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Revisiting Old Detroit: A Look Back on the RoboCop films.

It’s funny how one gets the urge to revisit a series of movies. I currently play Mortal Kombat 11 and with the game’s Aftermath expansion RoboCop was added to the game as a guest character. I’ve had a lot of fun learning his moves and combos and it just got me eager to rewatch the film. I already owned the original on blu-ray and have the remake via digital, but I had to get the second and third films which I did not know had new blu-ray editions from Scream Factory. So placed an order and decided to do a total RoboCop watch. Here are my thoughts on each film.

RoboCop (1987)

RoboCop remains a bonafide film classic. It’s been said for years all the layers and themes that Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi/action film touch on. It’s thrilling, it’s brutal, it’s fun, it’s hilarious, it’s touching. The element that has always kept my interest is the man vs machine pieces. I love watching the film and seeing Murphy claw his way out the machine to regain his humanity. Two key parts of the film sell this for me. One is Peter Weller’s performance. For the fact that most of the film has his face obscured, you have to rely on the physical performance. The scene in Murphy’s old house when he smashes the monitor is superb as you see the man working his way back. The other key is Basil Poledouris’ score. There’s a 3 note motif that is soft that represents Murphy and his humanity. Then of course we have the main theme that almost is saying “RoboCop.” The main theme is heavy, mechanical, rousing. Yet it has us root for RoboCop, not so much Murphy. Once we get to the climax, Poledouris manages to merge these themes. You’ll hear the main theme, but there’s a new layer to it. One that indicates that Murphy and RoboCop are almost co-existing in a way. It’s a beautiful score in an amazing piece of filmmaking.

RoboCop 2 (1990)

I don’t know if this was intentional, but the creation of the RoboCop 2 program within the film RoboCop 2 feels very meta. It’s a creature made of just various parts and realizes that Alex Murphy was something special that made it work. You couldn’t replicate the RoboCop program and you can’t replicate the magic of the 1987 RoboCop film. That being said, this is off the wall fun. It almost feels that it’s a little self-aware and just takes advantage of the world that was created in the first film. I don’t know if this is because of director Irvin Kershner who knows how to operate in blockbuster franchises having worked in Star Wars and James Bond (albeit an unofficial Bond film) or Frank Miller’s writing. Based on my knowledge, I’m going to assume Kershner. It feels like going from Batman to Batman Returns where things get a little bit more absurd, it really shouldn’t work, but it does. Yet what helps soften the blow is the return of Peter Weller and Nancy Allen. Sadly we don’t get a score by Basil Poledouris but music from Star Trek IV composer Leonard Roseman. It’s not bad, but it’s not Basil. Cool moments include a nice parallel where RoboCop is tortured and disassembled much as Murphy was tortured in the first film. Also there’s a touching scene earlier where RoboCop comes face to face with his widow. It’s another great moment of Murphy digging out of the machine. One wonders if his severing the emotional ties was a human decision or the software. Still it’s a bonkers film with more of the ultra violence, crazed cult leaders, designer drugs, more critiques of society and corporate America. RoboCop 2 is a sequel that once you accept nothing is going to measure up to Verhoeven’s film, it’s much easier to digest.

RoboCop 3 (1993)

RoboCop 3 is quite fine. It’s RoboCop mixed with a splash of Terminator (minus the violence since this is PG-13). It most reminds me of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. That also is a 3rd film that went a little more family friendly and would be maligned. RoboCop 3 isn’t trying to be the point of discussion that it’s 1987 predecessor was. However it does an admirable job of attempting to close out the story Murphy and this version of Detroit. I had no idea we’d get a final battle of the people vs OCP, but watching the films back to back to back you see it sort of building to that point. Having a group of freedom fighters taking on a corporate army was quite a finale I was not expecting. The big drawback is no Peter Weller. I was not cool with Robert Burke’s Murphy, however that is balanced out by the return of Basil Poledouris on the score. It makes it feel like a RoboCop film again. RoboCop 3 I feel is honest in just being a movie to enjoy. I don’t see it as an affront to the legacy of the original, I never bought into that idea that lesser sequels dilute the original.

RoboCop (2014)

No we did not need a remake. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film remains just as effective as it did during its release. This remake/reboot was going to have an uphill climb no matter what. I think that director Jose Padilha was aware of that during production. Just like my first watch this version of Robocop does indeed try its best to strike out on its own and tries to not make you think about its more successful predecessor.

The 2014 version still uses the general ideas present in Verhoeven’s film, yet it lacks the playfulness in which the 87 film applies them. Again I feel Padilha knows this probably wouldn’t compete with a classic and also it was shoehorned into a PG-13 standard action film. The ultra violence was part of the narrative in the original. So in these areas the film falters because in a way it’s cynical like Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellars trying to sell a product to the people, or specifically an idea of Robocop. Fans of that film are not simply fans of an intellectual property, but what that film brought to the table. You can’t fool people with just a name. 

Those are my reasons for the film’s shortcomings. Now here is why I find it worthwhile for me to revisit. I like the way the film deals with Alex Murphy. In Verhoeven’s film, Alex is declared dead. His body donated to science, yet this Frankenstein’s monster fights to dig his humanity back out of the machine. In Padilha’s film, Alex is badly injured and is aware of what has happened to him. Instead of crawling his way back to rediscover his humanity, he has to contend with outside forces attempting to take that away from him because they built a machine body and everyone insists the machine overtake the man. I think the best scene is when Murphy takes on a bunch of machines in training and it’s discovered that Gary Oldman’s Dr. Norton configured things so that the software takes over when Alex is in combat giving Alex the illusion that he is in control. Unfortunately, it’s an amazing idea that isn’t given a whole lot of room to run because this is a 2010s action film and we have to get to the shootout. It also looks into corruption like the original, but again not given much headway. I mean in this day and age, the whole film is the militarization of police. It’s not that I think Padilha wasn’t up to the task, I just think that the industry’s ideals for films at that time wasn’t going to allow him to try that hard. However, this film tries way harder than the remake of Total Recall which is definitely a pointless remake. 

The 2014 Robocop is a film that actually has my respect. It tries to be its own kind of special because it knows it can’t win one on one with the 1987 film. It attempts to asks different questions but sadly it couldn’t get let off the leash to fully answer them.

In closing, is the RoboCop franchise a great one? I’d say no. However even though there’s only one truly great film here, I strongly feel it’s sequels and remake are actually more consistent with what is put forth with the original film than given credit for. And at least for me, they are flawed, but still quite entertaining.

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