I know a few things about the city of Detroit: it has a world-renowned car industry, it has had economic hard times, it has a great KISS song named after it, and it is the setting for Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 dystopian action movie “RoboCop.” Detroit’s citizens have so embraced the character there was a campaign to build him a statue, which actor Peter Weller endorsed in a Funny or Die video. Appropriate, since much of the film is a satire of society, much of which still holds up today.
Though it came out in the late 80s, I became familiar with the character of RoboCop during the late 90s through various shapes or forms. There was a live-action television series, two inferior sequels, and even an animated TV series, which I used to watch in Spanish while living in South America. I did see bits and pieces of the original film, which at age 14 was somewhat of a clandestine activity considering the level of violence. The scene where Paul McCrane is almost melted by toxic waste was particularly memorable. Then in 2010 I finally sat down and watched the whole thing at a film club at Sherbrooke University when the club president asked me if I had any requests. My brainwave: a Peter Weller double feature featuring his greatest hits, “Robocop” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.” I swear that last one is a real movie, check it out.
But lets get back to a dystopian Detroit as seen from a Dutch filmmaker in 1987. In this (I am hoping) worse version of Motor City crime is rampant, the police are talking of going on strike, and O.C.P (Omni Consumer Products), a corrupt corporation has its hands in everything. Said corporation plans to destroy old Detroit and replace it with the utopian Delta City. But first, crime must be taken down a notch in order to secure a contract to run the police force. Senior Vice President Dick Jones proposes to unleash a robot into the streets. The robot, ED-209, is loud, clunky, and hilariously kills a board member during a demonstration. With that plan off the table, lower ranking executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) pitches his plan for a half-human half-robot police officer. All they need is a nearly deceased candidate.
The lucky “candidate” will be turn out to be Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) a veteran officer with a new partner, tough female officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). On their very first day of patrol they chase crime boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang of saddist to an abandoned steel mill. The gang captures Murphy and brutally slaughter him. He should be dead. They have literally riddled his body with bullets; one even hits his head point blank. Yet Murphy slowly awakens, not as a man but as something in between. The only thing left of his body is his head. The rest is steel and microchips.
With a set of prime directives imprinted in his brains and a large pistol lodged in his leg, RoboCop is set loose on the streets to put the fear of God in criminals. But is Murphy still in there? At first no, his thoughts are only focused on doing his job and recharging his batteries, or has corporations would call it, the perfect employee. But one night RoboCop runs into one of the men who shot him to pieces. The encounter brings back memories of his past life, including that of his wife and son, who believe him to be dead. The perfect cop now has feelings, chiefly anger, and he sets off to find the scum responsible for turning him into a tin can.
This is a very challenging role for Weller since the moment he becomes RoboCop, only his mouth is visible. He must speak in a monotone voice until his humanity slowly resurfaces. Yet we can tell there is still a human being in there, one that feels grief at the sight of his empty house. Once his helmet is removed, you can clearly see the anguish on the character’s face.
Then there is the world created by Paul Verhoeven. His film is filled with bloody violence, most so excessive it is borderline cartoonish. In fact, some of the deaths were some excessive my friends and I at the film club had no other option but to laugh when RoboCop shoots a man in the crotch by first shooting through a woman’s dress.
Since Hollywood has been remaking every movie made in the 1980s, there is a of course a remake on the way. I say why bother making a remake? Why not simply do a sequel set 25 years later? Is Detroit really that different from 1987? You could even recast Peter Weller, since RoboCop’s face may have aged, but his body is essentially spare parts that can be replaced. Also, give that man his statue.