The Mother Brain Files: The Robocop Series
By Mother Brain
The year was 1987. My wonderful grandmother took my cousin and I to a local supermarket in Brooklyn to do food shopping. I remember passing by a bus stop with a large poster of a man in metal stepping out of his car. It was an image that was etched in my mind for over a year until one night when I snuck into my parents bedroom where they had cable. They were watching a movie on HBO called Robocop and it starred the very character I saw on that poster just a year earlier.
Like many young boys born in the 80s, I saw Robocop as a live action superhero. The story about a slain Detroit cop named Alex Murphy who gets resurrected into a law enforcement cyborg by a major corporation called OCP reminded me of all the comic books I read at the time. Robocop was just as much of a childhood fad as Ghostbusters and Batman. But it was in my adult years, however, when I learned to appreciate the filmâ€™s underling story about the evils of capitalism and the character serving as a Christ metaphor. The combination of memorable characters, storytelling with substance, and over the top violence with a purpose puts Robocop next to Ghostbusters as one of my all time favorite films.
As I had done previously with Beverly Hills Cop, Iâ€™ll be looking back at the Robocop films as well as his live action television incarnations. While the sequels and TV shows never measured up to the original, they each had some positive aspects. But for the most part, they were really just â€œglitchesâ€.
So where do I begin? While screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner laid out the groundwork for this corporate crazy world where law enforcement is privatized and American capitalism is satirized in parody commercials, it was Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven who set a tone that no other filmmaker had been able to match successfully. His use of excessive violence was not only entertainment value for action junkies but it also revealed how absurd the people the world are. The horror of ED-209 blasting an young OCP executive into hamburger meat was minimal compared to the sight of other executives pushing him out of their way and the Old Man characterâ€™s lack of remorse when he utters the line â€œDick, Iâ€™m very disappointed.â€ When it comes to the actors, Robocop was undoubtedly Peter Wellerâ€™s signature role. Over the years, Iâ€™ve learned to appreciate Wellerâ€™s efforts while suffering in a fiberglass suit and using mime techniques to get the proper movements down. More importantly, the audience feels pain when the character himself is vulnerable and Weller captures such pain in moments like when he sees his reflection after removing his helmet for the first time. This character trait along with his ability to see memories of his previous life make Robocop unique character in that he is less of a superhero and more of a mentally tortured man struggling to regain his humanity. Something that studio executives would ignore later on.
Almost everyone in this movie gives a memorable performance including Kurtwood Smith playing Clarance Boddicker as the villain everyone loves to hate, Miguel Ferrer as the charming asshole executive who forms the Robocop project, and Ronny Cox ditching his good guy image to play the ruthless corporate baddie, Dick Jones. On the technical side, Phil Tippettâ€™s stop motion puppetry work with ED-209 reminded people of Ray Harryhausenâ€™s greatness with stop motion monsters in Jason and the Argonauts. Rob Bottin, who was responsible for the terrifying alien transformation effects and makeup in John Carpenterâ€™s The Thing, compliments Verehovenâ€™s manic style not only creating Robocop suit and makeup but also the shocking makeup work on one of Boddickerâ€™s goons who gets drenched in toxic. Finally, the memorable original score by Basil Poledouris has to be up in the ranks as John Williamsâ€™ scores for Star Wars and Superman. Having watched it again recently on cable, the original still holds up in the digital age. Ironically enough, however, its themes and messages about the evils of capitalism are even more relevant now than they were in 1987.
Robocop 2 (1990)
I remember seeing the first sequel the day it opened that summer. By then, I had collected the Kenner action figures as well as owning the NES video game based on the original film. While I liked Robocop 2 at the time, I quickly found myself hating it a year after it was released. The story moves forward as Robocop takes on a new drug epidemic on the streets of Detroit called Nuke and itâ€™s being manufactured by the psychotic Cain (Tom Noonan). At the same time, OCP continues their plans to foreclose on the city as well as develop a newly advanced Robocop who is bigger, badder, and doesnâ€™t elicit emotion.
All the original cast members return. Unfortunately, Verehoeven was busy filming Total Recall. So Irving Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, took the directorâ€™s chair. With all due respect to the late directorâ€™s past work, Kershner completely missed the mark on Robocop 2. He unsuccessfully attempted to mimic Verehoevenâ€™s manic style while ditching the Dutchmanâ€™s gritty direction and fancy camerawork for a more polished, traditional sci-fi actioneer. The great comic writer Frank Miller was also hired as the screenwriter only to find his work getting butchered by studio rewrites. The resulting film was filled with good ideas without a conclusion (i.e. OCP forcing Robocop to tell Murphyâ€™s wife that her husband bit the dust) and bad ideas that were just plain silly (i.e. Hob the adolescent foul mouth drug dealer). Even Leonard Rosenmanâ€™s score is atrocious with the choir chanting Robocopâ€™s name in the overture. The filmâ€™s true saving grace had to be Phil Tippett who put together an incredible climax between the two Robocops at OCP headquarters. It was an insane, brutal battle taking place in elevator shafts, rooftops, and the streets of Detroit. Too bad the rest of the film couldnâ€™t be as good.
Robocop 3 (1993)
This is where things got bizarre. I was 9 in 1992 when there was a flood of video games and comic book tie-ins for the new Robocop film; however, there was no announcement of a release. All I knew was that he turns against OCP when they go after homeless Detroit citizens, befriends a little girl, gets a new machine gun attachment and a freakinâ€™ jet pack. As it turned out later on, the studio behind the franchise was going bankrupt and their slate of films sat on the shelf for a year. Like the 2nd film, Robocop 3 made me stand up and cheer in itâ€™s initial release. Today, I believe this is the weakest film of all.
So what went wrong? First, the edginess of the previous films was toned down for a PG-13 rating. At this point, kids were the only Robocop fans that the studio would cater to. Peter Weller decided that the suit and lack of story direction were good reasons to leave the series and had to be replaced by a lookalike actor named Robert John Burke. The hard-working New York actor and real life fireman managed to succeed Weller fine despite the change in voice and appearance. But he lacked the sense of pain in the character that only Weller portrayed best. Old supporting character favorites like Roboâ€™s kick ass chick partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) and the Old Man were either ditched or killed off in favor of a series of new characters played by many future stars. They included Crossing Jordanâ€™s Jill Hennessy as Roboâ€™s personal scientist, CCH Pounder from The Shield as the leader of a Detroit resistance against OCPâ€™s armed force group, future alcoholic jailbird and Men in Black boss Rip Torn as the new head of OCP, and Bradley Whitford of The West Wing as an asshole OCP executive.
Fred Dekker of the cult classic The Monster Squad took the directorâ€™s chair in the 3rd Robocop outing. He did a better job at incorporating important elements of the first film (the Christ metaphor, the Poledouris score, etc) and tried a fresh approach to the material by having OCP merge with a Japanese corporation with their own martial arts cyborg sent to destroy Robocop. But Dekkerâ€™s cartoonish ideas with the gun attachment and jet pack only did more harm to the character than good. Robocop is supposed to be a gunslinger no different from Clint Eastwoodâ€™s Dirty Harry. By this film, heâ€™s just a walking swiss army knife. The sad attempt at bringing the character down to Transformers and Spider-Man territory did nothing to save the franchise and it would be the last Robocop movie released theatrically to date.
Robocop: The Series (1994)
Just when I thought it couldnâ€™t get any worse. Orion Pictures sells the TV licensing rights to a Canadian production company called Skyvision. They produce an hour long, weekly syndicated series following the further adventures of Robocop despite the fact that all the supporting characters were altered due to copyright reasons and the sequels were completely ignored. Like the 3rd film, the series was made to be kid friendly and even that got worse. The character kills no one on screen, gets equipped with excessive gadgetry, and has too many friends including the OCP Chairman and a dead scientist whoâ€™s resurrected into a ghost trapped inside Detroitâ€™s power lines! WTF?!
The performances are downright bad. In addition to hiring Canadian actors to fill the main roles, the title character would be played by soap actor Richard Eden. Letâ€™s just say he looked like a leukemia patient without his helmet on. The villains were just plain terrible and that goes for the Freddy Kruger-looking gangster Pudface Morgan.
Interestingly enough, the pilot episode adapted an unproduced draft of Robocop 2 written by the original creators and Rowdy Roddy Piper guest starred as a comic book creator-turned-vigilante. None of this saved this bastard child.
Robocop: Prime Directives (2001)
In hopes of resurrecting the franchise, another Canadian company produced a 4 part mini-series designed to be the definitive Robocop follow-up, picking up 10 years following the events of the first film. The new story follows an older Robocop confronting Alex Murphyâ€™s old parter John Cable who also gets killed and resurrected into a new, badass Robocop while a mad scientist tries to use a bio-tech virus to wipe out all life on earth.
The mini-series director, Julian Grant, wanted to return to the dark and gritty tone of the first film while modernizing the themes at a time prior to 9/11. He cast Page Fletcher from HBOâ€™s The Hitchhiker in the title role and dropped all the original characters except for Murphyâ€™s son who is now a major OCP executive. The initial buzz was promising. But when it aired in America on the Sci-Fi Channel that summer, Robocop fans were left disappointed. Everything from action scenes to special effects suffered due to the low budget. A budget so low that stock footage from Robocop: The Series had to be utilized. The scripts for the mini-series were unpolished, repetitive, and downright silly. Its poor ratings were the final punishing blow to the franchise.
Fans of the original Robocop came to terms with one consensus: Robocop is a stand-alone film that never needed sequels. If and when you see the film, the story is open and closed. Everything else after should have been left up for interpretation. When Sony Pictures bought out the MGM library which had the Robocop rights, they announced plans for a remake rather than producing a 4th entry. Black Swanâ€™s Darren Aronofsky was slated to direct until conflicts with the studio over making film in 3D forced him to quit. As of this date, Brazilian director Jose Padilha is attached to direct the remake and the search is on for a leading actor. Only time will tell if audiences overwhelmed with superhero and alien invasion flicks in todayâ€™s cinema will embrace Robocopâ€™s return to the big screen. As for Frank Millerâ€™s Robocop Vs. Terminator in live action form, letâ€™s just say Iâ€™ll buy that for a dollar on opening day!
If you liked reading this, see my earlier blog about the possible Robocop statue in Detroit.