‘Robocop’ At 30 — An Island Of Dark Satire In A Decade Of Cheerleading

The 80s were a decade when criminals were bad, authorities were right, and happy endings were all but assured. After Watergate and a decade of moral ambiguity in the 70s (I tend to think of Dog Day Afternoon, with its murky motives, paranoia, and near assurance of a bad end for the main characters, as one of the defining films of the decade), movies like Star Wars, the Rocky sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark, et al, in the 80s ushered in an era of moral simplicity, where Communism was bad and suburban living and Pepsi were good. If there’s a prototypical 80s movie, it’s probably Back to the Future, with its overt nostalgia for an idealized 50s and its implication that any problem can be licked if you just act manlier (for which the reward would be a new coat of wax on the family car and a newer pick-up truck for your kid).

Into this cheery milieu in 1987 clomped Robocop, a spaghetti Western gunslinger in spirit and Arnold Schwarzenegger meets the rear end of a Cadillac in body, out to clean up a decaying Detroit, put out of business by cheap steel and Japanese cars, and in the process of being carved up by greedy capitalists.

The heroes of most of the other movies of the decade fought Nazis or Communists or drug gangs or even simply “the Dark Side” — it says a lot that in the most popular franchise of the era, the bad guy was essentially negative thinking. By the 90s this had become a punchline, with American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman telling a homeless man “You’ve got a negative attitude! That’s what’s stopping you!”

But in the hair metal 80s, “positive vibes cures poverty” was still the conventional wisdom. In the midst of this, Robocop‘s enemy was, of all things, privatization. While a lot 80s movies loved to poke fun at Ronald Reagan the person — think 1955 Doc Brown saying “the actor?!” upon finding out who’s president in 1985 — most of them played like sizzle reels for his policies set to Kenny Loggins music. Top Gun had come out in 1986, a year earlier. The Untouchables came out the same year as Robocop, landing 10 slots ahead of it on the year-end box office charts, a high-art movie directed by Brian DePalma and written by David Mamet, two hot young creatives who teamed up to canonize, of all people, the brave cops who enforced prohibition. The 80s loved a straight shooter, almost to an irrational extent.

Robocop, meanwhile, anarchic and rebellious in both execution and ideology, was one of the few films of the era to tell us that the future might not be so rosy, and not just because of the usual “drugs and crime are out of control!”

To be sure, Robocop did tell us drugs and crime were out of control, but it was mostly a way into a larger critique of privatization and techno utopianism. A company called OCP owns the police force (“you see that we’ve gambled in markets usually regarded as non-profit. Hospitals. Prisons. Space exploration”) and their plan to automate police work becomes a dark farce. Robocop ends up cleaning up the town, as you might expect, but not because he’s “the future of law enforcement.”

In fact, Robocop only exists in the first place because of boardroom infighting (the scene where OCP’s plan A, ED-209, shreds a junior VP during a presentation), and when he does defeat his all-robotic competitor, ED-209, it isn’t because of some triumph of the human spirit. It’s because ED-209’s rushed designers forgot to teach it how to negotiate stairs (I love it when even vast criminal conspiracies are depicted as kind of incompetent, it feels real, especially now). Whereas most 80s movies taught you to trust authority (even when it was enforcing nonsensical laws, like the Volstead act) and technology, Robocop told you that most people are flawed and incompetent, and even when armed with futuristic techonology, we’re apt to f*ck things up.

That’s part of Robocop‘s genius, feinting with a genre trope before going somewhere unexpected. I first saw it when I was a little kid (critique of my lax parenting goes here), when all I really understood was that Robocop had an awesome gun that popped out of his leg and that he could reload through his hand (which the movie never explicitly states, but kids somehow inferred). And that he had a robot middle finger for some reason (it’s actually his “information” spike, and he uses it to kill Clarence Boddicker, and if anything cemented my child-like fascination with the movie, it was that). The ideas in it went way over my head until much later. I just saw Robocop as another cool superhero to pretend to be during living room gun fights (his main attributes were not having to reload and flipping everyone off).

Robocop tricked me into receiving its message. And on a larger scale, I think it did that for all of pop culture. On a relatively modest $13 million budget (the 2014 remake would cost at least $100 million) it went on to gross $53 million in theaters and another $24 million in home video sales (in debuted in 1988 at a price of $89.98), massive numbers for a schlocky, lurid, exploitation-ish action movie with no big stars that only narrowly avoided being rated X. It played upon our love of cars, cowboys, and jacked heroes to trick us into watching a gritty, snarky, glorified B-movie screed against Reaganomics at a time when shiny cheerleading was the dominant mode of expression. And people loved it.

“I Thought It Was A Piece Of Shit”

It all started with a pair of young UCLA film school alums, Michael Miner, who was directing music videos at the time, and Ed Neumeier, who’d been working as a story executive at Universal. They connected when Neumeier saw a showcase reel of the best of the UCLA film school, which had some of Miner’s work on it. “It had Miner and it had Catherine Hardwicke [future director of Thirteen and Twilight] and some other people who you haven’t heard of,” Neumeier told Uproxx in an interview.

They had lunch together and discovered they had both been working on robot-related projects1, and decided to join forces. They eventually finished a script and sold it to Orion, where it would be produced by Jon Davison. Which was a serendipitous pairing, as Davison had worked with both the Zucker Brothers on Airplane! and Top Secret!, and was a veteran of B-movie productions with the king of exploitation films, Roger Corman. You can feel Davison’s resume in the final product, a movie that’s funny where you’d least expect it (the infamous board room scene is my favorite), and gleefully gory in a very Corman-esque fashion.

(This scene, where one of Boddicker’s henchman crashes into a vat of toxic waste, feels by far the most Corman-esque. Just after this, Boddicker hits him with his car and liquifies him, a shot which the MPAA wanted cut — Davison and Verhoeven refused because it got consistently the biggest laugh at test screenings)

It was also Davison who became Paul Verhoeven’s conduit to the world of animators, puppeteers, artists, and practical effects designers (like Phil Tippett, who created ED-209, or Rob Bottin, who designed Robocop’s suit) who would make Robocop what it is. Which was important, because Paul Verhoeven had never made that kind of movie before. And very nearly didn’t make this one. The Dutch director, who at that point had directed only one film in English (Flesh and Blood) and none in the Hollywood system, has said he read one page of the script and tossed it over his shoulder. “I thought it was a piece of shit,” Verhoeven says in the blu-ray commentary.

“We were embarrassed about the title,” Neumeier says on the same track. “People would say ‘What are you are working on?’ And we’d mumble ‘uh… Robocop…'”

Robocop‘s quality of hooking you with the cheesy stuff in order to hit you with the satire was working against it at first. It was Verhoeven’s wife, who Verhoeven says had been reading the rejected script while Paul was out for a swim, who forced him to give it a second look.

“I started to read it, and I slowly started to discover that I could do that movie,” Verhoeven told Esquire in 2014. “The most important scene for me was the one where Murphy comes back to his house, and he has memories of his child, and wife. That to me is like finding the lost Garden of Eden, like a lost paradise.”

“Ed and I were the luckiest screenwriters in the decade of the 80s,” Michael Miner told Uproxx. “Because English was Paul’s second language. So instead of an American director firing us and hiring his buddy to re-write the movie he wanted to make, Paul worshiped the script. He would come to us and say, ‘What does this joke mean? What does that joke mean?'”

That meant Miner, a self-described “hippie who experimented with psychedelics and protested the war,” and Neumeier, who “grew up in Northern California post-Watergate and Vietnam” got to fully implement their anarchic vision.

“Comic relief for a cynical time. [Economist] Milton Friedman and the Chicago boys ransacked the world, enabled by Reagan and the CIA,” as Miner described the plot to Esquire. Miner also calls Reagan “a motherf*cker from the beginning.”

Whereas Robocop’s suit and awesome gun captivated me as a child, when I rewatch it as an adult my favorite bits are all the corporate posturing. Like Miguel Ferrar’s Bob Morton (arguably the film’s acting MVP) straightening his suit and pretending not to be scared during the ED-209 presentation. His self-conscious attempt to present the most “business-y” image throughout the board meeting is magical.

And then there’s the dark comedy of someone shouting, “Somebody wanna call a goddamn paramedic?” after the character played by actor Kevin Page had just been blown apart in a ridiculously over-the-top death scene that took 200 squibs, quarter-pound baggies of spaghetti squash, and had to be trimmed to avoid the film getting an X rating. I’m still not sure what’s funnier, the paramedic line (even when someone has just been brutally murdered a grasping exec still uses it as an opportunity to try to passive aggressively make a rival look bad) or the long pause just before it.

“I think we were reacting to the Reagan era,” Neumeier says. “Everybody was walking around in the 80s talking about ‘corporate raiders’ and ‘killers’ and how business was for tough guys. I just thought that was absurd.”

What better way to poke fun at absurd rhetoric than make it brutally literal?

The fact that you can go from laughing at a brutal murder to being emotionally invested in a character’s death a few scenes later (when we see Murphy’s death and resurrection as Robocop from the perspective of Murphy himself — still creepier than a horror movie) is what makes Robocop so great, and so strange.

Playing Dumb To Be Smart

A number of contradictory ideas seem to coexist within Robocop. It’s horrific and then comedic. It’s insightful and then it’s schlocky. It seems self-aware even though the characters themselves aren’t. It’s part of what makes the film work, but getting everyone on board with it at the time was a process, understandably.

“Most people, including my partner, didn’t really understand that it should be funny,” says Neumeier. “They really thought it should be straight and Michael and I had this big breakthrough when we were writing the second draft where I convinced him, no it can be funny, Mike. The humor is what gives it the extra layer and the tone that allows you to have all these different ideas and things running around in it. The fact that Paul Verhoeven showed up then and got that was another astounding stroke of luck. Now I realize that every other director we ever considered would have probably fired me and gotten rid of all that silly stuff.”

“Ed always has felt, to the point where he’s bugged the shit out of me about it, that you can say a lot more once you say it funny,” says Miner.

It wasn’t just the humor. Even if it hadn’t been played for laughs at times, Robocop‘s ideology would still refuse to run in a straight line. It’s not the ideology that’s rebellious, it’s even the execution of how it’s expressed.

It’s clear from the board meeting, and from the fact that the main bad guy is ultimately not Clarence Boddicker the cop killing psychopath (the guy who killed Murphy, the cop who became Robocop), but Dick Jones (played wonderfully by Ronny Cox), the corrupt corporate raider who wants to privatize prisons and police and the military — that the story is just as Neumeier and Miner describe, a critique of privatization and Reaganomics.

Of course, it also posits a future beset by cackling, sex-crazed criminals who rob banks, kill cops, rape women, and sling drugs, the kind of fear that would fit nicely into an ad for Reagan himself, especially the younger version, running for governor of California on a platform of playing hardball with the longhairs. Moral blight was the problem, “law and order” was the solution, personified by a gun twirling cowboy (albeit a cyborg version designed by a corrupt corporation) come to clean up the town — all imagery that the Hollywood cowboy Reagan surely would’ve loved.

“That is a cop trope, right?” Miner says. ‘Crime was out of control, blah, blah, blah.’ It’s a very Republican idea.”

“We were trying to be tropey, a little bit, even thought that wasn’t a word then,” Neumeier says. “We were trying to say there’s a guy. He’s a cop. His name is Murphy. We were trying to go for cliches, running with a lot of cliches as it were. I mean basically the movie is playing dumb to be smart.”

“Playing dumb to be smart” also might be the perfect career description for Paul Verhoeven, who holds a doctorandus in mathematics and physics (incidentally, Peter Weller, the actor who played Murphy/Robocop, got his Ph.D in Italian Renaissance Art History in 2013, and has taught history courses at Syracuse), and after Robocop would go on to direct almost every schlock masterpiece cultural touchstone of the 90s — Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers. Robocop didn’t just turn out to be a perfect fit for Verhoeven, it changed the course of his entire career.

Part of the fun is all of Robocop‘s strange paradoxes. Most of it was funny at the time by design, but one aspect that’s only gotten better with age is watching Robocop, this titanium Schwarzenegger (fun fact: Schwarzenegger was considered for the lead, but he was too bulky and the suit made him “look like the Michelin Man”), an amalgamation of America’s cowboy mythos and its muscle car fetish, step out of a dinky 1980s Ford Taurus — surely one of America’s most embarrassing cars. In this, at least, the humor was entirely unintentional.

“We built this whole car called a ‘Turbo Cruiser’ that didn’t work out,” Neumeier says. “It was more ambitious than we could be and so on the set, a Taurus showed up. No one had ever really seen one before and they said this is the new car Ford is making to be cop cars. And so it looked good to us and they had a shiny one all made up and then they had all these background cars that were painted with what was called ‘peel paint,’ and it was kind of a matte black paint. I think the art department never forgave me because I saw them and I said Paul, these look so cool. We should use the background ones with the peel paint on them, the matte black paint. That’s how we got to the turbo cruiser there.”

An Asexual Hero In A Sexualized World

Another iconoclastic aspect of Robocop is that there’s no love interest, rare in an era when every action star was required to make love to at least one minor female character behind a gauzy screen set to a revolting sax solo. In Robocop, Nancy Allen plays Anne Lewis, Murphy’s partner, and they have a fairly action movie conventional meet-cute in the lobby of the police station, where Murphy watches Lewis pummel a perp and it seems to turn him on (Neumeier says they wrote a version where Lewis takes off her police helmet and a cascade of feminine hair spills out, but realized it was too cheesy). They have a moment together when Murphy tells her about his son, but then Murphy ends up getting murdered the same day. Lewis goes onto become a kind of sidekick for Robocop, but it’s never a love match.

And anyway, Murphy was apparently happily married. In a move that seems almost bizarre now, the Robocop version of Murphy never tries to reconnect with live Murphy’s wife or his son. We see them only in flashback. Robocop has a few dreams about them and goes to visit his now-abandoned house, but beyond that his memory wipe is inexorable. I still find this weirdly affecting, even in the midst of a movie where I laughed my ass off at multiple scenes of gruesome carnage.

“He’s a pre-sexual character.” Neumeier says. “The tragedy of his wife and kid are hard enough to address but the idea that he’s no longer a sexual being at least at that time is something that only Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises had to face, but we don’t talk about it. He has the sort of innocence of a pre-sexual male or boy or something practically.”

Of course, that doesn’t make it a pre-sexual movie. One of the early scenes is set in the locker room, where the camera pans past naked cops of both genders washing themselves in the co-ed showers. The mixed washroom was Verhoeven’s idea. “It passed by so fast that i never felt that the audience picked it up, so I redid it in Starship Troopers,” Verhoeven has said.

It’s hard not to notice Verhoeven’s distinctly 13-year-old boy-esque sensibility in various places. It was Verhoeven who came up with the line delivered by an attempted rapist who’d just menacingly cut off a lock of his victim’s platinum perm, who says, as he’s lifting her skirt “I bet there’s more hair… down there!

It was Verhoeven again who came up with Robocop’s method of killing said rapist — shooting him in the groin, through the victim’s skirt and between her thighs.

And then there’s the matter of the bad guy who gets the drop on Officer Lewis when she stops to let him zip up his pants. (“Mind if I… zip this up?”)

“[In the case of] do you mind if I zip this up,” Neumeier says, “we had written that one of the guys who may have been the black guy in the gang was taking a pee when Lewis snuck up behind him. But Paul, he wanted to play with the idea that she wants to look at, that she makes the mistake of looking at his dick. He added that. Paul is always trying to add sex to things a little bit.”

Verhoeven famously thought of Robocop as a Jesus metaphor, but for me the enduring impression of it is a movie created by group of very smart, civilized people that steadfastly refuses to not be rude and crude.

Much of the joy of watching Robocop today comes from the sense that it couldn’t be made today, even as the content seems almost eerily relevant. In 1987, privatizing space travel was something Reagan had expressed interest in, in 2017 it’s something we’ve actually done (Trump even wants to revive Reagan’s plan to privatize air traffic control). Robocop was concerned with privatized military forces pre-Blackwater, another idea that’s hot again. For profit schools? The current president even had his own. They seemed to poke fun at the idea of the militarized police force, sticking the cops in goofy hockey helmets and giant flak jackets well before kevlar vests became part of police’s everyday uniform.

Meanwhile, a lot of the storytelling is refreshingly old-fashioned. Or at least, classic. In 2017, Robocop almost surely would’ve had to save the world, the universe, at the very least thousands of people. In Robocop, all he has to do is merc a couple scumbags who pissed him off. The irony of CGI allowing modern action and sci-fi to have bigger and bigger stakes is that it also makes them feel oddly impersonal. We care more about one guy or one girl in peril than an entire city block. Did older movies know that, or were they just forced to do it that way by the limitations of their tech? Either way, it works, and it’s worth revisiting.

It’s hard to underplay the significance of a really kick ass looking robot suit, sure, but Robocop feels like it has endured as part of pop culture precisely because it went against the grain. It even went against its own grain. History is written by the winners, but one of the great things about expression is that art history is occasionally written by the sneering objectors.

1 In particular, there was “Don’t Stop Runnin’,” a music video Miner directed for the band Y & T.

According to Wikipedia, the Y & T stands for “Yesterday and Today.”

Vince Mancini writes lots of other stuff and is on Twitter.