RoboCop (1987) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

The future of law enforcement is here today.

The overly gritty, violent, and darkly humored RoboCop provides a dim view of society while bringing a union of action and science-fiction together for a hugely successful film.

First Impressions

The trailer for this film gives the briefest hints about what is in store for audiences. A man dies and is recreated as a cyborg police officer, the titular RoboCop. The people putting it together seem happy that they’ve saved one of the original arms, but a man in a business suit reminds them that was not part of the plan. He becomes a super cop that can’t be stopped. But something else is going on, because a female police officer seems to recognize him. Put down that cup of coffee and watch out for RoboCop.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays


RoboCop title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In the near future, at the Detroit Metro West police station, Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) puts in his transfer orders from Metro South. He is one of many officers reassigned to the division by the new corporate owners, Omni Consumer Products, or OCP for short. Murphy is paired up with tough, strong cop, Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). At the headquarters for OCP, Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox) gives a failed demonstration of his new law-enforcement drone, the ED-209 to the “Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy). After the unit brutally kills a board member, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) interjects about his newest project: RoboCop.

On the first day on the new beat, Murphy and Lewis are sent to arrest Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), a man accused of killing dozens of police officers. They track him to a dilapidated mill without backup and make their way inside. Lewis is knocked out by Boddicker’s henchman Joe (Jesse Goins), and Murphy walks into an ambush where he is brutally shot by Clarence, Leon (Ray Wise), Emil (Paul McCrane) and Steve (Clavin Jung).

Murphy dies soon after and is “volunteered” for the RoboCop program. Several point-of-view shots show technicians arguing with Bob over the appropriate way to build RoboCop. Time passes, including a New Year’s party, after which some time later the new officer is introduced to Metro West. The human officers dislike a robotic cyborg being brought into their precinct. He is given keys to a vehicle and sets off to enforce his three prime directives: Serve the Public Trust, Protect the Innocent, and Uphold the Law (plus a fourth undisclosed one).


Media Break, with Case Wong and Jess Perkins provides humorous and satirical news segments throughout the movie.

RoboCop makes quick work of several tense situations including a convenience store robbery, an attempted rape, and a hostage situation in City Hall. Unfortunately, RoboCop has a small glitch that goes unnoticed. It continues to have “dreams” of the death of Murphy. Emil robs a gas station and is stopped by RoboCop who recognizes him, connecting him to the “memories” of Murphy’s death. RoboCop revisits Murphy’s house, which is now vacated and realizes what he is, and what he needs to do to exact vengeance.

Officer Lewis has a suspicion that RoboCop is actually Murphy after seeing the cyborg twirl his gun in a similar fashion to her ex-partner. Dick and Bob have a contentious relationship due to RoboCop’s success and ED-209’s failure, with Dick finally threatening the younger executive in the men’s room. RoboCop arrests Leon and breaks up a drug factory where he grabs Clarence as well. Clarence claims Dick Jones was the man responsible for hiring him in the first place.

RoboCop attempts to arrest Dick at OCP plaza, but the fourth directive prohibits him from arresting any OCP board member. Dick has since killed Bob, and will not let his project get in the way of the older man’s success. He activates several ED-’s209, which injure RoboCop before both breaking down in various ways. Lewis saves RoboCop from an ambush by the police, instructed by OCP to destroy RoboCop.

The police officers reach a breaking point with the oversight of OCP and decide to strike, causing mayhem in the city. This aligns with the plan by Dick Jones to exert martial law with his technology over Old Detroit so OCP can build Delta City, a new “city of the future.” Lewis and RoboCop, who she now realizes is in fact Murphy, head to an old mill and kill Leon, Emil and Clarence in a violent manner. RoboCop attempts to arrest Dick, but the nervous executive takes the Old Man hostage. The Old Man fires Dick, which allows Murphy to enact revenge and gun the executive down. RoboCop smiles and exits the boardroom knowing justice has been served.

Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” – Officer Murphy


ED-209 is “almost” the future of law enforcement. A memorable evil root from sci-fi films, its comical nature underscores its lethality.

History in the Making

RoboCop is another hybrid of 80s action and science-fiction, but one that is different from any other film from the time. While action films of the era were attempting to one-up each other, Robocop goes overboard with excessive violence and dark humor in a satirical send up of violent action films and 80s consumerism. Paul Verhoeven, who had already made half a dozen films in The Netherlands, was given the director’s chair and helped set the comic-book inspired tone. Screenwriter Edward Neumeier was inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner and crafted his story around a future where robotic police officers work in a dystopian world. He was also inspired by the adult-oriented 2000 AD comic books and the character of Judge Dredd in his crafting of Murphy’s RoboCop character.

Verhoeven, who had become known for films with excessive violence (his previous two Dutch films Spetters and The Fourth Man featured graphic moments) created an over-the-top series of bloody killings which were eventually trimmed back to avoid an X rating (NC-17 was not an option at the time of the films release). Gratuitous shots of characters being sprayed with automatic weapons fire, limbs being blown off by shotguns, and graphic wounds and blood-letting created quite a stir with conservative groups at the time. These organizations claimed that the film promoted violence and attempted to boycott the film, not realizing that the overzealous use of violence was satirical and akin to similar moments in cartoons (albeit without the bloodshed).

There is of course a comical nature to amount of torture some of these characters endure. Murphy survives longer than any man should who has been peppered with bullets and lost the amount of blood (and limbs) that he did. This violence might be seen in a different light if the film did not also contain the commentary it carries on consumerism, business, and society. In fact the violent content may actually help to hide some of the more subversive ideas that RoboCop holds regarding policing, media, and capitalism. Verhoeven would return with a slightly less violent film two years later with Total Recall, before venturing to two erotic thrillers: Showgirls and Basic Instinct. The spiritual successor to RoboCop, however, is Verhoeven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers, which continues many themes present in this film.


RoboCop does what it has to do to stop crime.


The idea of cybernetically enhanced humans had been around for quite a while in sci-fi stories, but hadn’t crossed over to film as elegantly. Most stories with robotic characters were divided into two categories: metallic looking humanoid robots like C-3PO (Star Wars) or human looking robots that could be portrayed by actors without special effects, like the replicants in Blade Runner. The Terminator was a step towards this reality which utilized both elements of the actor as a humanoid robot, as well as an actual robotic endoskeleton. But this character was not a cyborg. Cyborg’s are the union of organic tissue with robotic parts, probably better understood as characters like Steve Austin in The Six-Million Dollar Man, or Darth Vader. The Blade Runner replicants also fit into this mold, but are more human than robot 9at least in appearance.

With RoboCop, the idea was flipped to make a more robotic and less human character. It’s unknown how much of Murphy is actually left inside the shell of the OCP enforcer. They apparently kept some of his brain, and for some strange reason stretched the flesh of his face (complete with bullet scar from his assassination) across the metal skull, potentially to allow for better interactions with co-workers. Otherwise he is a hulking metal skeleton that is able to take multiple bullet hits without injury, and process and record the world around him with computer-like efficiency. He even gets to keep his gun inside his right thigh, where it ejects like a cowboy quick-drawing his six-shooter. The overly robotic nature of the character might have lessened the audience’s empathy toward Murphy, but Peter Weller’s portrayal makes RoboCop seem more human and pitiable in his quest for vengeance.

The less-than-human style of cyborg was something that would start to get more screen time after the release of RoboCop. TV shows would begin using elements of this depiction including the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Scorpius in Farscape. The action-thriller Cyborg with Jean-Claude van Damme, Ghost in the Shell, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and even the children’s show Inspector Gadget would utilize the union of humans and technology for both good and bad.


Bob learns not to mess with Dick in the men’s room.

Societal Commentary

The central thematic question of most science-fiction is “who are we,” and “why are we here.” RoboCop certainly addresses these questions as its central premise. Murphy is a good cop in a city that consumes police officers like meat in a grinder. He has a potentially promising career ahead of him, until he is transferred to the worst division, “hell,” another officer calls it. His death is a tragedy, but does allow a new technology to be tested out. Lewis spends much of the second half of the film trying to prove that RoboCop is in fact her old partner Murphy. When she confronts the cyborg and uses his name, there is no recognition, but his processors do flag the verbal interaction as something questionable. Along with the artifacts of Murphy’s death, it raises the question if the resulting creation is in fact human. On one hand, RoboCop is built from the remains of Murphy and has some of his memories which induce an overwhelming sense of righteousness to catch the killer and bring them to justice. On the other hand, Bob reminds the technicians that the goal was “total limb replacement,” when they mention that they can save an arm. So, how much of the human is actually still left, and is the “memory” just a glitch in the matrix.

Some reviewers have likened Murphy to a Christ figure, dying for the sins of others and then being resurrected. Except his return was one of vengeance and not rapture. Murphy seems much more like a modern interpretation of Frankenstein’s monster (or even a good version of Darth Vader). His reanimation from dead tissue (presumably only Murphy’s) and other inanimate parts speaks to the concepts of humanity and what it means to be alive from Mary Shelley’s original story and the 1931 movie Frankenstein. Whether the resulting creature is the same as it was prior to death, it is able to rediscover some semblance of humanity in the pain and anguish caused by reanimation. Murphy too finds a new purpose as a near-indestructible killing machine that is programmed to do good. Unlike Terminator’s who are solely focused on their programming goals, RoboCop’s directives are a guideline. He follows the instructions and cannot break them, as do robots that follow Asimov’s Three Laws. He is unable to kill Dick Jones due to the Fourth Directive, that is until he is fired and no longer a member of OCP. But the spark of humanity in RoboCop’s brain/programming allows him to see nuances in the rules and not just the black and white the designers may have intended.

RoboCop also makes light of modern societal issues and problems through the use of the Media Break segments. Opening the film which helps set the tone of the movie and gives a sense of the environment of the world, these overly enthusiastic talking heads read stories of horrific atrocities with the genial nature usually reserved for silly pet stories. Additionally, parody commercials for the Family Heart Center (now featuring the entire Jarvik line), a board game called NukeEm, and the 6000 SUX car provide a wry wink at the burgeoning extremes of 80s consumer culture. The film expresses a critical eye towards the business model of giant corporations consuming everything on their way in order to increase the bottom line. OCP purchases the Detroit police department (having officers sign waivers against liability) and then uses those deaths to funnel into their military and enforcement arm, providing the raw materials for the RoboCop project (and how many more?). The future of RoboCop is one where the public is fed a steady diet of watered down media (or the sexually provocative I’d Buy That For A Dollar which is a parody of some of the worst Benny Hill episodes) to keep them docile, while the corporations fleece the cities coffers.


Lewis offers Murphy some baby food as he attempts to repair himself after a particular intense exchange between ED-209 and the Detroit PD.

The Science in The Fiction

Cyborgs like RoboCop are still fictional, but they are getting closer to reality all the time. It was only 5 years prior to the release of this film that the first fully artificial heart was put into a human. There have also been artificial livers, kidneys and pancreases developed over the past three decades, as well as huge advances in artificial eyes, ears and limbs. A science-fiction premise in 1987, but something that could potentially become a reality in the early 21st Century, artificial replacements for organs and limbs are creating people that are more cyborg-like each year. Of course the goal is to allow people to be able to live out their lives without limitations, and not to turn them into super soldiers or machine drones. Some even seek out cosmetic enhancements allowing them to link themselves with electronic devices furthering the ethical debate on connecting human flesh to mechanical circuitry.

Likewise, ED-209 was designed as an urban pacification system with applications in military arenas, and has found real-life counterparts fighting with soldiers today. From bomb-defusing robots to aerial drones (something that would be touched on in one fo the sequels), law enforcement and military efforts to remove the risk to humans in their efforts to carry out their jobs is becoming closer to the reality presented in the film. Of course, these devices are nowhere near as autonomous as ED is. At this point, humans haven’t given up that level of control, but there’s still more time before that happens.


RoboCop gives Boddicker his comeuppance but stabbing him in the throat with the comically obvious data spike.

The Final Frontier

For a violent and adult-oriented satirical take on modern society, RoboCop was a hit with the younger crowd. As one might expect two sequels (the lackluster Robocop 2 and Robocop 3) were produced, but also a Saturday morning cartoon series debuted the following year. Yes, RoboCop, was turned into a true superhero for mass consumption by kids, complete with toy line. A comic book from Marvel Comics also followed. As time moved on a similarly watered down live action TV series was produced in the mid 90s followed by a second animated series and a TV miniseries. A reboot of the film, devoid of most of elements that make the original a success, was released in 2014 utilizing modern special effects and film techniques, but bringing none of the satire or heart that Verhoeven included.

Some of the high points of the original include the stop motion animation work by Phil Tippet with his work on ED-209. The artistry and character really shines through the puppetry in making ED-209 feel like a real, giant robot bent on destruction. This best moment is of course its tentative testing of its foothold on the stairs before falling on it’s back like a turtle and screaming like an upset toddler. While RoboCop is almost 35 years old, it doesn’t feel dated. The future that it describes still seems to be right around the corner for humanity. Its themes and warnings still strike a chord as relevant today, and the action moments still entertain. RoboCop still finds a way to do the right thing, even though OCP and his programming is against him. “Come quietly or there will be… trouble,” is his subtle reminder that the criminal element is no match for the RoboCop.

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