tell a similar kind of story. Together, with a little inspiration from The Terminator (1984), the two cooked up RoboCop, a tale set in (at the time) the not too distant dystopian future. RoboCop takes place in Detroit, Michigan. The city is pretty much run by two entities. One of them being, “A cancer,” that is crime. The other, a giant corporation that essentially owns and controls everything in its city, Omni Consumer Products (OCP). This company has its grubby fingers in everything, managing to control big military contracts and to privatize Detroit’s police force.

The most challenging and dangerous section of Detroit to work in is one called Delta City, and Officer Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller) has just been transferred to its police department. Murphy is seasoned officer; but comes from what Delta City’s force phrases as a “cushy” unit. Murphy is partnered up with Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The duo gets involved in a pursuit of a brutal gang of murdering robbers led by Clarence J. Bodicker (Kurtwood Smith), the unofficial crime boss of the city. After tracking the gang to their hideout, Murphy and Lewis try to stop them, with a lack of reinforcements.

This leads to Lewis getting knocked out and Murphy being shot-up to the point of being declared dead. After this happens, young and eager OCP exec, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) heads up “The RoboCop Project,”  An initiative that would combine a police officer with cutting-edge robotic technology. With Morton citing that this would, “Provide 24/7, on the street  superior police protection that doesn’t need to eat or sleep.” The first candidate to become RoboCop is “recently deceased” Officer Murphy. Within weeks, RoboCop is unleashing a new brand of law enforcement on the streets of Detroit.

The script was quickly purchased by Orion Pictures. Alas, they couldn’t get any well-known or  American genre director to touch it. Thus, Dutch director, Paul Verhoeven (Hollow Man), who was looking to make his American film debut, was approached. Like others before him, Verhoeven hated the title of RoboCop and ended up tossing the script after reading only 20 pages. However, his wife read it and suggested he give it another chance. She told him that it was more than just (what is on the surface) a sci-fi/action flick and she felt her husband could bring something more to it.

When he gave it another chance, the director was able to see the political commentary and satire of the script. Upon seeing this, what he was able to bring to it was a sharp, dark and ultra-violent sense of humor. Verhoeven also had a great sense of casting; evident in the fact that every performance in this picture is on-point. The cast also includes well-known character actors Ronny Cox (Deliverance, Beverly Hills Cop), Dan O’Herlihy (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) and Ray Wise (Twin Peaks). Together they crafted an ultra-violent satirical genre piece with a lot on its mind, and it was a massive hit.

Not surprisingly, a franchise was quickly spawned. First there was the very short-lived animated series. It ran one year after the film’s release,proving to be the first attempt to broaden the property’s appeal. (That wasn’t much of a stretch as children were shown violent R rated films by parents with regularity during the 1980s-1990s.  As a kid of the 90s, I saw it as well.) There would also be another animated series, RoboCop: Alpha Commandos at the end of the 90s; it only lasted one season as well.

A follow-up sequel came in 1990 with RoboCop 2. Weller stayed to play Robo, but the original director and writers promptly jumped ship. It retained the hard-R rating and attempted to do the same with its tone and sociopolitical commentary, but failed to do so. Comics legend, Frank Miller (Sin City)  co-scribed the sequel with Walon Green (The Wild Bunch).

Also, Irvin Kershner was brought on board to direct. A good choice considering he had done The Empire Strikes Back (1980). However, what the team managed to turn in was an equally brutal, but uninspired and entertaining sequel that missed the point and charm of its predecessor. Things just got worse with RoboCop 3 (1993); Peter Weller didn’t even stick around for it. It turned out to be the studio’s poor attempt to make a PG-13, “For all ages Robo!”

In addition, there were also two live-action series. The first was RoboCop: The Series. The series; like the cartoons before it, only lasted one season. In 2001, there was a mini-series made in Canada called, RoboCop: Prime Directives. Prime Directives was in four-parts and attempted to harken back to the original classic’s tone. In the U.S., it was released as four separate R-rated direct-to-DVD movies. Then in 2014, Robo made its way back to the big screen as a remake of the original. Alas, despite Neumeier and Miner writing the remake’s screenplay; I felt it ended up being nothing more than a pointless, watered-down, cash-in. However, it should be noted that  Michael Keaton (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Samuel L. Jackson (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) turned in engaging performances.

Aside from all of the filmed Robo entertainment, there were also plenty of toys, collectibles and comic books made based on the character. One of the things I find interesting about RoboCop is that it was essentially a comic book movie. Despite the fact that it’s not based on a comic book, the film’s structure and the journey of its hero follow that of a comic book to a tee.

After-all, part of the movie’s emotional core is the path Murphy/RoboCop takes. He goes from man to soulless machine; back to being a man again, much like a multitude of comic book heroes who have been on similar journeys over the years. (Indeed, RoboCop would end up having multiple comic series under MarvelDark HorseDynamite.) From that perspective, RoboCop could be looked at as one of less than a dozen violent, R-rated comic book movies that have been highly successful . At the time, the other film that had done so was 1982s Conan the Barbarian.

The popularity of the comic book genre withstanding, I believe people are still watching RoboCop today for a whole other reason. As stated in the opening, we live in difficult and somewhat dark times, much like the film predicted.  Look at the real city of Detroit declaring bankruptcy a few years back, for example. Then there’s the ever-so-rapid technological advancements and industrial privatizations. Not to mention a president who treats the country like a corporation, approaching important issues as if they were regularly occurring business deals.

I believe that 30 years later this film is more relevant than ever and provides us with a rare opportunity to be fully entertained while (should we choose to do) examining the issues at hand. Leaving me to wonder, “What else is RoboCop going to be right about?”

RoboCop is available in an Unrated Director’s Cut on Blu-Ray and to rent or own through your preferred streaming service. If you haven’t seen it, please do so. “I LIKE IT!” and I believe you will too. If you have seen it before, why not revisit it with all this in mind?

Ben Martin

Ben Martin is a life-long movie & TV lover. In his teens, he decided he wanted to do more than just watch the things he enjoyed. So Ben decided to start writing his opinions on TV & movies a well. Mr. Martin also writes screenplays, short stories and opinion columns.