In Robocop (1987), his first American feature film, Paul Verhoeven--together with scriptwriter Ed Neumeier--made a genuinely original contribution to the action genre: an ultra-slick combination of social satire, science fiction and brutal violence. Twenty years later it is still arguably the most effective film of its type, excepting perhaps Starship Troopers (1997), which the writer-director team made a decade later. Starship Troopers was accused by some critics of being a fascist film, but for the attentive viewer it's clear that Neumeier and Verhoeven were poking fun at the underlying fascistic worldview of Heinlein's original novel. Surprisingly few critics picked up on this at the time, though Mike Clark of USA Today did give Starship Troopers four stars, characterizing it as "a sendup for the ages."
In RoboCop the satire is perhaps more accessible than in Starship Troopers, and thanks to the central dilemma of Murphy/RoboCop, the film gains in emotional immediacy compared to the ruthless ironic distance in Starship Troopers. The target in RoboCop is unmistakably the corporate and militaristic culture of the Reagan era. On the one hand, Verhoeven and Neumeier envision an enlightened future of unisex locker rooms, but on the other hand they depict the wholesale privatization of institutions such as the police force and education system ("Lee Iacocca Elementary School"), to say nothing of the reduction of media to a single television channel devoted to nothing but superficial news broadcasts and a mindlessly titillating comedy show. And Ronny Cox is perfectly cast as the snarling embodiment of heartless corporate greed.
One of the film's most clever satiric jabs, easily overlooked amongst all the mayhem, is The Old Man's "I had a dream" speech as he unveils his plans for the future "Delta City" project. The ironic evocation of Reverend Martin Luther King only serves to emphasize the underlying banality and cruelty of corporate culture in Neumeier and Verhoeven's vision. "Delta City" is no doubt a sly reference to John Portman's design for Detroit's Renaissance Center, a skyscraper complex which was part of an ambitious renewal program for the downtown area; its first phase was completed in 1977. (Incidentally, the Renaissance Center's imposing central hotel hosted Reagan himself during the Republican National Convention in 1980.) While Portman's design remains one of the most widely acclaimed architectural projects of the past thirty years, some critics have complained that its fortress-like presence only reinforces the sense of economic disparity within the city.
RoboCop was in fact Verhoeven's second feature for the American firm Orion Pictures; his first, still backed partly with Dutch funds, was Flesh + Blood (1985), a period action film shot in Spain. Verhoeven left definitively for the US in 1985, complaining in one interview that he had grown tired of having to fight the "moralizing prejudices" of the Dutch state committees that decided on whether to fund films. Although Flesh + Blood ultimately failed at the box office, Mike Medavoy, the Executive Vice President of Orion Pictures, continued to back Verhoeven--a gamble that amply paid off thanks to RoboCop's subsequent box office receipts.
Initially, Verhoeven wanted to introduce a more realistic tone to the film, but he decided to stick with the original script's comic-book approach when Neumeier had him sit down and read a number of American comic books to get a better sense of their aesthetics. The special effects artist Rob Bottin, already renowned for his brilliant work on Joe Dante's The Howling (1981) and The Thing (1982), was brought in to design the RoboCop suit, but he and Verhoeven had an extended, often bitter, struggle over its basic conception. Regardless, the final result--with its sleek finish and the helmet's emphasis of Peter Weller's powerful jaw line--evidently appealed to audiences. The film's law enforcement theme also resonated with audiences, in a way that the scriptwriter Ed Neumeier didn't anticipate. He recalls in an interview with Rob van Scheers, author of a 1997 book on Verhoeven: "[...] I thought I was making a satire about Reagan's America. But the audience locked on to it because RoboCop was a guy who was going to shoot down criminals in the street." The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Editing and Best Sound.
Producer: Arne Schmidt
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Script: Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner
Director of Photography: Jost Vacano
Special Effects: Rob Bottin
Score: Basil Poledouris
Editor: Frank J. Urioste
Production Designer: William Sandell
Art Director: Gayle Simon
Cast: Peter Weller (Alex Murphy/RoboCop), Nancy Allen (Anne Lewis), Ronny Cox (Richard "Dick" Jones), Kurtwood Smith (Clarence J. Boddicker), Dan O'Herlihy (The Old Man), Robert Do'Qui (Sgt. Reed), Miguel Ferrer (Robert Morton), David Packer (Emergency Doctor), Neil Summers (Dougy), Sage Parker (Tyler), Kevin Page (Kinney, OCP marketing executive), Diane Robin (Chandra), Felton Perry (Johnson).
by James Steffen