What is it that makes us truly human? Our capacity for higher thought is what distinguishes us from the animals, but that line becomes blurred as we approach the singularity. When our machines can do the thinking for us, will we condemn ourselves to a lower stratum of existence? These are the kinds of questions central to thoughtful, cerebral movies like last year’s Her. And the RoboCop series of films, which began in 1987 with RoboCop, continued in 1990’s RoboCop 2, and wrapped up with RoboCop 3 in 1993. Is it possible for a robot cop to be more human than the people who created him? Who knows if that was the question the filmmakers set out to answer; regardless, they provided us with one.
The original film – directed by Paul Verhoeven – is a satirical look at the future of Detroit (and America in general), a city on the brink of chaos, where the corporations are in bed with the police and the criminals. When Detroit Police Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is gunned down, his remains are used to bring Omni Consumer Products’ latest creation – RoboCop – to life. RoboCop fights his programming in an effort to be true to the code he once lived by as Murphy.
Murphy/RoboCop returned three years later, helmed by The Empire Strikes Back’s Irvin Kershner. OCP, dissatisfied with Murphy’s rejection of their authority, endeavors to create a new RoboCop (a RoboCop 2, if you will), all while their original creation tries to cut off the spread of a new drug before it can completely take over Detroit.
The trilogy concludes under the supervision of director Fred Dekker. OCP’s total takeover of Detroit begins in earnest, and RoboCop (now portrayed by Robert John Burke) finds himself allied with the rebellious citizenry against the very people who gave him new life.
The films experience a steady decline in both quality and special effects over the course of the series. It is a testament to the effects team behind RoboCop that everything holds up so well. Even the stop-motion ED-209 robot looks good. The burgeoning digital effects that slowly become a larger part of the series really cannot stand up against the original movie.
The qualitative analysis is a harder one nail to hammer down. The first film is darkly funny and a really interesting character piece, which can be attributed to the script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, as well as to Peter Weller’s performance as the titular character. RoboCop is easily Weller’s most famous role, so it becomes an easy trap to assume the man is not the best actor, but contrasting the liveliness of his portrayal of Alex Murphy with the mechanical stiffness of his RoboCop reveals a gifted actor at the height of his powers. The physicality of RoboCop especially goes a long way to sell the entire premise – moreso than any amount of exposition or foley work. This only becomes more pronounced as Weller allows the smallest amounts of Murphy’s humanity to manifest in RoboCop’s purposefully wooden demeanor. The film’s three villains (Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox) also give delightful and juicy turns as the three personifications of Detroit’s decline.
The actors provide the same levels of conviction in Kershner’s sequel, but a good amount of the magic is gone. Both sequels are co-written by Frank Miller, the man who single-handedly ruined mainstream comics for 15 years after his true masterwork, The Dark Knight Returns, was released. It is strange to say that a movie called “RoboCop” is subtle, but it really is in a lot of ways, so it is especially disappointing that most of that nuance disappears upon Miller’s arrival on the scene. RoboCop 2 is not a complete waste, however; the seemingly disparate storylines involving the drug trade and OCP’s increased tenacity dovetail nicely, and the final battle between RoboCop and his successor is the most dynamic and entertaining of the entire trilogy.
It is a lot harder to find redeeming qualities in the final entry. RoboCop 3 does happen to be a who’s-who of excellent character actors though. CCH Pounder! Stephen Root! Rip Torn! Bradley Whitford! This is all presumably done in an effort to mask the replacement of Weller with Robert Jon Burke. Burke does a great job of mimicking Weller’s physicality (arguably the most important aspect of the character), but when it comes to the minimally emotional performance, he falters.
This is such an integral part of the character because it really defines what RoboCop means as a series-long metaphor. Murphy ought to exist to show how base humans can be by comparison. Perhaps it is ironic that the heart of the series is the only character without a literal one. Most of this comes from Weller though, as even the writers can’t quite decide what their stance on the matter is. Murphy experiences a huge triumph at the end of the first film, only to have it basically be negated at the opening of the sequel. Likewise in part three, where RoboCop must complete an emotional arc to achieve something that was already achieved in part two.
Despite redundancies and scripting incompetence the movies succeed as entertainment. Plus it is pretty obvious that Christopher Nolan stole the big cops v. gang fight in The Dark Knight Rises from RoboCop 3 (come on Chris, be less blatant). There is a certain amount of earnestness to the subversive message of the films that we don’t really see a lot in mainstream film these days. It has been replaced by spectacle and special effects. That is my biggest fear about the recent RoboCop remake: what made the original special will be completely overlooked in favor of bigger, harder explosions. The remake’s quality does not really matter; the 1987 film will always exist with its blend of biting commentary and sweet, sweet action. And the classic line, “Bitches leave!” A line like that could survive a nuclear winter. Or a winter in Detroit.