The recent trend of docu-feature series exploring the history of popular IPs is gradually becoming popular among dedicated fans due to how genuinely interesting and informative they can be. The most recently released among such ventures is the first season of Robodoc: The Creation of Robocop, a Screambox original, which takes a look back at the excruciating production process, development, and brainstorming that went behind the 1987 sci-fi classic Robocop. The movie is still considered one of the topmost sci-fi pieces ever released by Western media, which was not only topical and philosophical but it has also proven itself to be timeless, at least in the current era more than ever.
The four one-hour-long episodes, which include excerpts from detailed narrations of the chief creator duo Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, director Paul Verhoeven, the Robocop actor Peter Weller himself, cinematographer Josh Vacano, production designer Phil Tippett, William Sandell (Rob Bottin’s absence was felt), and concept artist Miles Teves, give us a proper idea of how laborious the process of filmmaking can be, let alone a sci-fi masterpiece like Robocop.
The Conception of Man as Machine
Ed Neumeier begins the prolonged explanation process by attributing the inspiration for making futuristic sci-fi to another masterpiece of a work, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The alluring, neon-lit cyberpunk landscape of the movie and the visionary art direction of Ridley Scott at once captivated Ed, who conceptualized Robocop as the future of law enforcement. He was also introduced to the complex tales of popular cyborgs, part human-part robotic characters in comics, namely Machine Man and Deathlok from Marvel comics, to form the basis of his creation. After discussing his idea with Michael Miner, the co-writer of the movie, who added philosophical sci-fi elements to the foundation, the duo pitched their first draft to Universal Studios, who rejected it, stating the character needs a human face to be relatable. They were right about that aspect, as in the later part of the movie, it is pretty noticeable how important a role it played. The design of the character was partly inspired by another comic-book character, Judge Dredd, and erotic robo illustrations by Hajime Soroyama, which, thanks to the adept skills of the production design department, came to life.
If there is a thematic spectrum of man- and machine based narrative, then The Terminator and Robocop will be posited as identical opposites. The Terminator dealt with the titular nefarious robot, with the appearance of a human being, and dealt with fatalistic encounters between it and preventing a doomed future. While Robocop, revolved around the human cop Alex Murphy, whose death and subsequent rebirth in a robotic body brought him on the verge of almost losing his humanity and consciousness. This similar yet contrasting aspect of both these movies and The Terminator getting released earlier contributed to the production problem for Robocop. Aside from later accusations of plagiarism (even though the script was completed way before), Ed recalls Stan Lee, the then chief of Marvel Comics, stating that they were never going to surpass The Terminator. Even the director, Paul Verhoeven himself, wasn’t too hopeful about the potential of the movie, but thankfully, Orion Studios didn’t pay heed to the naysayers and decided to give the aspiring young creators a chance, which proved to be a momentous decision in the end.
Thematic and Cultural Nuances in Robocop
It is no secret that Robocop as a narrative critiqued the hyper-capitalist, privatized, and overtly authoritarian America during the Reagan era, and the makers take a deep dive into the subject while discussing how much topical they tried to turn the movie into. The co-writer of the movie, Michael Miner, decided to cast the evil Omni Corporation as the criminal mastermind behind the criminal activities, aggravating the decadence of over-exploited Detroit, and getting their hands into authoritative sectors as well, in conjunction with the experience he has gathered since a young age. The post-war economic boom, which affixed consumerism like a leech to America’s economy, was taking the country into a worse state after the Vietnam War and Reagan-era corporate prioritization.
The movie’s depiction of ‘ultraviolence’ was also satire, which tried to poke at the excessive strengthening of authoritative forces. While it initially came off as ludicrous to even the director himself, the dystopian settings justified the choice, but most importantly, the theme of apathy was as relevant back then as it is now. Paul Verhoeven also credits music composer Basil Poledouris with laying out the thematic undercurrent of the movie brilliantly through his symphony, which ranges through all the emotional trepidations of melancholy and grandioseness and evokes the technological subtext through iconic synth-wave scores as well.
Is a resurgence in Robocop franchises necessary?
Through the unapologetic political satire and bold statement made through the visual depiction of a decrepit world that seems to be taken right out of a Judge Dredd comic, the symbolism of a messianic figure (essentially American) showcased through the presentation of the titular character, Robocop, was well ahead of its time in every sense. Not only that, it remains a pretty relevant movie considering our contemporary sociopolitical atmosphere, more so than some of its much more popular counterparts.
Despite that, as a franchise, it never managed to replicate the brilliance of the first movie, and even though a reboot movie released in 2014 had some success, the mainstream audience does not feel the nostalgic fervor as strongly as is associated with other yesteryear classics. With another live-action entry already in post-production, the question remains whether another Alex Murphy-like figure will be accepted by the current generation, given the fact that the role of the police force is one of the most contentious topics nowadays.
Can we, as fans, expect another clever satirical take on the overdependence on the virtual atmosphere, increasing surveillance and control of government, and gradual lack of moral and ethical sensibility through the tale of a cyborg lone ranger? Or do we have to satiate ourselves with another generic modern-day mediocre cash grab nonsense? The inspiring chronicle of Robocop will surely make viewers hopeful about the necessity of the former one, and we have to wait to know whether that eventually comes to pass.