Ironically, sci-fi movies offer a fascinating time capsule, a snapshot to the future we once anticipated. In particular, 80s flicks looked to the horizon and saw an ugly world, slathered with graffiti and rife with the corruption of millionaires and billionaires. They were cautionary tales, high-tech parables about how the crass consumerism and disposable pop culture of the Reagan years could ultimately lead us to a grimy, smoldering ruin. No movie better embodies that ominous cynicism better than RoboCop. Sure, at first glance, it would seem to be another product of its time–an unrelenting torrent of sadistic violence and cheap one-liners. But look a little deeper, and you’ll find a film with wisdom beyond its years. In fact, RoboCop might be the smartest dumb movie ever made.
The story is achingly simple–an 80s action romp that feels fueled by long lines of cocaine. It’s the dreaded near-future, and Detroit has become a burbling cesspool of crime. Greedy gangs run the city; the cops do as much as they can. Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is the last of a dying breed: A decent man, powered by love for his wife and son. His basic goodness borders on naivete. The instant someone like Murphy shows up in a story like this, you know they’re doomed.
When that doom arrives, it’s a jaw-dropping, blood-soaked spectacle. Murphy and Lewis (Nancy Allen), his intrepid partner, track a ruthless gang of thugs to an abandoned warehouse. The bad guys are led by Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who’s probably evil, because he always has a toothpick clenched between his teeth. Boddicker’s gang gets rounded out with a strong group of character actors (Paul McCrane, Ray Wise, and Jesse D. Goings), whose main function is to be cartoonishly mean. Of course, our heroes stumble into a brutal ambush, and Murphy falls in a hail of bullets.
Despite taking more shots than Sonny Corleone, Murphy somehow survives the trip to a hospital. The doctors and nurses work frantically, but to no avail. Murphy flatlines, and all would seem to be lost. But it’s here the movie pulls out a bravura moment: Murphy’s remains are repurposed into a cybernetic being, known as RoboCop. For this entire sequence, we see the world through RoboCop’s eyes. Technicians build him, tweak his design, and discuss his new abilities. This POV shot shows us the sudden dehumanization of the Murphy character, and supplies subtle exposition about RoboCop’s new abilities.
It also reveals the true villains behind his creation. Morton (Miguel Ferrer) is a ruthless corporate climber. He works for OCP, a conglomerate that supplies arms to the Detroit PD. As the cops are currently losing the war on crime, Morton supplies them with a seemingly unbeatable ally: RoboCop is a relentless, dispassionate cyborg–a terminator in heavier armor. Of course, Morton has a deeper, uglier agenda, as well.
Meanwhile, RoboCop slowly undergoes an existential crisis. Murphy’s memories were supposed to be wiped, but echoes remain. As he regenerates–or, recharges?–RoboCop sees flashes of Murphy’s wife and daughter. Even worse, nightmares of his murder begin to resurface. These traumas force RoboCop to abandon his mandate and solve the twin mysteries of his life and death.
This leads to one of most quietly impressive moments in RoboCop. A big action beat has just happened, and RoboCop is severely wounded. He is unmasked, and his face reveals a deep sadness. RoboCop has very little of Murphy left, but he has enough to know how much has been lost. It’s a subtle point on existence: What are we, but the sum of our memories and the feelings they engender? Without those, Robocop only has a vague sense of grief, along the compulsion to punish those responsible. RoboCop might be a numbnuts action epic, but Weller and famed director Paul Verhoeven give this scene a startling sense of humanity.
And don’t get it twisted: This is still a numbnuts action epic. Bloody shootouts are everywhere, along with massive explosions and idiotic characters. Verhoeven also loads his film with social satire, in the form of daffy news broadcasts and violent commercials. (One of them depicts Nukem, a board game that crosses Battleship with the theme of global nuclear destruction. Fun for the whole family!) Many of these moments offer deadpan humor, resulting in a movie that’s funnier than it has any right to be.
You’re probably thinking: All this from RoboCop?! Yes. This is a rare film that has greatly improved with age. Time has allowed its jokes to become sharper, and made its ambition clearer. Yes, this is a gory, hedonistic experience, and it’s not for all tastes. But it’s also thought-provoking and deceptively intelligent. Robocop is one of the most enduring sci-fi movies ever made. You can buy that for a dollar.
102 min. R. On demand.