This year, Cultofwhatever is looking back on some of the great films of 1987, a year that saw the release of many genre classics, as well as memorable films both highbrow and low. There were so many to choose from, in fact, I nearly made this a twice-monthly series and probably still would have had a few left over. In all, I found twenty-four movies that I loved from 1987, at least twelve of which are considered “still awesome” after all this time.
We begin with a movie that I could probably talk about for hours and not run out of things to say, in terms of the film itself, its reception upon release, its extremely confusing sequels, the legacy it has after these many decades, and of course the tired and tiresome reboot that came out a few years ago.
Robocop is a brilliant film, but it’s not the kind of film you might think would be brilliant. On the surface, from a distance, it looks like a generic action movie with a sci-fi twist. Indeed that’s basically all it devolved into as its sequels rolled out. It even received a short-lived animated series, just to illustrate how misunderstood the original film was to basically everyone but the director.
Robocop is one of the greatest examples of a movie that is what it is purely because of who was helming the production. Put this in the hands of a traditional action movie director of the 80s—even a great one, like a John McTiernan—and it probably would have come and gone with little fanfare, and been reduced to the same “does anyone remember that movie ____” status as other minor hits of the era, like “Scanners” or “The Last Starfighter.”
From a story standpoint, the movie is pretty straightforward. Sure, it’s bizarre in all the ways you’d expect a sci-fi film to be, but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it in that context…
In future Detroit, the crime-ridden city is barely holding together by its corporate-owned police force. When a cop is brutally gunned down by a powerful crime boss, the corporate-police take the remnants of his body, merge it with cybernetic technology and create the ultimate police officer, a nigh-indestructible hybrid of man and machine, nicknamed Robocop.
If you stop there, you’ve got the potential to go in all kinds of directions. There’s nothing about the premise that couldn’t be developed and released on Disney+ or HBO Max, from the kind of safe, bloodless action sequences found on Disney+, to the harder, R-rated stuff found on HBO Max.
In fact, the screenplay was written with the intention of it to be the next sort of Star Wars or Blade Runner, with only a hint of satire that spoofed the 1980s cutthroat culture of big businesses. For the most part, the script played it straight. It wasn’t until the story found its director that it became the film we know today.
Paul Verhoeven took the story, with its hints of satire and subtext, and turned everything up to eleven, added enough gore to warrant the infamous “X” rating (it had to be trimmed and resubmitted nearly twenty times to receive a marketable “R” rating), and decided that the whole story should be an allegory for Jesus Christ.
I didn’t come up with that, and it’s not just a commonly bandied-about theory. The director himself says so…
“The point of ‘RoboCop,’ of course, is it is a Christ story… It is about a guy that gets crucified after 50 minutes, then is resurrected in the next 50 minutes and then is like the super-cop of the world, but is also a Jesus figure as he walks over water at the end.”
In different hands, this movie would never have the reputation or lasting appeal that it holds today. That’s not even much of a theory either. Robocop III is basically what the first one could have been had Verhoeven not put his personal touch all over it: It would have been a PG-13 nothingburger of a movie; a stale, bland waste of film, too concerned with what focus groups thought to create something bold and memorable.
What makes Robocop work is not the story. No one recalls the story particulars in any great detail. What people recall are the ridiculous one-liners and the outlandish violence. It’s a movie that seemed to revel in going so far over the top that it started as shocking, then became funny, then it kept going until it circled back around to shocking again. Not to mention, there are a dozen little gags that add nothing to the story or to Verhoeven’s “turn it up to eleven” ethos, and instead are there just because they’re funny. The scene where the ED-209 fails to walk down a flight of stairs is one, as is ED-209’s introduction when he blows away an entire boardroom. Basically anytime the suits react to the insanity of the violence is hilarious, simply because they are so subdued and unbothered by it. Their reactions don’t work unless the action they’re reacting to is stupidly over the top.
That’s not to say the film is a non-stop gore and action-fest. On the contrary, Verhoeven did not neglect the humanity woven throughout the screenplay. At its core, Robocop is a movie about someone whose identity was taken away and the painful steps he has to take to recover it. The quiet moments that build Murphy’s character are critical to the story, as they payoff in the final action scene that depicts the title character, not as a “man-turned-machine,” but as a “man enhanced by machine.”
I don’t know if there’s another sci-fi action movie, at least from this era, that is as widely misunderstood and misremembered. It’s evident by the sequels that followed, each one missing the reason why the first was so special. It’s evident by the remake that was released in 2014 as a PG-13 nothingburger of a movie; a stale, bland waste of film, too concerned with what focus groups thought to create something bold and memorable.
Robocop may not be a movie for everyone, but for what it was, it was nearly a perfect movie. It’s bold, audacious, confident, insanely over the top, occasionally poignant, wickedly clever in its satire, and still awesome thirty-five years later.