80s Movie Challenge Week 1: Robocop (1987)
Welcome to our new weekly (hopefully) feature, “WGN Presents: The Great Year Long 80s Movie Challenge” (or 80s Movie Challenge to save the typing fingers, patience and sanity, of our writers) where we intend to look at the films that made the 80s so memorable – we’ve got Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Horror, Romantic Comedies, Drama and more. One thing is for sure – love them or hate them, these films define that period in cinema – every single one is an iconic, era-defining cinematic blockbuster.
To kick things off we’re going to hand over to Mr Paul Childs who has hand-picked a personal favourite with more than a few memories attached…
There are, of course, spoilers for Robocop in this article
I was just seven days away from turning five years old when the 1980s began, so when the decade ended I was just a mere week away from my fifteenth birthday. I grew up in the 80s – I entered it a boy and left it almost a man, but my love of movies remained a constant throughout: Part Boy, Part Man, All Film Fan.
And that rather clumsy analogy (You said it, not me, Ed.) brings me quite neatly to this week’s film. Introduced with the strapline “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop” Robocop first came to my attention thanks to a schoolfriend called Mez. Now Mez was big into action films and he introduced me to quite a few great movies. He will most likely be mentioned more than once during my 80s Movie Challenge instalments of this series.
So we go back to the autumn of 1988, and I was off school sick with a flu-like bug, as was my brother Lee. We were both feeling pretty sorry for ourselves so our mum offered to go down to Anne’s Videos to get us a film. As we were poorly, we weren’t allowed to go with her so sent our suggestions. Lee more than likely picked some cartoon or family-friendly fayre like C.H.O.M.P.S or Flight of the Navigator but my request was informed by the aforementioned Mez. He had been raving about some science fiction film I’d not heard of for a week or two so I thought it’d be worth a try and asked my mum to bring me back Robocop.
Half an hour later mum comes back and much to our delight, she has brought us exactly the movies we asked for. So we settled down with some cheese on toast to enjoy them on our big TV in the lounge. And by big, I mean it was probably a screen of around 24 inches – the biggest TV you could buy in 1988 was a 35″ screen by Mitusbishi which cost over £2000 and we certainly didn’t have one of those (if only, though…)!
What followed was 98 minutes of glorious mayhem. Lee and I sat in open-mouthed awe for almost the entire film, unable to process the amazingness of what we were watching. I say “almost the entire film” because partway through, our doorbell rang, so the movie was paused and in came Miss Jupp – a teacher from our school. She was my form tutor and also taught Lee Mathematics. She had come to see how we were, as it was rare for us to be off sick.
A teacher. In our house. This never happened. It was a strange feeling, made even stranger when she looked over at the paused screen and said “Oh, you’re enjoying a film? What are you watching?”
For as long as I live I will never forget the look on her face when we told her it was Robocop. Probably the same face I saw Mrs C pull when I was helping her teach French to kids at a weekend out-of-school club and a seven-year-old answered her question of “Quel est votre émission télé préféré?” with “Mon émission de télé préférée est South Park.”
The reason for Miss Jupp’s horror, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, is that Robocop is, in the UK, an 18 certificate (R in the USA). And boy does it earn that rating! The BBFC report on their assessment of the film gives an interesting insight into how such an over-the-top, gory film, managed to pass without cuts, as the assessor was clearly disgusted by certain parts:
“Violence is strong and Verhoeven… displays a rather dubious pleasure in pain and violence. The worst instance of this is in the shooting of Murphy… where he is not content just to show the hero’s hand being blown off and his subsequent anguish, but further shots of him being blasted with a final shot to the head – the whole scene lasts a full minute…”
The other moment… when [director Paul] Verhoeven’s instincts are debateable is in his treatment of the man who is washed in toxic waste and gradually reduced to a horror film gargoyle…
Eventually this goes so far as to become semi-comic, which perhaps saves the sequence.”
The use of the word “comic” is important here. In the report, several references are made to comic books and their characters, with the eponymous hero being described as “Iron Man meets The Six Million Dollar Man and Judge Dredd” and describing the film as “Explicitly Marvel comic stuff, this is adult cartoon made (partly) flesh.”
Unlike some (probably including Miss Jupp) however, the reviewer does appear to take the satirical underbelly of the script (by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) in the spirit with which it was intended, going on to justify their passing of the film with:
“It seems to me that the overall tone, which is always slightly offbeat and tongue in cheek, serves to ameliorate the loving care and attention with which Verhoeven treats the violence.”
and ending with:
“An impressive, but, in some ways, quite nasty piece of work, saved by an element of tongue-in-cheek, the overt humour and sheer verve of the film-making.”
Interesting that on first viewing the BBFC assessor picked up on the humour elements. Because director Paul Verhoeven didn’t.
Robocop was first offered to Alex Cox off the back of his quirky thriller Repo Man. When Cox turned it down V creator Kenneth Johnson was approached but he called it “Mean spirited, ugly and ultra-violent”. Verhoeven’s initial response was the same and he threw the script in the bin after reading it. When the studio approached him a second time they asked him to look for the story’s subtext so he gave the script to his wife Martine Tours, asking her to see if she could see what he was obviously missing. When she explained that there was definitely a second, more subtle vein of satirical humour running alongside the main narrative he read it with fresh eyes and loved it.
Originally he wanted to cast Rutger Hauer, the star of his previous film Flesh And Blood in the title role but execs at Orion were eying it up as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had made quite an impact with The Terminator, Raw Deal and Commando and was about to hit big with The Running Man and Predator. Both actors were, however, deemed to muscular for the look of the character (not to mention the increase in cost to the already expensive costume) and a smaller everyman was sought.
Verhoeven had recently seen Buckaroo Banzai and commented that Peter Weller was able to convey emotion just by a movement of his jaw. Coupled with his slight build Verhoeven felt him perfect for the role and offered it to him.
The Robocop costume was the single most expensive item constructed for the film. One million dollars was spent on creating six suits – three for the increasing states of destruction we see through the film and three in pristine condition for earlier scenes and close-ups.
The costume was so hot that Weller claims to have lost up to three pounds per day in sweat. Eventually, they had to install air-con units on set and film in segments of no more than twenty minutes to give Weller the chance to cool down. It was also difficult to manoeuvre and move quickly in the suit. The scene where Sergeant Reid throws the car keys to Robocop, who catches them as he walks past, took nearly fifty shots to get right and used up an entire day on set!
Next time you watch, check for when Robocop enters his car. You’ll notice that you only ever see him either fully in the car, or just placing a foot in or out, but never fully entering or leaving the vehicle. This was because it was so cumbersome that Weller wouldn’t fit into a car seat with the suit on. When you see him in the vehicle, Weller only had the suit on from the waist up, with only his underwear covering his modesty!
So, going back to teenage me in the late 1980s. I had weekend jobs pumping petrol at a garage and a Sunday morning paper-round (which always paid well due to the sheer weight of Sunday papers) and was earning more money than I ever had before. That was when I started to buy films for viewing at home. I’ll tell the story of the first film I ever bought in a few more weeks, but needless to say, when Robocop came out to buy on home video in the summer of 1989 I was there in the queue on release day, hoping they would not check my age (they didn’t – there are benefits to being 6’3″ by the age of 14).
Aside from the film itself, one of my enduring memories of that first home video release is the almost 16 minutes of adverts that Virgin Video saw fit to put at the start. Of course, back then after the initial viewing, I found this annoying and used to skip past them, but upon seeing the entire lot up on YouTube I was surprised at how much from each them I remembered:
For Christmas this year Mrs C got me the Arrow special edition Blu-Ray of Robocop. As well as the crystal clear transfer of the movie, there’s also a vast treasury of special features where you’ll find so much more than the few behind the scenes stories I’ve related above. It’s well worth checking out.
As a teen, I loved Robocop for its fast-paced action and clearly defined good guys and bad guys. As an adult, who has now seen it thirty or more times, I love it for not only the fast-paced action but, having taken Marlene Tours’ advice, have paid much more attention to the underlying messages. The good guys and bad guys are not as black and white as I first thought and there’s an awful lot more going on with those frequent TV ads and newsflashes than I initially realised.
Of all those moments, back in the 80s, it was the mention of nuclear war (such as the spoof ad for the NUKEM board game) which was sure to strike fear into any Gen-X’er’s heart. However, on my most recent viewing and with everything going on with Brexit, the recent General Election and the argument engulfing the NHS, it was the ad for The Family Heart Center which really sent a chill down my spine:
You pick the heart! Extended warranties! Financing! Qualifies for Health Tax Credit! And remember… We care!
Thanks Paul! We’d buy that for a dollar!
No, you wouldn’t – it cost Mrs C £24.99!
Er… OK! Come back next week as Paul gets his Mambo shoes on and travels back to the Sixties for a spot of Dirty Dancing!