In a dystopian near-future Detroit, a terminally wounded cop returns to the police force as a cyborg haunted by memories of his human life before...
The term ‘cyberpunk’ was coined by Timothy Leary, who used it when referring to science fiction author William Gibson. The art-rock band Sonic Youth later claimed it to describe their brand of bubblegum noise assault… but the word was first used by mainstream media to describe Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), an unexpected hit that came to define the emergent genre. The thematic core of cyberpunk is the spirit of the individual, almost entirely swamped by the artifice of an automated society, winning through against the evils of a dominant elite.
Although the defining elements of the genre include graphic violence, a disregard for the sensibilities of the genteel conservative, and a fascination with futuristic high-tech hardware, there must always be an underlying commentary on society. Cyberpunk took form as a response to the rampant Reaganomics and Thatcherism of the 1980s, and today, with the rise of domestic fascism and with an ex-reality show host in the White House, in place of an ex-actor, it seems just as pertinent.
In the original RoboCop, the ‘death’ of a cop is engineered to create the ultimate law enforcement officer: a tool to be used by OmniCorp, a private company running the police force in a near-future Detroit city. His memories and feelings are erased and his body totally replaced by machinery, yet his ability to dream has been overlooked, and through his subconscious he becomes aware that he may be a human with emotions and a previous life.
It may be part of RoboCop apocrypha, but the story goes that director Paul Verhoeven threw the screenplay away, dismissing it as “infantile rubbish.” It was Martine, his wife, who retrieved the script from the bin and was impressed by the novelty of its protagonist, Officer Alex Murphy, being brutally murdered by a gang of deranged psychopaths early in the story. She pointed out the excessive quota of violence to her husband. “I like violence in movies,” said Paul as he warmed to what he realised was a mythological narrative of rebirth followed by the struggle between good and evil for possession of a soul. He announced that he, “wanted to show Satan killing Jesus.”
Coming from another filmmaker, such a statement could be dismissed as sensationalist, or merely provocative, but Verhoeven knew, and meant, exactly what he said. He was a member of The Jesus Seminar; an international group of scholars attempting to unpick Gospel texts and reassemble the story of Jesus in a way that separates any historically authentic content from what’s more likely to be propaganda for an early Christian church. In RoboCop, he saw clear parallels with the saviour archetype.
Verhoeven was not the first person to have so easily dismissed Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script. Apparently, Neumeier had been so unhappy during an editorial meeting at Universal that he fantasised about a giant robot breaking into the boardroom and opening fire. From this seed, he developed his own story of a robot police officer. He met with Miner, who had a script titled SuperCop about a police officer hooked up to technology that enhances his abilities. They merged the two ideas and co-authored RoboCop: The Future of Law Enforcement. It was intended to be satirical, but the title was an instant turn-off to everyone they showed it to.
They later pitched it to Stan Lee for possible development into a comic book, but he turned it down because it seemed too similar to The Terminator (1984). So, they took the hint and showed it to Orion Pictures, who’d just enjoyed success with The Terminator and were looking for something similar. They decided to run with RoboCop.
Orion passed the script on to a long list of American directors, all of whom turned it down at a glance. The story was perceived as being a low-budget rip-off of Blade Runner (1982) or The Terminator, and a potential business disaster. Orion suggested the title was the main obstacle, but Neumeier and Miner were already stuck on it, realising that despite it sounding ‘silly’ it would ultimately sell the vibe of the film, so the right director would not be scared off by it.
Orion executive Barbara Boyle had just worked with Verhoeven on his first English-language film, the provocative medieval romp Flesh + Blood (1985). She knew he was eager to develop his career beyond Europe, and suggested sending him the script. After his initial reluctance, Verhoeven signed up, recognising an opportunity to work in the US and to make a special effects reliant film in a genre outside his comfort zone.
Originally, Orion considered Arnold Schwarzenegger for the lead, but immediately realised he would seem out of proportion when placed inside a metal suit. Michael Ironside, whom Verhoeven would later work with on Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997), was a favourite, but even he was considered “too bulky”. Rutger Hauer’s name was also mentioned, but he and Verhoeven still bore grudges after falling-out whilst making Flesh and Blood, plus he is also a big man like Schwarzenegger.
Peter Weller had become a cult favourite thanks to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984). He was known as a physical actor who ran marathons, had martial arts training, and some experience with weapons. More importantly, he was slim yet athletic enough to fit inside a suit and look good.
Special effects maverick Rob Bottin had already paid his dues in the field of prosthetics and special make-ups. His name was first whispered in geek circles after he worked on the alien creations in the famous Star Wars (1977) cantina scene, before gaining wider respect for his outstanding work on The Howling (1981), and then notoriety with John Carpenter’s visually stunning remake of The Thing (1982).
Initially, Bottin drew inspiration from comic book predecessors such as Rom, Iron Man, and 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd. Also, by way of what he’d learned from seeing the C-3PO costume on the Star Wars set, he reflected back on the 1930s art deco robot design from Metropolis (1927). Neumeier and Miner emphasised they’d visualised Robocop as a knight in shining armour, so Rob Bottin combined all of these ideas and worked them up into large maquette sculpted in clay.
Verhoeven had other ideas. He didn’t like to draw upon the past, so wanted a fresh look for his RoboCop. He showed Bottin Japanese Manga-style robots; all shoulder pads, huge chests, slender waists, and weighty feet. Bottin became frustrated by the mixed messages and, if not for contractual ties, would have dropped out of the project. He tried to accommodate Verhoeven’s ideas at first, but neither of them liked the results.
Eventually, it was Neumeier who suggested that RoboCop should look like a product of Detroit and reference the sleek steel of automobile styling. So, they stepped back to those earlier designs and went for a version of the Metropolis robot, if it had been masculine, and manufactured in Motor City!
Weller realised that wearing the suit, with his eyes hidden for most of the time, meant that his performance would almost entirely rely on body movement. For several weeks, he worked in rehearsal with mime choreographer Moni Yakim, planning and perfecting his moves.
The original intention was for RoboCop to move with quick, bird-like mannerisms, and to seem powerful yet graceful in combat. However, due to delays in the production of the suit, which Verhoeven retrospectively admits was down to his misguided interferences during the design process, it was not delivered until the first morning of principal photography. It took 11 hours to fit Weller into the armoured suit. He could hardly walk in it. There was much shouting, some say screaming, on set.
Although set in a future Detroit, the location shooting was done in Dallas, which had a more futuristic skyline at the time. The muggy temperatures were peeking into the high 40s when filming began in August 1986. Weller claims to have lost around 3lbs per day through dehydration and could only film for a maximum of 20-minutes in the rubber and fibreglass costume.
The heat made everyone edgy and irritable. Shooting started to creep over schedule. Verhoeven became increasingly frustrated. The atmosphere rubbed off on everyone and elicited some excellent, edgy, and truly discomforting performances. The distinctively disturbing and ‘off-kilter’ atmosphere on set was also enhanced by casting most of the actors against type. Veteran TV actor Ronny Cox often played wholesome, all-American family men, but was cast as callous OCP executive Dick Jones. Kurtwood Smith had read for Cox’s part, but was instead cast as the gangster Clarence Boddicker, and turned in a truly chilling performance of subtle psychosis.
Nancy Allen was a last-minute choice to play Officer Lewis, Murphy’s partner. The part had already been taken by Stephanie Zimbalist, the glamorous star of Remington Steele (1982–87), who had to pull-out when the series was unexpectedly renewed for a fifth season. Allen was keen to play something different from the bitchy teen roles she was still being offered since her role in Carrie (1976). Her casting shots made a big show of her long, strawberry blonde curls. Verhoeven gave her the part, providing she cut her hair and put on some weight. Her performance is a perfect balance of emotional intelligence protected by the hard shell of professional toughness.
Another notable performance was turned-in by the prototype enforcement droid ED-209. The droid character was played, or rather puppeteered, by Phil Tippett using low-tech stop-motion animation. Tippet had also worked on Star Wars, and then made the AT-AT walkers come to life in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). For RoboCop, he used a combination of miniature sets, in the stairwell sequence, and rear screen projection behind the model. He even made a tiny RoboCop that interacted with ED in a few brief shots. In ED-209, Verhoeven had the feet from the Japanese-influenced robot design he had wanted, now fused with a head-section based on a Vietnam-era helicopter gunship.
Sure, by today’s standards stop-motion looks a little clunky and isn’t very fluid, but it also retains an organic accessibility to the performance that’s lost with modern digital effects. In the case of ED-209, the subtleties of the hands-on technique lent a definite element of comedy.
The problematic production ran out of time and budget, then wrapped without the key scene of Officer Murphy’s murder being in the can (the scene that had changed Verhoeven’s mind about the script in the first place). It seemed to be a disaster, but he remained tenacious and managed to secure more money and time to film Murphy’s extremely violent murder. He approached it as a piece of what he called “burlesque violence,” using plenty of gore and letting the camera linger on the devastating injuries. Murphy is deliberately positioned to reference medieval portraits of Christ on the cross, but instead of a nail being driven through his hand, it’s blown off entirely. The MPAA were not happy and insisted on several cuts to the scene before grudgingly granting the movie its R certificate.
Although the metaphorical ‘crucifixion’ is not as clear in the cut version, Verhoeven manages to continue with religious allusions throughout and brackets this in the final showdown between Murphy and Boddicker, when RoboCop seemingly walks on water. He felt that he had created an Americanised version of Jesus–“a Jesus who uses guns”–whilst retaining the original intention of Neumeier and Miner of an updated Lone Ranger, riding in to clean up a corrupt Wild West town.
After several test screenings, including one exclusively for police officers, which was met with cheers and applause, RoboCop topped the US box office on its opening weekend in July 1987, returning $8 million of a production budget that had crept up to $13 million. It kept pace with Predator, the other sweaty sci-fi action hit of the summer, and went on to gross more than $50 million in total.
The high body-count set a new benchmark for visceral screen impact, and won RoboCop a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing at the 1988 Oscars, along with nominations for Best Sound and Film Editing. It also picked up five Saturn Awards, for Best Science Fiction Film, Director, Writing, Make-Up, Special Effects, and was nominated for three more. Verhoeven had proved himself a proficient practitioner of the cyberpunk satire and, after patching-up relations with Rob Bottin, went straight on to work with him again on Total Recall.
director: Paul Verhoeven.
writers: Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner.
starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith & Miguel Ferrer.