Carl Roberts reveals the facts behind Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent American satire
The year 1987 at the world box office will always be remembered for the diverse selection of films presented to us. Lethal Weapon made its bow, bringing back Mel Gibson to audiences worldwide after a few years of self exile from our screens. The Secret Of My Success, a Michael J. Fox vehicle which, to this writer, still holds a special place in his heart to this day. Innerspace, a Joe Dante directed, Steven Spielberg produced semi-remake/updating of the classic Irwin Allen film Fantastic Voyage, this time starring Dennis Quaid, Martin Short and Meg Ryan, and another personal favourite of mine, hit the silver screen to sadly mediocre box office (a shame as the film is funny, entertaining, well directed and contains a fantastic score by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith). The top grossing film of the year was Three Men and a Baby followed by Fatal Attraction and Beverley Hills Cop II respectively. Further down the list and just outside the top 10 are much loved fare Dirty Dancing (11th) and the original Predator (12th). However, the film that sat comfortably at number 16 of the year will always be regarded as a classic, mainly because it came out of nowhere and due to the fact that it resonated with audiences across the globe, beating the likes of The Living Daylights and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 comfortably.
Robocop is a classic film, one that embodies the 1980s. A violent futuristic film that surprised and delighted audiences and critics alike and gave the American MPAA ratings board nightmares. Not since the days of the Friday the 13th films did one film give the board such a headache. The “ultra-violence” of the film shocked the ratings board so much that the film needed extensive cuts to gain an R rating in the States. What the board didn’t take into account was the violence was of such of a cartoonish nature, that the film was a dark comedy at heart. It is played with comedic rather than serious intention. I mean, how corny is the title itself? Robocop. It even sounds like a trashy Roger Corman film. The title is so daft, it invites laughter. The thing is, that’s the point. It’s meant to be taken in jest. That was what the filmmakers and writers always intended. However, the MPAA. didn’t get the point or the joke and this created hell for the film.
The film starts with a 3 minute news programme called Media Break. This in itself is a contemporaneous parody of the media of the 1980s. What makes it all the more funny and entertaining is that 1980s TV news favourites Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons play the two presenters, Casey Wong and Jess Perkins. Sending themselves up gloriously, the pair introduce us to TV of the future, three minute news broadcasts interspersed with fantastically hilarious advertisements. This is what lies at the heart of the film: gleeful satire of American TV. Extortionately priced heart replacements? A family game called Nukem? Gas guzzling cars like the 6000 SUX dwarfing a rampaging dinosaur? The price of gasoline was already high in America at the time and the film sends this up with aplomb. It is such a great satire on American TV that we cannot help but laugh. Lying within the violence is a send up of America at that time.
We are introduced to the character of Alex Murphy, a police officer transferred in to Metro North from Metro South. The Detroit police department is being financed and run by OCP, a corporation that has entered into a contract with the city, and its bankrupt mayor and administration. They are pulling strings behind the scenes and are moving police officers, like pawns in a never ending violent chess game, into places they need them in. They don’t really care about the police they finance, they are just expendable figures to the corporation in the long run. Their long term goal is to tear down Old Detroit and construct Delta City, a vision of the future. The design of Delta city was based on the classic British comic, 2000AD and specifically the Judge Dredd stories and Mega City One.
Murphy is paired with Officer Anne Lewis. Their first assignment is to attempt to apprehend a van full of gang members led by the psychopathic Clarence Boddicker. The gang has recently robbed a bank but one of the members has done the unthinkable. He’s used too much explosive on the vaults door and has burnt the money, marking the gang’s ill gotten gains and making it virtually unusable. To pour salt onto their wound, they have been found by Murphy and Lewis. A chase ensues where the unfortunate gang member, Bobby is shot in the leg and is summarily thrown from the fleeing vehicle onto the front of the pursuing police cruiser, slowing them down. The van flees but the police officers manage to track them to an abandoned factory where the gang has made their hideout. Again, this location demonstrates the real situation facing the city of Detroit at the time of filming. The city had taken a sad downturn in fortunes and as such, many industrial factories had been forced to close their doors, causing a surge in unemployment for the city that they couldn’t contain. It is a credit to the writers that they choose to reflect this in their screenplay.
Lewis is knocked unconscious inside the factory and Murphy is ambushed by the gang. After being taunted and abused, Boddicker blows Murphy’s hand off and gives him to his colleagues to kill at their leisure. After being shot numerous times by shotgun, Murphy is amazingly still alive. Boddicker remedies this by summarily shooting Murphy in the head, executing him. Lewis sees all of this. This scene is the one that caused both the MPAA and the filmmakers the most trouble. The version released was heavily edited several times for its brutal, extreme violence. The director’s cut reinstates all that was edited out and shows the scene as was originally intended. And make no mistake, the scene is extremely graphic. The violence and gore shown can be a hard watch for some people and I can understand why it caused such a fuss. However, the film is about Murphy’s death, rebirth, revenge and redemption. Even though the scene is disturbing, it is needed to show the context of the rest of the film. Yes, it’s graphic and violent. Yes, it is disturbing. But that is the intention. The film is a contemporary Frankenstein. Just like Shelley’s monster, Murphy doesn’t have a choice about his future fate. They are both returned from death by unscrupulous science. Both should have been left to rest in peace instead of being recreated as proof mankind knows best and to show what he is capable of creating.
Person or Product
The filmmakers do the right thing by not revealing Robo straight away. We only catch small glimpses of him,an arm here, a shot of him on a TV screen until we are treated to a full reveal. His OCP owners view him as “product,” a merchandising public relations tool. They have tried to strip away his humanity. They view Murphy’s lifeless body as their property, not as a deceased human being. To hell with morality. To hell with his family’s feelings. He belongs to them. Again, we are treated here to a dilemma. What is freedom? How far is too far? Is it ever okay to take someone that has passed on to the next phase of existence and resurrect them again? The meaning raises its head. The tale of rebirth, revenge and redemption.
Robo during the course of the film starts to regain some of his humanity, his memories and his real identity. By the film’s end, it is uncertain how much is now the man and how much is the machine. His humanity has shown itself again, hence the removal of the visor by the film’s climatic showdown. The machine would coldly process the events and rationally come up with the best solution to the problem. The man goes his own way. The machine would calmly arrest the villains. The man systematically and coldly murders his own killers. A machine can never revenge a wrong. A man can. Is the machine morally right in being rational or is the man right in his quest for vengeance? Does the machine have a soul to lose? Or does the man possess the need to regain his? It’s to the writers eternal credit that these issues are never answered in the film. You are swept up in the story and how it will conclude that these questions are left in your mind, waiting for you to answer them in your own way. At the end of it all, the film, through its violence and theme of death and resurrection tips its hat to that greatest story of them all. This is the heart of the film. In Murphy’s death and rebirth as Robocop, we are treated to a parallel symbolisation of the death of Christ and the resurrection.
The story was originally conceived in 1981. Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner had their own ideas for a movie. Neumeier’s was titled “Robocop” and Miner’s was titled “Supercop”. Thrown together by a studio buddy-up programme, the pair merged their ideas together in 1984 and came up with the movie that we know. Both of their stories contained and were inspired by 1980s big business, individual wealth and cold war politics. The politics in their screenplay is interesting but the screenplay and the film itself have more of a cutting commentary on current affairs with a great sense of satire. Miner himself found inspiration in Blade Runner even though he asked executives at a screening of a rough cut of the film, “Okay, so what was that all about?” Getting finance for the film was tough. Miner had worked at Universal studios so offered them the chance to make the film. They declined. Every studio passed on their screenplay. That was until they met with producer Jon Davison. Davison himself was a former studio executive. He knew the studio system back to front. After reading the screenplay, he decided to take the pair and their story to Orion Pictures.
Orion Pictures was set up in 1978. It eventually became a leading light in the independent film sector. Orion Pictures producer Barbara Boyle took the meeting with Davison, Neumeier and Miner and immediately took a liking to the project. Orion looked like it was in a strong financial position after having a huge financial hit with The Terminator in 1984. However, it was in reality in dire financial trouble. A string of high profile flops had diminished their power. They were in need of a major box office hit. Their co-founder was Mike Medavoy, a former United Artists head of production. He had been in this position before. Heaven’s Gate had sunk United Artists back in the early 1980’s and things were looking grim. Yet he saw the potential in the screenplay and agreed to make the film. He did demand the film come in at under $10m budget. The filmmakers came up with a plan to make it for $9,999,999. Ultimately though, the film cost $12m to make.
Flesh and Blood
The first thing needed was a director. Roger Corman and some of his protegees were considered until someone mentioned Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven had worked with Orion before on the film Flesh and Blood. It was the first English language film from the proud Dutchman but was ultimately a box office failure. Undeterred, the filmmakers sent Verhoeven the script for the film. He wasn’t impressed. He read it on a beach at Cannes. He told his wife he was not remotely interested in making the film and went into the sea for a swim. While he was gone, his wife picked up the script, read it and, upon his return, asked him to read the screenplay again and to reconsider his earlier decision. He did. It was to become Verhoeven’s first American film.
Jon Davison decided to set up a production company solely for the film. He mischievously decided to name it Tobor Productions. When asked why he had decided to name the company Tobor, he bluntly answered, “Read the name Tobor backwards.” It was a strangely fitting name. Joining Verhoeven on set was his good friend and cinematographer Jost Vacano. The German would go on to make seven films with Verhoeven including Total Recall. His brilliance in cinematography was recognised mainly from Wolfgang Petterson’s Das Boot (The Boat) so his keen eye was a welcome and in hindsight, brilliant addition to the film.
Casting came next. Many actors were considered for the main character. These included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Keith Carradine. They were considered but never formally offered the role. What went against Schwarzenegger was his size and his previous role as The Terminator. The sheer size of him made any idea of placing Robocop’s armour on him an almost impossibility. It would look like a huge man encased in armour rather than an ordinary police officer, a normal man killed in the line of duty and returned to life with cybernetic assistance. Chuck Norris’s voice was deemed as not suitable for the role (along with his beard) and Keith Carradine was so very nearly approached for the role. However, a young actor by the name of Peter Weller was brought to their attention. He was a classically trained actor and had a background comprising dance and mime. After approaching him, they convinced the actor to take on the iconic role. He didn’t know the pain he had let himself in for.
Villians, Slimeballs and Authority Figures
With their Robocop in place,they turned their attention to the supporting cast. A virtual unknown in movies but a star on stage, Kurtwood Smith was cast as the villain, Clarence Boddicker. It was a masterstroke. Smith delivered a performance that stands the test of time. What’s more amazing is the fact that Weller refused to speak to any of the cast during the first week of shooting, choosing to stay in character all the time and refusing to answer to anything but Robocop on set. Smith recognised this as method acting but thought it was atrocious. Smith and Weller didn’t even speak or communicate at all during the first week. Ultimately, Weller and Smith did meet, sit down and talk and became good friends.
Miguel Ferrer, the son of legendary actor Jose Ferrer was asked in to audition as a gang member. He dutifully did but requested he be tested for the role of the slimy, ambitious board member, Bob Morton. They allowed him to audition three times and eventually Ferrer got the role he wanted. His performance as Morton was inspired. His journey from ambitious executive to complete slimeball leaves a lingering memory. We start by feeling happy for him but our good feelings towards him quickly disappear as he slides into excess. His death at the hands of Boddicker feels like a justice has been done; he deserves his fate. It’s a fitting ending for him. Ferrer went on to have an illustrious career (including his beloved role of Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks) before his sad and early death from cancer.
Michael Miner remembered an old employee at Universal Pictures named Lou Wasserman. He became the basis for the character of the old man. The Old Man, chairman of the board of OCP was a background character in the film, but an essential one. In the original film, he was a man wanting to do good, a man wanting to cement his legacy. The sequel abandoned this to make him the token villain of the piece, a huge mistake in my eyes. The filmmakers cast legendary genre actor Daniel O’Herlihy as the character. Known for his roles to younger viewers as the villain in Halloween III and as the alien Grig in The Last Starfighter, O’Herlihy brought a warmth to the Old Man. We laughed as he delivered comedic lines with a complete straight face. How can anyone forget his performance when, after the malfunctioning ED-209 violently kills the young executive, Kinney, he quips deadpan to his number two, Dick Jones, “Dick, I’m very disappointed.” Forget that his great hope for pacifying Old Detroit has just killed a man in cold blood, he’s just upset that it could cost the company $90m in interest payments! O’Herlihy shone in his role. What’s more surprising is the fact he was Oscar nominated years before for his performance in The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe.
Similar to the aforementioned Dick Jones, the filmmakers opted to cast veteran actor Ronny Cox. His outstanding performance in the classic thriller Deliverance alongside Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty was one for the ages. We can tell from the outset that Jones is evil; the poisonous looks he gives his fellow executives, his complete coldness towards them and the fear he instils in them leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind of his vile nature. Morton makes the mistake of stepping into the void when ED-209 malfunctions and stepping on his superiors toes. His mistake leaves him with a very dangerous enemy. Morton doesn’t realise he’s just angered a deadly snake, one whose bite is instantly fatal. He then furthers that mistake by insulting Jones in the company restroom while Jones sits in a cubicle overhearing the insults Morton utters about him. Cox is superb here. His performance leaves no doubt that Jones is a dangerous individual. When its finally revealed that he is in league with Boddicker, we are not surprised. Jones and Boddicker are made for each other. Both perform well as a team. Both will do anything to get what they want. Murder is just another tool at their disposal. To them, it’s no big deal. Nothing will stand in their way on their journey to riches and success.
Robert Doqui plays Captain Reed. Doqui was cast after the producers remembered his performance in the 1970s blaxplotation film Coffey. Again, Reed is a minor role but Doqui plays him with aplomb. The tough talking, no nonsense taking captain suited Doqui to the ground. He would appear in the two sequels, but with Robocop 3 his character was neutered and watered down.
In the Style of Ripley
Cast as Officer Anne Lewis, Murphy’s partner and eventually Robocop’s saviour was Stephanie Zimbalist. Daughter of Efram Zembalist, her casting came after the TV series Remington Steele co-starring Pierce Brosnan was cancelled. With her in place, the cast was rounded out and filming was ready to commence. Only it wasn’t.
With two weeks to go until filming started, Zimbalist pulled out of the role of Lewis. She gave no explanation as to her withdrawal. Speculation went around Hollywood as to her now non-involvement in the film, the widely accepted version being her family and friends spoke to her saying, “You’re starring in a film called Robocop? Seriously?” Her withdrawal left the film without a key role being in place. Going back through the list of actresses that had auditioned for the part originally, the producers opted to cast character actress Nancy Allen as Lewis. Allen, the former wife of director Brian DePalma, had auditioned for the role previously. She had been disappointed when she wasn’t cast. Her Hollywood resume contained performances in Carrie, Dressed to Kill alongside Michael Caine and Blow Out alongside John Travolta. Despite belief to the contrary, the character of Lewis was never written as Murphy’s/Robo’s love interest, the character was always written as a strong, independent, loveless woman. A tough lone female in the style of Ripley in the Alien films. Allen fitted the role like a glove and makes the character a memorable one. Allen had spoken with Peter Weller before filming commenced and knew of his decision to stay in character during filming so his refusal to speak while in character was not an issue or shock to her. Allen herself stated the only real complaint she had with the film was her hair! It took eight haircuts to get a style the filmmakers agreed with and Allen hated the end result. When the sequel rolled around, Allen stated she had final say over her hairstyle. Amazingly, the producers agreed. Lewis is the perfect foil to Robocop. She helps him regain his humanity, he warms to her and relies on her by the film’s climax. She comes through for him at the end despite being badly wounded and kills gang member Leon after he has dropped scrap metal onto our cyborg hero.
Phil Tippett was tasked with bringing the film to life through his brand of special effects. Using the stop motion animation he used with his special effects for The Empire Strikes Back, Tippett designed and created ED-209. The stop motion animation fight between ED-209 and Robocop brings back memories of Tippett’s idol, the great Ray Harryhausen. Not being content with producing the film, Jon Davison decided to voice ED-209. The robot’s voice is now burned into our minds and is imitated and laughed at to this day. Head of design was Craig Hayes. He helped build the full size ED-209 model for the shots of the character standing still and the end of the film guarding OCP Tower. The model was supposed to be completely destroyed by Robo at the climax. However, the blast was so loud that it destroyed many windows and led to police being called to the set for noise complaints. And after all that, the model still stood, virtually undamaged. ED-209 lived to see Robocop 2 and 3. Hayes went on to bigger things after the two Robocop sequels, including Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers.
Tasked with designing and bringing Robocop to life was the legendary and sadly now retired Rob Bottin. Bottin started out at age 18 on the original Star Wars and graduated to being in charge of creating effects for The Howling, The Thing and Legend. He took the task of creating Robo’s armour very seriously. It originally took ten hours to fit Peter Weller into the armour for the role; small screws were needed to keep the suit together. By the end of filming, Bottin and his crew got it down to three hours. Weller demanded an easier fitting and more comfortable suit for the sequel. The most astounding makeup effect in the film was saved for the death of gang member Emil Antonowsky played by actor Paul McCrane. Emil is forced to crash into a tank of toxic chemicals and when he emerges from the back of his van, he has literally started to melt. He meets his death when Boddicker crashes into him while being chased by Lewis. Emil literally explodes into blood and guts all over the windshield. The effect is sickening but hilarious at the same time. Bottin himself was overlooked for an Oscar until he was awarded a special achievement award before his retirement.
The film’s score by Basil Poledouris is amazingly fitting. From a futuristic beginning through to the childlike, moving music when Murphy takes off the visor and sees himself as he was for the first time. Robo’s theme itself fits him well, the sound of industrial hammering contained within it makes the perfect theme for the character. It also fits the film’s central themes of death, rebirth, revenge and redemption. Poledouris would return to score Robocop 3, refining his themes and score, but the third film was unworthy. It did seem fitting, however, that the recent remake of Robocop chose to keep Poledouris’s theme at its heart even, again like the third film, it was undeserving of it. Poledouris would work with Verhoeven again, most notably with Starship Troopers before his untimely death.
After the battles with the MPAA, the film finally gained a rating and was released. It went on to gross $53m dollars at the US box office, four times its budget. It was universally praised by critics and filmmakers alike. Highly regarded film director Ken Russell described it as, “The greatest science fiction film since Metropolis.” The film’s mix of action, violence and satire spoke to audiences around the world. Its lines and catchphrases were and still are quoted.
I saw the film on it’s original release and was amazed at what it showed. The power of the satire didn’t escape me and I could see what it was saying. The violence was overwhelming but justified in its context. This is a film about death and resurrection and it powers the fact home. People have stated that the underlying association to the resurrection of Christ is an insult and shouldn’t be shown as violent. These are the same people who then state The Passion Of The Christ is totally justified in its depiction of the violence. One deals with death and resurrection within religion. The other deals with death and rebirth within a fantasy setting.
Eventually, Verhoeven’s original, fully uncut vision was released. Again, I was lucky to catch this on the big screen. This is my preferred version. Yes, it’s more violent and bloodthirsty than the original release, but its power and comedic value is more pronounced. The satire takes on more meaning and its Frankenstein roots show through more. Murphy’s execution takes on a more powerful resonance. The visuals and sound are more profound.
The film is now available on 4k Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD. It contains both the original and director’s cuts. If you’ve yet to get a copy for your collection or have never seen it, I’d advise you get one. This is a 1980s film that stands the test of time, brings joy with every viewing and (whisper it) is the perfect Saturday night film to watch with a drink and a takeaway. Sit back, relax, take the phone off the hook and let yourself be swept away in a great piece of 1980s science fiction satire.
Until next time…
“Your move… creep!”