10 August 2017

A guest post by Eugenio Triana.

Stuck as a script reader at the MCA studio lot in the early 80s, Edward Neumeier looked across to see an entire cyberpunk street rising from the ground. “It was for a big science-fiction movie called “Blade Runner”, and I never had seen anything like it,” Neumeier recently explained to film website The Dissolve.
Looking for a story to break into a writing career, “RoboCop” (1986) thus became the inversion of the Ridley Scott epic. Rather than a human bounty hunter who suspects he might be a machine, its protagonist is a relentless law enforcer who soon discovers he was once human. 
With a limited budget compared to its predecessor, “RoboCop” is much more a film of its time. Without the means to construct an entire world from scratch, the production drew from the trends of the time. The boardroom battles and corporate raids of the 1980s inspired the villainy of its central security technology company, OCP. The trend away from US manufacturing was the reason for its setting of Detroit (“RoboCop” was actually mostly shot in Dallas) and its aesthetic of abandoned steel mills and forgotten cities. New York’s “broken windows” panic about rising crime in the city gave the film its oppressive atmosphere and satirical bent.
RoboCop” also manages to throw in some buddy cop dynamics, the favourite professional relationship of 80s filmmaking, and a nod to the existentialist possibilities of the premise with a few scenes of the protagonist attempting to rediscovering his humanity. Like many Paul Verhoeven films, “RoboCop” throws everything at the wall and never looks back to see if anything stuck.
The key element the film would drop from the Philip K Dick adaptation was the noir aesthetic. Rather, the film’s comic book inspirations (the UK’s “Judge Dredd” in particular) are apparent throughout in its story choices. Rather than the melancholy tone in a tale of hunter vs. hunted, the violence in “RoboCop” is over the top and graphic in its depiction. The villains are evil and world conquering, rather than largely helpless outcast replicants. The machines remain mostly mechanical, impersonal forces of destruction - the only reason the titular RoboCop is different is because he has an actual human being inside him. There are no mournful explorations of what marks the difference between the humans and their intrinsically enslaved creations.
All the changes undoubtedly give “RoboCop” more visceral thrills, even if it lacks some of the ethical shadings of Deckard’s journey.  Designed by Rob Bottin, it is the suit that truly makes the film. Its hulking, lumbering presence, with that crucial and very superhero addition of opening the mouth and jaw area to expose the human underneath, was the immediately selling point for the film. Just like a graphic novel, “RoboCop” is much more about the iconography, the action, and the fight of the good vs. evil than “Blade Runner”. They are two sides of the coin of the cyberpunk trend of the 1980s.
At a time when boardroom machinations and the line between human and machine are once again in the popular imagination they both deserve a re-watch and, unsurprisingly, have both earned a remake.
Eugenio Triana is a course director for BCU’s Film Distribution and Marketing MA. He is an Ambassador for Park Circus.

See RoboCop 1 & 2 screen this weekend as a double bill at QUAD as part of our Robots & A.I. season