Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
This month, we’re checking out some sci-fi spectaculars.
We have reached an era in which Paul Verhoeven pictures are apparently ripe for the remaking. Len Wiseman’s Total Recall was first out of the gate. Needless to say, Wiseman is no Verhoeven. Fact is – and please allow me to crib from my review of that misfire here – Paul Verhoeven movies don’t get remade; they get reduced. He’s one of the most visually inventive directors of all time, and one of the more underrated auteurs of the 1980s. Many may argue that David Cronenberg’s ultra-violent films are more ambiguous, and, thus, more poetic, but Verhoeven has similarly deployed many an exploded head in the service of social satire, or to inspire a plaintive consideration of humanity’s fleeting impermanence. He also made Showgirls.
His 1987 masterwork RoboCop is the next to be reinvented for modern audiences, despite the fact that the 25-year-old flick still feels as if it was made tomorrow. The tale is set in Old Detroit, the decrepit vestige of American corruption; it’s soon to be rebranded by all-powerful corporation Omni Consumer Products as Delta City, an equally depraved avatar of American capitalism run rampant. Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) and his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) are among the last good cops in town, though they meet their match when facing off against criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith).
Riddled with bullets, Murphy’s corpse is brought back to the precinct and resurrected with robotic enhancements (hence the title). He becomes a crime-fighting superhero and a symbol of Omni’s reign. His fleshy human adversaries are no match for his state-of-the-art advancements, though an even more ferocious robot cop – the unforgiving ED-209 – proves to be an admirable foe. Murphy’s humanity eventually seeps through the steel veneer, despite his programmed ‘directives’ forcing him to dole out justice within specific constraints.
It’s rare for an action film in which someone is liquefied upon impact with a speeding car to incite conversation more than two decades after its release, but RoboCop is one of the more lasting sci-fi features from the latter part of the 20th century. Much has been written of it being a Christian allegory (RoboChrist?), and the debate as to whether the flick is fascist or subversive (a’la Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers) rages on. There are echoes of the aforementioned Cronenberg’s Videodrome in its depiction of the futuristic media landscape, and Weller’s underrated performance continues to inspire thoughtful reflection on what it means to be human, particularly as we grow more and more technologically proficient and reliant. I can’t add much to that which has already been said, except to say, yes, RoboCop is indeed intelligent enough to inspire such thoughts. It also holds up as a satisfying thriller all these years later. Will Jose Padilha’s impending remake have a similar effect? Your move, creep.
RoboCop is available on DVD and Blu-ray. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY.