Fox // 1987 // 103 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // November 1st, 2007
Stay out of...trouble.
If ever you've listened to a commentary track by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers), you'll know he is the embodiment of unbridled enthusiasm. He speaks quickly, often to sudden crescendos of outburst, as he excitedly imparts his knowledge, insight, and experience. This is why his 1987 take on our not-too-distant future mowed us over like a car careening out of control, seemingly without direction but actually with deliberate -- albeit manic -- precision. In Robocop, Verhoeven delivered a stingingly cynical view of a new millennial society where corporate greed and corruption had managed to infiltrate governmental policy, enabling an elite few to determine the value of life and luxury in the new world order.
Sometime in the 21st century, the once-proud industrial city of Detroit is sputtering like a scorched and failing machine. Rampant crime has all but seized control of the community and infrastructure, headed by unstable drug lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith, That '70s Show). Meanwhile, officer Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller, Leviathan) has just transferred to the city's grittiest precinct, now under the managed control of OCP Corp. and the influential Dick Jones (Ronny Cox, The Beast Within). Jones' ED-209 law enforcement 'droid shows promise to forcefully restore order to the decaying city but a boardroom "glitch" provides upstart Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer, The Stand) an opening to pitch his new Robocop project to the top man (Dan O'Herlihy, Halloween III: Season of the Witch). As if on cue, Murphy is brutally shot up and left for dead by Boddicker and his thugs. His patrol partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen, Dressed to Kill), can only regret she was unable to save Murphy's life. Morton and his team at OCP, however, are able to salvage the man's remains and unveil the first prototype in the next generation of law enforcement, Robocop. A veritable automaton, armed with high-tech weaponry and programmed directives, there's little left of Murphy in this mostly mechanized servant of justice. But when Boddicker and his posse begin battling other drug lords for coveted territory in the soon-to-be-revitalized Detroit area, Murphy begins to remember a past lifetime and a family lost. But the future of Detroit is about to be revealed when Murphy connects the dots between Boddicker and the real muscle behind his reign of crime.
Although Verhoeven's resume became a bit difficult to interpret (Can you find any common thread that would have lead from Robocop to Showgirls?), he's undeniably a capable director of action and extreme content, laced with a sneering dose of backhanded humor. Robocop was a full-throttle excursion into a crossover of crime-meets-horror that caught audiences unaware yet tweaked their adrenals in an unexpectedly satisfying way. Effective in providing a plausible context to his mayhem, Verhoeven exploited the emerging cable television mentality, that which dared to offer round-the-clock stimulation of sensationalized news programming that desensitized its viewers while ultimately lowering their expectation of entertainment ("I'd buy that for a dollar!"). Therefore, mock newscasts are delivered in a perversely upbeat manner, polished and shimmering as perfectly coifed talking heads delivered grim reports of global dissent and social destruction through perfect dental work and network-mandated cheery smiles. To look at the world of cable programming, it would appear that citizens were privileged to be living in a time of incredible accessibility and upward mobility. This, of course, is contrasted by the wanton violence and utter disregard for civility on the streets of "old Detroit" where crime lords pack military-issue weaponry and the new economy revolves around that precious white powder. Meanwhile, in the boardroom of OCP, suited figures battle for favor and promotion, armed with project plans, ROI analyses, and razor-sharp sarcasm. Easily, Verhoeven gives us reason to laugh at what we've become -- or were about to become -- as the powerful few, they on the streets as well as in the plush office spaces, were driven by a ruthlessness that took no prisoners and offered no apology. He showed us two sides of the same coin and gave little hope that we could pull back from the precipice along which we lazily stumbled and staggered.
The greatness of Robocop comes by way of its timelessness. Verhoeven developed a film that could take place almost any time post-1985. He carefully framed his fatalistic fable in a setting that could be yesterday, today, or tomorrow. Technology is somewhat scant, allowing us to focus on Robocop, ED-209, and the military hardware. The rest of what we see is largely what we'd expect at any time that we might tour a burned-out community, charred traces of past commodities smoldering in the ruins. The film, therefore, does not feel dated at all and even exhibits a prescience that seemingly predicted things to come within the 20 years since its release. The humor is about as black as it gets, Verhoeven blasting not only the plasticized entertainment industry but also taking shots with predictions of failed political initiatives (see the SDI "glitch") and reckless consumption of fossil fuels (at 8.2 MPG, the 6000 SUX is an American tradition).
As for the situation itself, Robocop maintains its draw today just as it did in 1987 with grim characters committing unconscionable acts without regard or regret. On the streets, Boddicker and company are truly frightening in that they represent the lowest of bottom-feeders, they who have such disdain for society's norms and values. Concurrently, the OCP staff is just as frightening -- perhaps more so -- with their dog-eat-dog vengeance to gain the upper hand on the carpeted battlefield and with nary a concern for the city's real people who are suffering in the meantime. In the midst of it all, we see the blue-collar element -- Murphy, Lewis, and the rest of the Detroit police force -- struggling to maintain order in a lawless town, both in the streets as well as in the high-rise towers.
Robocop also entertains in the execution of its prosthetic effects, those spearheaded by wünderkind of the day, Rob Bottin (The Howling). While we had previously marveled at creature creations, here we see him take a hand at machinations, his rendition of the transformed Murphy still largely believable through use of practical methods. There's plenty of gunplay and gore on tap here, and Bottin effectively kicked the grue up to a point not seen at the time and still quite convincing today. This extended version, therefore, provides the complete view of decimated limbs, blown-out scalps, and toxic-waste mishaps.
I'd buy that for a dollar, maybe more.
Now, if you've been tracking the release of this particular feature on Blu-ray, you'll know it was originally poised for a June 2006 launch, only to be unexpectedly yanked at the eleventh hour. The result of a changeover in which parent MGM pulled home video distribution from Sony to Fox, Robocop got caught in the crossfire and lay wounded and unattended in the exchange. Few early adopters shed tears over this, however, given early word was the release consisted of an inferior transfer struck from worn source elements. Now, over a year later, Fox Home Video is presenting a newly mastered release that has fans and fanboys eager to see their favorite cybernetic cop in deep digital glory.
Well, not exactly.
The fact is, although this transfer is fresher than that which Sony was set to release previously, it's still less than a striking revelation. The 1080p/MPEG-2 encoded image is clean and vibrant yet it is afflicted with near-constant graininess that sometimes interferes with viewing experience. Low-lit sequences are especially hampered, as is much of the shadow detail. This isn't to say the transfer is unacceptable; in fact, it's a significant improvement over previous standard definition DVD releases including the confounding non-anamorphic "Director Approved" edition released by Criterion in 1998. Although it's the best we've seen thus far, it's still not of the expected quality that would give us reason to believe we've gone "beyond high definition." The audio is quite good, though, the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio Lossless track providing a highly engaging soundstage. Although only the core of the track can be decoded on most current hardware, the track is nonetheless raucous and rousing. Surround effects are well placed and travel across the channels in a way that is natural and generally convincing. Dialogue is perfectly balanced amid the action and always easy to discern. Basil Poledouris' evocative score is similarly well-represented here. What is difficult to discern is the reasoning behind why this is a bare bones release (you'll find only a theatrical trailer) given this is being released just a couple of months behind the standard definition 20th Anniversary two-disc set. There are no commentary tracks here (pity because if you've ever heard Verhoeven's track from the aforementioned Criterion release, you'll know it's an enjoyable listen). Likewise, there aren't any of the making-of featurettes or storyboard-to-screen comparisons. Sounds like another OCP clusterf***, er...glitch.
There is some value in owning this Blu-ray release of Robocop, since it's the best it has looked on the various incarnations of home video. Even so, relying on the sheer magnetism of the feature film is unmistakably offensive to those who are eager to see the high-definition formats -- red or blu -- find a solid footing. If notable catalog releases such as this are intended to boost and bolster the HD formats, this effort clearly isn't enough to sway those who remain in the undecided camp. With the advent of high-definition programming and enhanced DVD releases, now is the time to truly wow consumers lest the investments made thus far go for naught. Robocop looks good on Blu-ray but definitely does not look great and right now "great" is what's needed to move us into the next generation of home video entertainment.
Would you buy that for a dollar?
As a film, Robocop retains its allure and effectiveness as a non-stop action roller coaster seasoned with a steady sprinkling of dark humor. If you've grown tired of lesser video presentations, this one is your best bet yet. Although it could be considered a corner case of less-than-spectacular HD entertainment, technically speaking, it's an important enough title that warrants proper presentation to buoy the blu and red formats.
This court finds in favor of Paul Verhoeven, his cast and crew and awards restitution for full damages brought on by MGM and Fox for this not-as-good-as-it-should-be high definition release.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site