Sunday, 6 March 2011

Paul Verhoeven Film Restrospective - Robocop

Robocop is perhaps Paul Verhoeven's best known and most loved film. It was both a cult classic and a huge hit, and instantly placed the director into the Hollywood mainstream. It spawned 2 increasingly poor sequels, a short lived TV show, and a kids cartoon. How anyone would think a shockingly violent movie would make a good kids cartoon, I will never know.

Despite how well known this film is amongst the masses, it's a film that I wasn't that familiar with. Not that I wasn't familiar with the film itself as there are so many moments that have entered our culture with parodies and riffs on sight gags throughout programs such as Spaced and The Simpsons. It even remember a hit hop-hop record by Silver Bullet, constantly sampling the lines “You think you're pretty smart, huh! You think you can outsmart a bullet?” and “You have 20 seconds to comply”. I was very aware of the film and the moments that live on in infamy, it's just that I'd only ever seen it once, when I was very young, and couldn't remember anything about it other than those famous moments.

So, at last, I've finally sat down and watched it and I'm extremely glad I did. Robocop is an amazing film that could have very easily turned into a pile of crap. For proof of that, you only need to watch it's 2 sequels (How Irvin Kershner could make both one of the best sequels ever made in Empire Strikes Back, and one of the worst in Robocop 2 is beyond me. It does suggest that Empire was just a fluke.) or any other cyborg killing machine movie out there.

For the few people who haven't seen the film, it is, as the name suggests, about a robot cop. After being horrifically killed in the line of duty, Police Office Murphy is turned into Robocop. It's that simple description of what the film is about, as well as it's title, that put off any director approached to make this film. Even Paul Verhoeven himself threw the script away after reading just the first page. It's only because his wife picked it up and read it that she managed to talk him into directing it. The reason he did make this film was because it was so much more than that simple description. Yes, it's an action movie about a robot cop, but it's also a really funny comedy and there are moments in this film that caused me to laugh out loud. It's also a satire about the Reagan era as well as an analogy on Christ. It's this hidden level of complexity that Verhoeven does extremely well in his Hollywood films and how they work on different levels. When I get to Starship Troopers, I'm sure to refer to the Nazi symbolism that exists in that film, and I've already talked about the religious symbolism in his earlier films. The Christ analogy in Robocop has been well documented elsewhere and is talked about in the DVD's special features, where Murphy is symbolically crucified during his death, replacing the nail through the hand with a shotgun blast. He is then resurrected as Robocop and can be seen walking on water during the films climax. One trick that Verhoeven didn't do for a change was to picture Robocop with a halo around his head, but I supposed using that trick 4 films in a row would have been pushing it a bit.

But it's not just the symbolism, hidden depth and meaning that makes Robocop so great as the film is just so darn entertaining. A lot of that is down to Peter Weller's acting and movement. In order to get the movement right, they hired a mime artist to help Weller, and it shows. When he simply walks, there is a certain grace to his movements, most obvious when he turns corners as his body turns and his head slowly follows. The best example of this movement comes during a shoot-out in a drug factory. There is a certain air and grace to his stance as he fires his gun that makes the scene resemble a ballet. It's quite extraordinary to watch.

Unusually for a Verhoeven film, there isn't much nudity in this. The only nudity that does exist in the film is a quick flash of some breasts in the Police locker rooms, and that is to highlight the fact that in this militaristic state, they are beyond such sexual reactions. Verhoeven himself has admitted that this didn't come across too well in this film, so it's an idea he tries again in Starship Troopers during a communal shower sequence.

Instead of gratuitous nudity, this film gives us gratuitous violence, except, is it really that gratuitous? It's extreme, I'd admit, but one thing Verhoeven hates is unrealistic violence in films. If someone gets shot, then you need to show the realities of that shooting, and the reality is that there would be a lot of blood. To have someone fire a stream of bullets into a crowd without any innocent bystanders getting shot, or even not showing any blood or bullet holes is just irresponsible in his eyes. I remember being shocked and sickened during the boardroom scene near the start of the film when ED-209 utters those immortal words “You have 20 seconds to comply”. Now I find the scene funny.

Finally watching this film now is quite timely for 2 reasons. Firstly because there are plans to mount a Robocop statue is Detroit, where the film is set. That is seriously cool and helps illustrate just how successful this film was. How many other films made such a mark that they erect statues in it's honour? I can't think of any, but if you can, please post them in the comments.

Secondly, there are currently plans to remake the film, although that could very easily be a bad idea as, like the sequels, it will have a hard time matching both the satirical wit of the original, or be able to get away with the shocking violence that it portrayed. Robocop's success was a one-off. A complex cocktail of perfectly measured ingredients. If you try and make a new cocktail and get any of those measurements wrong, you can easily be left with a disaster.

IMDB currently gives Robocop 7.6, which I can understand as a lot of people are put off by the violence and the fact that it's about a robot cop, but I have to give it considerably higher. It's a modern classic movie that had no right to be anything more than a cheap b-picture and that is down to Verhoeven's inspired direction. Personally, I'd rate it as high as a 9. Is Robocop that good? Well, as the man says, “I'd buy that for a dollar.”

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