RoboCop (1987) (4K UHD)

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Stars: Peter Weller (Alex J. Murphy / RoboCop), Nancy Allen (Anne Lewis), Ronny Cox (Dick Jones), Kurtwood Smith (Clarence J. Boddicker), Miguel Ferrer (Robert Morton), Robert Doqui (Sgt. Reed), Dan O'Herlihy (The Old Man), Ray Wise (Leon Nash), Felton Perry (Johnson)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1987
Country: U.S.
RoboCop 4K UHD Steelbook

When RoboCop premiered in 1987, at first glance it could have easily been mistaken for another low-budget, gimmicky sci-fi thriller quickly thrown together to make a couple of bucks before hitting the video shelves and falling into obscurity. It was directed by Paul Verhoeven, who had been making waves in his native Holland since the early 1970s, but was largely unknown to American audiences outside the art-film circuit. RoboCop looked like shallow B-movie cheese all over, from the poster design, to the tag line (“Part man. Part machine. All cop”), to the goofy title (Verhoeven reportedly tossed the script after reading the title page). However, when audiences went to see it, they were surprised to find a brilliantly constructed, darkly humorous comic book revenge fantasy laced with a subversive subtext of satirical jabs at American corporate domination and predatory capitalism—heady stuff, indeed.

The story takes place sometime in the near future in Detroit, the city whose massive steel mills and assembly plants once stood for the grand possibilities of American manufacturing power. However, when the film opens, Detroit is sagging: Riddled by crime and lagging in industrial output, the city has become so dysfunctional and crime-ridden that the government has turned to a private corporation, Omni Consumer Products (OCP), to manage the police departments. OCP, which is run by a serious old businessman referred to only as The Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), is in the midst of its own struggles. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), an older vice president who is losing his edge, is locked in boardroom battle with Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), a hotshot young executive who wants to take his place at any cost. Jones’s solution to Detroit’s crime problem is a massive, militaristic robot, ED-209, which is brought to life with stunning stop-motion animation by Phil Tippett (Return of the Jedi, Jurassic Park). Unfortunately, in one the movie’s funniest and goriest scenes, ED-209 goes berserk during a demonstration in disarming technique and eviscerates a volunteering executive. Morton doesn’t waste a moment, jumping right over the still smoking and bloody corpse to offer up his RoboCop contingency program. “I’m sure we can have prototype ready in 90 days,” he declares.

The man who eventually becomes that first RoboCop prototype is a policeman named Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a good-hearted family man who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He and his partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), attempt to foil a bank heist masterminded by crime lord and gleeful cop killer Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Murphy and Lewis track Boddicker and his gang to an abandoned steel mill, and although Lewis escapes alive, Murphy is captured by the sadistic gang and murdered, but not after a prolonged torture sequence in which his hand is blown off and he is shot repeatedly with shotguns.

This graphically bloody sequence is a major turning point, defying all expectations and coldly putting the audience on edge for the remainder of the film. Until this moment, the tone of RoboCop had been fairly light-hearted and downright comical at times, especially during its various “media breaks,” which consistent of shallow news reports of horrible events and television commercials for artificial hearts, nuclear board games, and luxury sedans that barely get 8 miles per gallon. Murphy’s graphic death creates sympathy for the character because he dies only thirty minutes into the film after being in only a few previous scenes—hardly enough for the audience to understand him. Verhoeven also wanted the murder to serve as a kind of Christ-like crucifixion, with Murphy humiliated, tormented, and destroyed physically only to be resurrected as RoboCop. (If you think the Christ symbolism is a stretch, bear in mind that Verhoeven was a member of the controversial Jesus Seminar, a collective of scholars and laymen who researched and wrote about the historical Jesus, about whom he published a book in 2011.)

When Murphy is pronounced dead at the hospital, his body is handed over to OCP (per his police contract) to become the first RoboCop prototype. By combining the remains of his body with a massive, technological suit of body armor and computer chips, Murphy is transformed into a bullet-proof cyborg law enforcement officer. The only problem is that OCP failed to fully erase his mind, and he is left with trace memories of his now lost family and, even more importantly, the gangsters who murdered him—or who he was, or who he partially still is. In this way, RoboCop becomes a film centered on an identity crisis, with Murphy being part man and part machine, but never fully one nor the other. He is caught between two worlds: the flesh and the metal. Indeed, he is caught in the crux of other vexing situations, as well, including the dilemma between enforcing the law while existing as the creation—the product—of a corrupt private corporation that has a vested interest in his not fully doing his job.

With all the violence and action and socio-political jabs, it is too easy to overlook Peter Weller as the title character because he spends most of the film encased in a metal suit with only his jaw visible. But, like the great silent performances, his is mostly body language. When, at the end of the film, his helmet is removed and we see his face again, his sad, dour eyes elevate it to a great melodramatic moment. When we finally get to see the two halves—Murphy and RoboCop—coming together, it has a disarming, mystical quality to it.

Like many crime films, RoboCop relies a great deal on its villains, and Kurtwood Smith is instantly memorable as the maniacal Boddicker. With his receding hairline, round glasses, and sneering grin, he is evil personified in an ambitious street hoodlum. In every scene he occupies, Smith chews the scenery with psychotic glee (many of his lines were improvised during filming). His character is frightening simply because he always seems to be in such command of everything around him. He is the ringleader of Murphy’s gruesome killing, so when RoboCop gets to throw him through a number of plate-glass windows and reduce him to a sobbing mess, it is a true guilty pleasure to watch.

Of course, the other star of the film is Verhoeven, who quickly rose in the ranks after the film’s release. He solidified his position three years later with the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi blockbuster Total Recall (1990), and then entered American film lore forever with the notorious erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992) and the campy NC-17-rated Showgirls (1995). However one feels about his later output, it is hard to deny that Verhoeven’s talents are on full display here, as he goes for broke in all the right ways, turning the film into a cyberpunk comic book come to life. He never allows the audience to get fully settled because the tone switches so easily from humor, to melodrama, to action, to gruesome violence. And, despite these drastically varying elements, Verhoeven manages to keep it all rolled up into a cultish sci-fi satire whose unapologetic skewering of Reagan-era corporate culture brilliantly merges the ravages of physical violence with economic and political inhumanity.

RoboCop 4K UHD Steelbook Edition
This edition of RoboCop includes three versions of the film: the original R-rated theatrical cut, the unrated director’s cut, and an edited-for-television version
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby Atmos surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by director Paul Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison, and co-writer Ed Neumeier
  • Audio commentary by film historian Paul M. Sammon
  • Audio commentary by fans Christopher Griffiths, Gary Smart and Eastwood Allen
  • Isolated score track of the composer’s original mix
  • Isolated score track of the final theatrical mix
  • “The Future of Law Enforcement: Creating RoboCop” video interview with co-writer Michael Miner
  • “RoboTalk” video conversation between co-writer Ed Neumeier and filmmakers David Birke and Nick McCarthy
  • “Truth of Character” video interview with star Nancy Allen on her role as Lewis
  • “Casting Old Detroit” video interview with casting director Julie Selzer
  • “Connecting the Shots” video interview with second unit director Mark Goldblatt
  • “Composing RoboCop” video tribute to composer Basil Poledouris
  • “RoboProps” video tour of Julien Dumont’s collection of original props and memorabilia
  • “2012 Q&A with the Filmmakers,” panel discussion featuring Verhoeven, Davison, Neumeier, Miner, Allen, star Peter Weller and animator Phil Tippett
  • RoboCop: Creating a Legend” featurette
  • “Villains of Old Detroit” featurette
  • “Special Effects: Then & Now” featurette
  • Paul Verhoeven Easter Egg
  • Four deleted scenes
  • The Boardroom: Storyboard with Commentary by Phil Tippett
  • Director’s Cut Production Footage
  • Two theatrical trailers and three TV spots
  • Image galleries
  • Edited-for-television version of the film
  • Split screen comparison of theatrical and director’s cuts
  • RoboCop: Edited For Television” a compilation of alternate scenes from two edited-for-television versions
  • DistributorArrow Video
    Release DateMay 31, 2022

    Since there are three different versions of RoboCop on Arrow Video’s new 4K UHD steelbook edition, there are some distinctions among their sources. The original theatrical cut was transferred from the original 35mm camera negative back in 2013 for MGM’s Blu-ray. Grading and restoration were conducted at that time under the supervision and with the approval of director Paul Verhoeven, producer Jon Davison, and co-writer/producer Edward Neumier. However, the film was graded in 4K HDR10 in 2021, and it is absolutely fantastic. The image doesn’t differ greatly from the MGM Blu-ray in terms of color, but every aspect of the image—detail, contrast, black levels—are substantially improved in 4K, giving us the best presentation yet of RoboCop on home video (and I have seen them all, from VHS tape, which is where I first saw the film around 1988 thanks to my friend Justin Grossman’s mom’s lax policy about middle schoolers watching R-rated movies, to the Criterion Collection laser disc and subsequent DVD, which is where the director’s cut was first revealed, to other various DVD and Blu-ray releases). That transfer also serves the bulk of the unrated director’s cut; the inserts that were added back in were transferred from 35mm positive film elements held at the Academy Film Archive, which are slightly lower in visual quality, although you would be hard-pressed to notice. There may be some consternation about the aspect ratio, as Verhoeven had earlier approved 1.66:1 as the true theatrical aspect ratio (as seen on Criterion’s editions), but it is now framed in the more common American theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which has been true of all subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases. The television version of the film was transferred from an original DigiBeta broadcast master tape, so its quality is noticeably lower, although still better than what audiences saw on their standard-resolution CRT screens back when it was broadcast. As for the soundtrack, there are several options, including a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that was produced for the 2013 MGM Blu-ray; a Dolby Atmos track that was transferred from the original LCRS 4.0 mix; and the original 4.0-channel mix and a two-channel stereo mix, both of which were remastered in 2019 from the original audio stems. Purists may want to opt for the original four-channel mix, but the Dolby Atmos is definitely worth a listen, as it adds some real power to the explosions and gunfire and makes impressive use of the surround channels throughout. In addition, the disc with the theatrical cut also offers the option of listening to one of two isolated score tracks: the Composer’s Original Mix and the Final Theatrical Mix, both in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio stereo.

    And now, on to the supplements. Get comfortable, because there is a lot to go through, both new and old. The director’s cut disc features three audio commentaries: one by director Paul Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison and co-writer Ed Neumeier, which was recorded for MGM’s 2002 DVD (it was originally recorded for the theatrical version and has since been re-edited for the director’s cut); a new commentary by film historian Paul M. Sammon; and another new one by fans Christopher Griffiths, Gary Smart, and Eastwood Allen. After that, we get a series of newly produced featurettes and interviews, starting with “The Future of Law Enforcement: Creating RoboCop,” a 17-minute interview with co-writer Michael Miner. Also included is “RoboTalk,” a lively 32-minute conversation among co-writer Ed Neumeier, screenwriter David Birke (who wrote Verhoeven’s Elle), and director Nick McCarthy (The Prodigy); “Truth of Character,” an 18-minute interview with actor Nancy Allen; “Casting Old Detroit,” an 8-minute interview with casting director Julie Selzer; “Connecting the Shots,” an 11-minute interview with second unit director and frequent Verhoeven collaborator Mark Goldblatt; “More Than a Machine: Composing RoboCop,” a 12-minute video tribute to composer Basil Poledouris that features interviews with film music experts Jeff Bond, Lukas Kendall, Daniel Schweiger and Robert Townson; “RoboProps,” a 13-minute featurette that focuses on super-fan Julien Dumont’s collection of original props and memorabilia; and a 43-minute panel discussion from 2012 featuring Verhoeven, Davison, Neumeier, Miner, Allen, actor Peter Weller, and animator Phil Tippett. There are also a trio of featurettes from MGM’s 20th Anniversary DVD from 2007: “RoboCop: Creating a Legend” (21 min.), “Villains of Old Detroit” (17 min.), and “Special Effects: Then & Now” (18 min.), the last of which I found extremely informative and enjoyable in its appreciation of old-school optical and in-camera effects. Also on the first disc are four deleted scenes, storyboards for the boardroom scene with commentary by Phil Tippett, 12 minutes of raw dailies from the filming of the unrated gore scenes, two theatrical trailers and three TV spots, and extensive image galleries. The second disc, which houses the theatrical cut and a 95-minute edited-for-television version, features the same commentary by Verhoeven, Davison, and Neumeier as it was originally recorded. There are also some fascinating supplements detailing the differences among the various versions of the film. First, there is a split-screen comparison of scenes from the theatrical version and the director’s cut, so you can see exactly how much footage was reinstated from the originally X-rated version. Second, there is a featurette titled “RoboCop: Edited for Television,” which is an 18-minute compilation of alternate scenes from two edited-for-TV versions that have been newly transferred in HD from recently unearthed 35mm elements. Finally, there is a collectors’ booklet featuring new writing on the film by Omar Ahmed, Christopher Griffiths, and Henry Blyth.

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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