RoboCop (1987) | Movies to See Before You Die


Nearly 40 years after its 1987 release and blockbuster success, fans still get way too excited when we talk about RoboCop. It doesn’t hurt that film’s depiction of a bleak, dying American empire separated by stunning glass and steel highrises and apocalyptic slums, has never stopped being relatable to audiences. A world in which the game shows are as sadistic as they are vapid, and in which advertisers cheerfully tell you how to flourish under the death of the ozone in comfort, all while brutalist multinational corporations destroy humanity wholesale in the name of making a dollar. Detroit is our setting, but really, RoboCop could have taken place almost anywhere and still made its basic point.

Detroit specifically makes sense for RoboCop and its story of Officer Alex Murphy, a newcomer to the city’s freshly privatized police force, becoming a powerful figure of manipulated justice. Murphy becomes a frightening fusion of human life with cutting edge cyborg technology known as RoboCop. Detroit was at one time a definitive and shimmering of American progress and industry. The 2022 horror film Barbarian gives you an idea of how things are going for Detroit nowadays.

To put it simply, in RoboCop and in life, things are bad, and they’re only going to get worse.

But we shouldn’t despair completely, in both life and in our emotional investment in RoboCop as more than just one of the most thrilling action movies ever made. With both, it’s important to remember that there are forces of basically good people picking up the fight against greed and decadent ignorance. Those people are fighting even as others, including myself, despair. That may or may not save the world, but it might save a few days here and there, and it’s always better than nothing.

I know it’s a bit much to compare RoboCop to the current trajectory of the human race, but few movies have truly nailed a satirization of American culture (and its global influence, good and bad) and wrapped in a package so visceral and enthralling. Because even if you don’t give a single damn about RoboCop’s ruthless social commentary, you’re probably going to love the way director Paul Verhoeven presents chaos and violence with an energy that even by the standards of the overstimulated 80s is a little over the top. In the best way possible, with RoboCop being one of the most exciting movie-watching experiences you can ever have. That’s also an experience unique to cinema itself. Nothing can facilitate this particular type of story like the movies.

RoboCop is another one of those movies I’ve always been able to watch. Its violence is exciting, to be sure, as are performances by Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Dan O’Herlihy, and of course the all-time great bad guy performance by Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker, but none of that fully explains why I still love this film 30+ years later. No other 80s film has everything I need to be entertaining, wrapped in a package of ideas and commentary that has always, even when I was a kid, struck me as a little frightening.

The older I get, the scarier RoboCop gets on the existential level, and yet it also never stops being an energetic genre film that feels fresh every time I watch it. RoboCop is truly unique, a fact emphasized by sequels and other failed attempts to recreate what works so well here. Which is all of it. Everything in RoboCop is the best of what film has to offer.

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