ROBOCOP: Paul Verhoeven Retrospective [Two Cents]

Arrow Video

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven Retrospective)

Cinapse is relaunching Two Cents for 2024 with a focus on cinematic discovery and discussion. This column is intended to generate points of connection as cinephiles revisit beloved classics or explore new territory together. We’ll kick things off with a curated month of Paul Verhoeven titles that our team was eager to either revisit or experience for the first time. Ed kicked this whole retrospective off because he’s recently gone down the RoboCop franchise revisit rabbit hole. This was partly inspired by the new 4 hour deep dive documentary RoboDoc: The Creation Of RoboCop, which Ed highly recommends and caught via a free trial to ScreamBox on Prime Video.

The Team

Ed Travis

RoboCop is a full-on five star masterpiece and all-timer for a diverse array of reasons that span almost every department of filmmaking. Director Paul Verhoeven can’t be ignored as the cornerstone and madman creative driver behind the entire project, and without him this perfect product of 1980s sci-fi entertainment and social skewering absolutely would not be what it is. But I’m not sure Verhoeven’s vision alone could bolster this film to the singular iconic level that it reaches. The cast is impeccable, with Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy/RoboCop dual performance breathing a profound humanity into a tale of a corporation stealing the soul of a man and placing it in a machine. And once he’s fully revealed as a cyborg, Weller’s mime-esque physical performance is absolutely spectacular. Nancy Allen’s Lewis isn’t just a sidekick, but a beacon of sanity and hope in a doomed and corporatized world; as well as a constant reminder of who Murphy truly is. Every single villain here delivers performances for the ages, from OCP CEO Dan O’Herlihy on down the org chart with Ronnie Cox’s Dick Jones, Miguel Ferrar’s Bob Morton, and Kurtwood Smith’s gangster overlord Clarence Boddicker and his street gang. Then there’s the design elements. Absolute legend Rob Botin designed the RoboCop look, which is just eternally iconic and timeless. The equally legendary Phil Tippitt oversaw the stop motion sequences around the ED-209, RoboCop’s all-robot nemesis that somehow matches Robo’s iconic look to create a duo of unbelievably designed characters that will forever live in cinema history. (And are unrivaled by anything produced in the series sequels or remake). Of course none of these visuals or performances would pop without the political and societal bite of the screenplay by Ed Numeier and Michael Miner, which manages to have as many kickass action sequences and memorable set pieces as it does incisive critiques of corporatization, capitalism, and dehumanization. At this point we’ve more than established masterful bona fides, but haven’t yet layered on the phenomenal Basil Poledouris score, the design of Robo’s signature firearm, the unforgettable leg holster, the life-changing toxic waste mutant death sequence… it’s an endless list of department by department victories creating something unforgettable and timeless at every turn to generate a film that has stood the test of time and still thrills today in a way few contemporary films can.

(@Ed_Travis on X)

Justin Harlan

I’ll be honest, I’ve never completely understood the hype around Robocop. It’s a pretty solid movie from a pretty stellar director, but – to me – it’s never been one I consider among Verhoeven’s best. Total Recall does the fun sci-fi thing far better. Starship Troopers does the satire on militarism better. And, many other films of this era seem to nail the type of tone Robocop is going for better than it does. Yet, I must admit that with each watch of this film, I grow a bit more fond of it.

At the end of the day, I can’t deny that starting a month of Verhoeven’s films with Robocop makes sense, though. It’s likely his most iconic film – especially among genre heads, such as many of our team and much of our community. And, in a modern era where militarism in the police force is as much or more a problem than ever before, it certainly hits home.

While I’m more excited to dive into Showgirls and Starship Troopers this month, I appreciate this film more with each watch and am thankful that I had a good excuse to pop it on this week.

(@thepaintedman on X)

Jay Tyler

For a Top Ten article I wrote for Cinapse, I ranked Robocop as my #2 film of all time. There is just something unquestionably great about it, but one unique aspect of the magic is the voice of its diverse creators. Screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s acidic action-satire of a Reagan-inspired dystopia would likely have been good in the hands of many directors who would have given it the cynical spin it needed. What makes it sing is that the same script run through the Paul Verhoeven lens becomes something else entirely. Verhoeven intentionally weaves his obsession with Christology throughout the movie, finding in the character of Murphy/Robocop a vehicle for his idea an “American Jesus”: a figure that is defined by a cycle of rebirth, but instead of soul-salvation provides atonement through acts of cold, heartless violence. Through Weller’s deadpan delivery, the perfect alchemy between these disparate elements creates something that isn’t even good or great, but singular. It is a dystopian satire that is equally interested in being absurd but also sincere, a reflection but also a warning. And that depth reveal itself in layers. It can be appreciated as a simple bad-ass piece of extremist 1980s action trash. The name even invites you into that interpretation, suggesting something that is unabashed violence porn copaganda. But scratching barely beneath the surface provides such a rich text about a world that is exiting a Cold War, where capitalist systems turn good people into unwilling machines for its ongoing profit motive. By balancing being both a scathing social commentary as well as a damn good time, RoboCop solidifies itself amongst the very best genre film can offer. The fact the magic has never been duplicated with its various sequels and reboots only makes clearer that the original is a one-of-a-kind work that will stand the test of time.

(@jaythecakethief on X)

Austin Vashaw

Robocop is a personal favorite that I’ve seen countless times, usually in the squibbalicious Director’s Cut form which has become its home video standard. For this viewing I decided to go back to the beginning and watched the television cut, which is included in Arrow’s recent releases. In part I wanted to revisit how I originally saw this – after begging my parents to record it when it made its TV debut, but mostly I just wanted to let my kids watch it with me. Even in this heavily diluted form, this thing is a firecracker.

The Christ-allegory hero, subversive tone and satire, slightly futuristic vision of an apocalyptic Detroit, and the wonderful cast of corporate villains made for one of the most singular action/sci-fi movies of the 80s, a smartass concoction of demented humor and giddy violence (well, not so much in the TV cut but still). I’m especially enamored with the stop-motion animation by Phil Tippett, which has that lovely otherworldly feel that I miss seeing in movies. ED-209 rules.

I’m in the relative minority that loves the second film just as much, maybe even more; to me it’s an even more amped-up distillation of what I love about this character and his world.

(@VforVashaw on X)

RoboCop Writing on Cinapse

By Dan Tabor
By Jon Partridge
By Austin Vashaw
By Ed Travis
By VN Pryor

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