1990s, Action-Adventure, Scifi, War

Starship Troopers (1997)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Starship Troopers suffered from a serious case of bad timing. Starship Troopers saw Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, the creative hands behind RoboCop (1987), one of the signal cult hits of the 1980s, reteaming for another trip to the same well of genre thrills blended with high concept satire. Verhoeven had followed RoboCop’s success with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992), two more big, disreputable hits, but hit a career reef with the failure of Showgirls (1995), an attempt to marry acidic camp satire and exploitation movie precepts. Starship Troopers was supposed to reverse Verhoeven’s fortunes but finished up compounding his problems by also bombing at the box office, bewildering an audience expecting something more familiar and straightforwardly fun. RoboCop had nailed down the fetid mood of the late Reaganite era’s strange blend of conservatism and hedonism, and its spiky humour added zest to a classical tale of the hero triumphing over the corrupt and profane. But the mood of the late 1990s was at odds with Verhoeven’s new gambit in satirising war movies and militarism, a time of general peace and prosperity for much of the western world as well as eddying uncertainty, the paradigms that had shaped collective thinking for nearly a century suddenly irrelevant. Verhoeven’s sardonic call-backs to the gung-ho stylistics of World War II propaganda films and posters, a very retro-style frame, blended with violent, flashy contemporaneous filmmaking offered a strange and unstable aesthetic clue. At the time the burgeoning internet was still seen as a great new portal with a generally progressive application, whereas Verhoeven presented it as a new mode for propaganda and curated worldview manipulation.

The film’s chief relevance to its moment seemed to be in smartly identifying the general frustration for a lot of ‘90s youth that they’d never been given a great generation-defining task like war or, as for many of their parents, resistance to one, even whilst provoking with the warning to be careful what you wish for. It didn’t take long however for Starship Troopers to reveal its wicked prognosticative edge as the War on Terror commenced, when the narcotic-like addiction to macho imagery applied to great patriotic use became an entire political paradigm, the slow and painful weaning from which we’ve seen acted out in gruesome detail these past few years. Starship Troopers also came out at a moment when the kinds of social and political assumptions contained in a lot of classic Science Fiction as a genre was being investigated and critiqued by critics and scholars. The film’s approach to Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning source novel, published in 1959 and intended as a blood-and-thunder yarn for younger readers, was entirely in synch with this movement, and counted in itself as a radical act of genre criticism. The film also recognised the subtext in popularity for movies like Star Wars (1977), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1986) in refashioning the narrative patterns of old war movies and westerns for a new age absent any obvious and immediate geopolitical enemies to render as villains, and made sport of it.

Heinlein was long a leading sci-fi writer and one who wielded some sway as a thinker, particularly thanks to his novel Stranger In A Strange Land which served as a strong influence on the counterculture movement of the 1960s with its theme of an alien-raised human who returns to Earth and sets about remaking its culture. Heinlein had started off as a liberal but became a staunch libertarian, and his writing was often preoccupied by exploring social ideas. But his writing also represented a mishmash of political repercussions through articulating a need, commonly worked through in sci-fi, to celebrate a kind of transformative individualism. Starship Troopers told the story of some young heroes in a futuristic Earth society that’s become politically united but also reverted to a kind of Spartan state structure where citizenship is attendant on military participation, and prospective citizens are trained to the limit to become warriors resisting a war of species pitting humans against extra-terrestrial arachnids. In many ways Heinlein’s novel simply did what sci-fi is supposed to do: create a coherent vision not simply of dramatic events and technological concepts but to think through ideas of what society looks like it does and what form it takes in other situations. Heinlein had the then still-recent experience of mass mobilisation and indoctrination of World War II to draw on. But his vision was troubling regardless, and the fascistic undercurrent to the vision he and some other early sci-fi heroes often wielded had been noted and artistically reacted to by a subsequent generation of genre writers.

One aspect of the novel Verhoeven and Neumeier didn’t bother transferring, perhaps to avoid potential special effects difficulties or, more likely, so Verhoeven could sell his WW2 movie lampoon more easily, was abandoning his concept of mechanised armoured suits worn by his future soldiers, today a common trope and one Heinlein is generally seen as having popularised. Verhoeven rather makes the mismatch of the seemingly fearsome but actually insufficient machine guns his space warriors carry and their monster foes part of his own commentary on fascist precepts: a person in uniform with a mass-produced gun is at once the most cynically expendable and rhetorically exalted phenomenon in human society. That, or firing off “nukes” that provoke enormous and indiscriminate destruction. Verhoeven’s take on Heinlein becomes something of a moveable feast encompassing a multiplicity of genre mockeries that relentlessly disassemble their nominal purpose. Early scenes evoke the glossy glory of movies mythologising a high school experience, presenting good-looking young folk who play American Football (albeit some kind of weird, future indoor variety) and go to proms, highlighting a not-so-secret motive behind this mythology that goes back to the unadorned ambitions behind the founding of the Olympic Games: training a warrior generation through sports and competition. Then the film into an extended, extremist riff on films like Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) where some raw recruits are given harsh training and where eventually they emerge not only battle-readied, but intellectually persuaded of the rightness of their cause and duty, the once-dubious protagonist entirely indoctrinated into following in the footsteps of his hard mentor.

Where RoboCop had helped create context and weave in satire with the recurring motif of TV news reports, Starship Troopers commences and returns regularly to a kind of internet site on the “Federal Network” proffering clips of state-provided informercials and news stories that give insight to both the political and social moment, and punctuated by the recurring phrase, “Do you want to know more?” by the announcer (John Cunningham), which, notably, the person nominally surfing the site never does. Some clips offer seemingly benign factoids whilst another reassures the viewer with the vignette of a murderer “caught this morning and tried this afternoon,” with his execution scheduled for live viewing. The tone of the clips often segues within a blink from the broad and shiny tone of community service advertising and unadorned bloodlust-stoking. The opening recruiting commercial for the Mobile Infantry features ranks of soldiers, modelled after shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935), broken up by the sight of a pint-sized moppet gaining laughs from the soldiers when he claims, “I’m doing my part too!” The dig here at a very recognisable kind of cutesey-poo from advertising and TV is withering. Later Verhoeven offers the sight of kids stamping on more familiar insects in a ritual of patriotic involvement and killing, the words “Do Your Part!” flashing on screen whilst a mother cheers the kids on in hysterical fashion, in one of the most subtly disturbing scenes in mainstream cinema.

These jolts of sleazy suggestion about the brutal and repressive underpinnings of the future society are given more dimension as the film’s central figure Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his girlfriend Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards) are properly introduced, in a high school class being lectured by their teacher Mr Rasczak (Michael Ironside) teaching civics. Rasczak proudly shows off the curtailed arm he received in military service and explains the basic philosophical presumptions of their world, including “Something given has no value” and “Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor.” As in the novel, the characters are from Buenos Aires, and yet their modes of speech and culture have been entirely subsumed into caricatured all-Americanness, whilst the one-world government, the United Citizen Federation, restricts citizenship to only those who have served in the military. Humans have colonised much of the galaxy but are coming up against a truly ferocious enemy in the form of a society formed by multiple species of giant arachnid, or bugs as they’re usually called, whose apparent lack of higher intelligence doesn’t prevent them pursuing the same intergalactic habits of colonisation and territorial expansion.

The film’s opening proper after the first web break depicts an attempt by human soldiers to invade the bugs’ home planet of Klendathu as seen through the lens of a new crew for the Federation web service, a blur of bloodshed and mayhem as the soldiers seem to be routed by the rampaging monsters. Johnny is glimpsed as one of the soldiers being terribly wounded by one, collapsing before the dropped camera of the dead photographer, screaming him pain. This scene seems to have had an immediate impact on the subsequent burgeoning of the found-footage movie style, containing all its essential motifs as well as style. The shift into flashback explains what brought Johnny to such a fate, as he resolves to join the Federation mobile infantry in part to please Carmen, who has her heart set on joining the Federation space fleet to gain citizenship, but he can’t follow her there because his math skills are too lame. Nor can he kick along with his best friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), whose psychic talents lead him towards becoming a senior tactician.

Johnny’s decision to join the infantry stirs his parents’ (Christopher Curry and Lenore Kasdorf) concerns and he finds himself in a struggle to assert his independence, going through with joining up despite being cut off by his angry father. In Mobile Infantry boot camp he gains friends and allies in his training squad, including the brash Ace Levy (Jake Busey), ‘Kitten’ Smith (Matt Levin), Breckinridge (Eric Bruskotter), Katrina (Blake Lindsley), and Shujimi (Anthony Ruivivar). His former quarterback from high school football, Isabelle ‘Dizzy’ Flores (Dina Meyer) also enters the squad, and Johnny thinks she’s followed him into his training unit because of her long-unrequited crush. The squad must face the harsh, bordering on cruel, training methods utilised by Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown), which include impaling Ace’s hand with a knife and almost throttling Dizzy when she and he have a bout to test his recruits’ hand-to-hand skills. Johnny is left depressed and unsure of what he’s doing when he gets a video message from Carmen telling him she loves the space fleet life so much she’s joining up for life. His physical prowess allows him, with some help from Dizzy, to shine during training. Johnny is made Squad Commander, but then a fatal accident during training gets one of his people killed and another drummed out. Johnny elects to take “administrative punishment” of ten public lashes, only to then decide to quit, but before he can go home Buenos Aires is destroyed by a meteorite propelled by the bugs, and the Mobile Infantry are mobilised for the Klendathu assault.

Verhoeven’s fork-tongued wit applies itself as much through style as storytelling detail. Part of his peculiar cachet as a director, the source of both his moments of great success and his ultimate failure in Hollywood, stemmed from the gusto with which he set out to nominally give audiences what they seemingly want, but piled on with a reckless excess quickly annexing camp and subversion. I’ve often felt that aspect of Verhoeven’s sensibility hampered the intelligent edge of Total Recall to a great extent, but it’s perfectly deployed here. Starship Troopers comes on with violence, gore, action, sex, nudity, piled up to the point of obviously becoming camp, whilst still working on a basic genre film level. Early scenes with their bright, glossy cinematography applied to handsomely angular young stars ape the broad tone of TV teen soap operas. Jokes nod to standard TV broadness, like Carmen vomiting as she and Johnny do some dissection for biology class, except Verhoeven distorts through excess, as they’re dissecting a bug carcass with Johnny enthusiastically dumping piles of innards into Carmen’s hands. Casting Harris at that time was a particularly dry touch, as he was still chiefly known for his show Doogie Howser M.D. , and soon enough Verhoeven has him swanning about in a kind of generic brand SS uniform. Rue McClanahan, star of the jolly, saccharine sitcom The Golden Girls, appears as a weird and haughty biology teacher who saunters about like some ballet grande dame with sunglasses and walking stick whilst instructing her students on the superiority of the bugs as a species. Meanwhile Van Dien and Richards suck face they look like they’re in danger of cutting each-other with their jutting facial features.

A football contest between Johnny and Dizzy’s high school team and some visitor present Johnny with a rival in both sport and love in the form of Lt Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who has chemistry with Carmen and soon turns out to be her flight supervisor when she’s assigned as pilot to a space warship, the Rodger Young, commanded by Captain Deladier (Brenda Strong). When Johnny finally encounters them as a couple just before the assault on Klendathu, the two men have a brawl in a shipboard common room and are finally dragged apart by their respective service chums. The attack on Klendathu, seen again now from a familiar cinematic vantage, is revealed to be a total disaster where the humans are ambushed on the ground by hordes of the fearsome soldier arachnids and the fleet is badly damaged by the gigantic globules of superheated plasma huge bugs are able to fire into space: so effective is the bug response that people begin to theorise the arachnids have an intelligent caste of “brain bugs.” Johnny’s unit is wiped out save Ace and Dizzy, whilst Johnny takes a terrible wound that is repaired whilst he’s immersed in a stasis pod, mechanical arms stitching him fibre by fibre. After his recovery, the three are reassigned to a new unit whose fearsome commander is infamous but also saved their lives on Klendathu. This proves to be none other than Rasczak, who leads “Rasczak’s Roughnecks” with both a literal and metaphorical iron hand, and soon Johnny and his pals begin to find their feet as warriors, with Johnny promoted repeatedly by Rasczak for his displays of prowess whilst the people he replaces die.

Verhoeven’s formative experiences, as a child of World War II and someone who fell in love with movies in the 1950s, are apparent throughout Starship Troopers. The film contends with superficial jauntiness and a deeper level of queasiness with the matter of militarism, trying to understand the appeal of something that had laid waste to the world Verhoeven had grown up in. The movie influences are fonder, with many nods to the films of Byron Haskin, most obviously the infernal hues of The War of the Worlds (1953), and also his The Naked Jungle (1953) with its marauding insect hordes and Conquest of Space (1955), with a similar scene of the Rodger Young dodging a colossal meteor. Beyond those, a plethora of war and sci-fi movies. The hyperbolic recreation of a zillion movies about recruits being trained for combat pushes familiar motifs to ridiculous limits, climaxing in near-pornographic style with Johnny’s lashing, beefcake body spreadeagled in a frame and bloody trails carved in his back. When Johnny is inducted, a veteran lacking both legs and an arm processes his request, commenting that “the Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today!”, a scene close to one in All Quiet On The Western Front where the officer overseeing training is similarly war-mangled.

Such noble clichés as the chicken officer who freaks out, the commander who orders his subordinate to shoot him if he’s badly wounded, the key lines of patented tough talk handed on from one generation to another, and the soldier who dies heroically blowing himself up in a rear-guard battle make the grade, are purveyed with such intensity they become new again. Verhoeven also keeps intact from more generic WWII flicks the motif of the motley, multiracial gang of recruits, with the added twist that the Mobile Infantry unblinkingly includes women, leading to such odd sights as a group shower where everyone’s buck naked and chatting casually about their reasons for joining up. One quality that’s particularly shrewd about Starship Troopers in this fashion is that where a tinnier satire might avoid complicating its portrait, this one presents its future fascist-tinted state as one that’s also utopian in a lot of ways, lacking gender and racial prejudice, obliging a more ambivalent response that lies at the root of why the film made as many viewers uncomfortable as those who got the joke. Utopias are an old and ever-controversial subject of intellectual reverie and it’s a particular provenance for sci-fi as its creators can dream them up and pull them apart at whim. What’s particularly odd here is that in the 1990s and through today dystopias are, pop culture-wise, much more popular in sci-fi, dark portraits of glamorously decayed societies.

Starship Troopers actually tries to get at why such suspicion lingers, baiting the viewer with a shiny, inclusive, gutsy future world as if actively seeking to make people ache for such a world whilst constantly signalling its dark, cruel, iniquitous side: it offers a vision of such a society as that society would like to see itself, which is indeed what an awful lot of mainstream art provides. Of course, to be a human being in any society at any time means accepting as normal things that other humans in other times and societies might consider barbaric and evil. Whilst it’s hardly a direct parody, Starship Troopers can be described as Star Trek’s evil twin, with its vision of a future Federation conducting gunboat diplomacy in space, egalitarian in social make-up and yet conveniently unfolding in a setting still defined by militaristic hierarchy (although the Gene Roddenberry TV show might have been borrowing some ideas from Heinlein in the first place). In Starship Troopers a white Sky Marshall (Bruce Gray) takes the blame for the Klendathu disaster and resigns to be replaced by an African woman (Denise Dowse). The female characters in the film are strong and strident figures, particularly Dizzy, a top athlete and good soldier whose only foil is the torch she carries for Johnny. Meyer, who might rightly have expected have had a much better career after this, is terrific as Dizzy, able to be at once ferocious and smoulderingly sexual all at once in a manner few movie heroines have ever been allowed to be, as if Verhoeven was trying to conscientiously recreate the femme fatale figures Sharon Stone had played for him in Total Recall and Basic Instinct as a positive figure.

Nonetheless, perhaps with tongues in their cheek, Verhoeven and Neumeier said on their audio commentary for the film’s DVD release that they ultimately had Carmen survive and Dizzy die, despite a general audience sentiment preferring her, to be “good feminists.” The crucial difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers lies ultimately in the attitude to the central characters and their relationship with their society. Whilst RoboCop presents the title character as a literal corporate construct and mercilessly teases its futuristic landscape, the storyline ultimately affirms Alex Murphy’s regaining of self, in tension with the powers that create him, standing up for a set of values that exist distinct from an increasingly debased society. Whereas in Starship Troopers there’s no such reassuring message cutting across the grain of the invented society’s mores. Rather on the contrary, Johnny, Carmen, Carl and others all learn how to become better conformists as the story unfolds. They fully embody undoubtedly heroic traits of bravery, self-sacrifice, fervent camaraderie, and leadership, but these are ultimately streamlined to the Federation’s needs, as they’re served up as claw fodder. Carl berates Johnny and Carmen for being appalled at his cynicism when it’s revealed he sent the Roughnecks into danger to lure out the brain bugs, countered with “You don’t approve? Well too bad. We’re in this for the species, girls and boys!”

Meanwhile Ironside, who had done good villain work for Verohoven in Total Recall after graduating from David Cronenberg’s Canadian films, gives an inspired performance that works on a level not that dissimilar to all those old B-movie faces in Airplane! (1980), somehow managing to utter a line like “They sucked his brains out!” in all seriousness but with the finest thread of camp knowing attached. Rasczak amusingly transfers authority from the classroom into the real world, merely amplifying the mix of brutality and pedagogy he wielded in the former setting once unleashed as a commander in the field. The bloodcurdling tenor to the violence as Verhoeven presents humans ripped to shreds by arachnids and having the flesh burned off their bones by their plasma expulsions is alternatively amusingly gross and properly horrifying. What’s notable here is Verhoeven takes advantage of the fantastical-absurd context to confront physical horror as often elided in war movies, as well as trying to animate the cringe-inducing possibilities of warfare with an inherently different survey of species. These range from the soldier arachnids with their huge, torso-bifurcating mandibles to flying bugs with lance-like limbs and the huge plasma-spraying tanker bugs, one of which Johnny manages to take out singlehandedly by leaping onto its back, penetrating its armour with his machine gun, and throwing a grenade into the wound that blows it to pieces. This act of warrior grit marks the beginning of Johnny’s rehabilitation and ascent up the ranks.

Part of what makes Starship Troopers still work as entertainment despite its insidious subtexts and satirical nudges is the way Verhoeven invests even the most absurdly cliché character moments with a weird seriousness. Such moments range from Johnny’s father betraying his ultimate pride in his son despite all his objections – just before being annihilated by the Buenos Aires meteor – by asking over a video link where his uniform is, to Johnny’s register of offence when he sees Carmen and Zander as a couple, and Rasczak’s earnest advice to Johnny never to pass up a good thing when he notices Dizzy’s ongoing flirtation with him. The portrayal of the young soldiers as a community full of cheeky good-humour recalls the respect Verhoeven gave the police in RoboCop as the human edge of the corrupt wedge, as when they mercilessly tease Johnny as he records a video message to Carmen. The Roughnecks’ celebration after a battle offers the oddly delightful sight of Rasczak handing out beer and sports equipment to his soldiers who immediately improvise a kegger-hoedown. Ace happily sawing away on an electric violin to regale his comrades, tipping a hat to the Western genre roots of so much space opera fare whilst giving it all a space-age sheen. The party sees Johnny and Dizzy finally hooking up in one of Verhoeven’s patented sex scenes, notable for their being actually sexy, as here when the two kiss passionately with Dizzy’s shirt pulled halfway up over her face. They’re interrupted by Rasczak who tells them they have to mobilise again in ten minutes, only to extend it to twenty minutes to give them time to get down to it.

The subtler but pervasive aspect of this whole sequence is how smartly Verhoeven nails down the tenor of adolescent fantasy as most essentially one of belonging, Verhoeven’s highly mobile camerawork and the careful weaving of the actors in choreography helping create the impression of group unity and high spirits as well as the kindling at last of good old-fashioned sexual energy. That appeal, to the need to belong, to be embraced by community, is key to both the consumption of much popular entertainment and also to political propaganda, and it’s a correlation Verhoeven strikes insistently. Ultimately arriving too early to catch the wave of new affection for hunky leading men, Van Dien nonetheless expertly conveyed the right spirit Verhoeven required here, playing Johnny in an old-fashioned manner, never less than the perfect budding Aryan superman in looks but still struggling to overcome character flaws before finally arriving as a leader figure filled with sardonic stoicism. Busey’s angular gregariousness as Ace, with his grin like the xenomorph queen in Aliens, provides a likeably eccentric counterpoint as Ace, ambitious at first but happy to simply serve after fouling up as squad leader on Klendathu.

When they’re next deployed on Planet ‘P’ the Roughnecks investigate an outpost that sent out a distress signal and find their fortified position has been overrun and everyone slaughtered except for a General (Marshall Bell) who escaped by hiding in a freezer, and raves about the insects getting inside people’s heads and forcing them to send the distress signal, a grotesque possibility that seems born out when the Roughnecks find corpses with punctured and emptied skulls. Rasczak realises they’ve been lured into a trap and the Roughnecks fight a desperate battle against an overwhelming arachnid attack. Both Rasczak and Dizzy are fatally wounded – Johnny has to shoot his commander and has a mangled and gore-spurting Dizzy die in his arms confessing her gratitude they were together at the end, leaving Johnny the Roughnecks’ commander after he and the scant other survivors are rescued by Carmen and Zander. The Roughnecks’ battle in the fort plainly references many a Western forebear as the bugs come swarming out and over the ramparts, unleashing a giddy massacre of severed heads, punctured bodies, roasted flesh, and blasted bug parts. After barely being rescued the team is then sent back to Planet P to locate the malignant intelligence that set up the ambush Carl believes is present there: a brain bug.

Not the least quality of Starship Troopers is the still amazing special effects work, with input from Industrial Light and Magic and former stop motion animation wizard Phil Tippet, offering a then-cutting-edge fusion of model work, digital effects, and puppetry. Over twenty years later a lot of this still looks incredibly good, better indeed than most of the digital sludge in blockbusters, and working equally well in the contrasting visions of space fleets and rampaging animals, the latter reaching an apogee when the Roughnecks behold a seeming sea of rampaging bugs charging the fort. The quality of the effects matches Verhoeven’s familiar shooting style with its bright palette and forcefully mobile camera, knitting a comic book-like graphic clarity throughout, at odds with the oncoming style of heavily edited action and visual gimmickry just coming into vogue thanks to directors like Michael Bay but certainly not antiquated-seeming. Verhoeven and his effects team offer startlingly great action scenes almost casually, like Johnny’s Ahab-like ride on the tanker bug’s back in trying to kill it, and the destruction of the Rodger Young amidst a fusillade of plasma spurts, slicing the great spaceship in half, a sequence that stands readily with anything seen in the Star Wars movies. The edge of blackly comic excess is never far away though, as Verhoeven has Deladier get crushed under a sliding bulkhead in another vignette of gory, heroic hyperbole, commander still bawling out orders in concern for her crew even as she’s cut in two.

The climax sees Carmen and Zander managing to escape the Rodger Young only to crash-land on P and find themselves at the mercy of the monstrous, many-eyed, vaguely penile brain bug and its horde of helpers, whilst Johnny, unknowingly given psychic nudges where to find them by Carl, leads Ace and fellow Roughneck Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam) to track them down. Here Starship Troopers notably collapses any sense of ironic distance between the travails of the individual characters and their function as members of a militarised society, a final dissolution made explicit by Zander as, just before he has his brains gruesomely imbibed by the brain bug. He declares, “Someday someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race,” a line of bravado that signifies humans achieving the same negation of individual identity as the bugs. Carmen manages to hack off the brain bug’s brain-sucking organ and Johnny arrives to fend it off by threatening to let off a nuke blast before Watkins, fatally wounded, lets off the nuke in his last stand. Finally, in a final nod to the material’s B-movie roots, Zim is hailed as a hero having reduced himself to a Private’s rank to get in on the fighting and finally captures the brain bug as it tries to escape.

For all the heroic sturm-und-drang of this battle for pure survival, Verhoeven returns to sounding queasy absurdism. Carl swans in with his increasingly Nazi-like uniform and uses his psychic powers to diagnose the captured brain bug as finally having learned fear of the humans, and exultantly announces it to the cheering assembly of troops, a moment of pure fascist sentiment. Carmen, despite having a colossal bug claw in her body a few minutes earlier, cheerily embraces Johnny and Carl. Despite making the brain bug utterly horrendous in appearance and behaviour, Verhoeven nonetheless obliges a level of sympathy for it in allowing the special effects artists to make it register as much or more emotion as the humans in its quivering vulnerability once stripped of its fellow arachnids, with final glimpses of the cringing creature being mercilessly tortured by human scientists under the guise of research. In a return to the propaganda reel style of the opening, our heroes are finally glimpsed riding out to battle again, with the last titles announcing confidently, “They’ll Keep Fighting — And They’ll Win!” It’s certainly tempting to say that by this point Starship Troopers has become what it countenances. But that neglects what’s ultimately most pertinent about its form and function, trying to articulate something a more earnest take would miss: indeed, would be obliged to miss. The sliver of black diamond deep in its cold, evil heart knows well the narcotic appeal of such things, and refuses to let us off the hook.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Scifi

RoboCop (1987)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriters: Michael Miner, Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Like many a filmmaker who, having gained stature and plaudits in their native land, heard the siren call of new shores, fresh stories, and better paydays, Paul Verhoeven vacated his place as the most lauded director in the Netherlands to fight for a place on the totem pole in Hollywood. His first film there, the medieval adventure Flesh + Blood (1985), hardly stirred a ripple, but the title was to prove a veritable mission statement for the way Verhoeven would heartily embrace a new career by pushing it to the max. Verhoeven’s lack of timidity as a Hollywood director who notably refused to deal in the usual pretences expected of transplanted auteurs was hardly surprising in light of the movies he had made in the Netherlands. Their number included his sex farce debut Wat Zien Ik (1972), about a prostitute’s misadventures, Turkish Delight (1974), his spectacularly vulgar take on the romantic tragicomedy, and his fetid, delirious melange of horror film, erotica, and metaphysical angst, The Fourth Man (1983). He had offered some films of more restrained temperament, including the historical class-clash epic Keetje Tippel (1975) and the Oscar-winning war film Soldier of Orange (1977). But something in Verhoeven’s overheated sensibility couldn’t be contained too long by such relatively straight-laced fare.
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So when he went Hollywood, Verhoeven went big. Where Hollywood executives told him the audience wanted sex and violence, he would serve double portions, as part of an outlandish mixture of often gross mockery, earnest melodrama, and sleight of hand in tackling Verhoeven’s deeper interest in the politics of body and soul. He didn’t appreciate Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script for RoboCop when he first read it, but his wife did, pointing out to him the barbed skepticism aimed at the emerging corporate dominance, and the theme of the Christ-like saviour. The film was destined to be a smash hit and would place Verhoeven on top for a time until he pushed his tendencies just a little too far for critics and audiences alike. But RoboCop, perhaps his greatest film and a remarkable balancing act by any measure, has never lost its cachet as a cult film sprung out of most surprising soil, standing alongside The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1987) in the holy sepulchre of ‘80s sci-fi action but also outstripping them in the force and clarity of its ideas and provocations. Great science fiction is usually part imagination, part reportage, with the best extrapolating trends of the moment of conception and projecting them into a fictional future that if done well can retain that seer-like mystique.
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Like many other movie-mad kids I watched the movie into the ground back when, and like many such relics of a misspent youth it tends to sit around, a must-own for the movie collection but also a little like part of the furniture. RoboCop hasn’t lost its pure, grade-A Columbian potency or its scabrously funny, cruelly satirical purview. Nonetheless time has changed how I relate to the movie: the general mayhem and specific blend of idealism and cynicism, so perfectly in synch with a teenage mindset, gives way to a deeper empathy for hero Alex Murphy, a family man torn away from identity and family – what does age do, but make us feel like pieces are being cut off us and remaking us into hardened things we don’t quite recognise, whilst stealing away things we love? RoboCop’s prognosticative edge seems near limitless, anticipating contemporary concerns of automation and artificial intelligence, the loss of public sovereignty over our institutions, the debasement of social discourse and the media, the unhinged power granted corporations in our lives and the grim spectre of government being annexed by businesspeople – all wrapped up in RoboCop’s shiny, sardonic shell. Even some of the film’s more dated references, like jokes related to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project, have gained a new window of relevance, whilst others, like the indictment of a city like Detroit being first built and then trashed and then gentrified at the expense of the inhabitants according to the whims of capitalism, never stopped being immediate.
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Over and above its satirical aspect, RoboCop is of course also a gloriously unhinged pulp adventure that finds whacked-out poetry in the notion of a normal man, his body appropriated for corporate use, transformed into a Kevlar-coated knight. RoboCop’s insidious genius is immediately signalled by the use of TV news reports and ads to frame the action, Greek chorus gone smarmy and commercial: the cold opening offers Media Break, a news programme that takes the pattern of news reduced to capsules and soundbites to an extreme – “You give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world!” – filled with biting bits of futuristic geopolitical info, like the apartheid South African gone belligerent and nuclear, and the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform” that fouls up, at first comically and then scorching a section of California to a cinder. This device also lets Verhoeven summarise the film’s basic plot and background with sublime efficiency. Interspersed are fake ads, grounding futuristic phenomena in familiar packaging, like one for mechanical heart transplants, and sketching out a future society where the phenomena of all kinds – human, machine, news, marketing – are dissolving into a grotesque and lawless stew. On to the real show: the setting is a futuristic Detroit where the infrastructure of the working class’s livelihoods has been reduced to cavernous shells whilst a new elite of corporate overlords rule on high.
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A massive corporation with the delightful nonentity name of Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, has taken over the privatised police force of Detroit, a city that has degenerated into a rundown, crime-infested, Hobbesian hellhole. The cops are outmatched by criminals toting heavy weaponry also made by OCP who manufacture military arms, and the police are slowly being starved of resources by their new masters. OCP’s barely hidden agenda is to rebuild Detroit into the new and shiny Delta City, whilst also hoping to replace the human police with robotic workers, cheaper, easier to maintain, and utterly unquestioning of authority. This project hits a speed bump however, when OCP’s number two man Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) parades the product of his R&D lab before the company board and the company chairman, referred to only as “The Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy). The hulking, prototype robotic law enforcer ED-209 machine guns unfortunate executive Kinney (Kevin Page) to a bloody pulp during a simulated exercise to demonstrate its abilities. Mid-grade executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), assigned to develop contingency projects in case of the ED-209’s failure to perform, steams in to steal Jones’s thunder and capture the Old Man’s interest with his alternative: his notion is to create a cyborg incorporating the brain and know-how of a real policeman.
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Morton is already busy trying to orchestrate the ready providing of a good test subject, by restructuring the police force and putting good candidates into dangerous positions. One such candidate, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), arrives for duty at Detroit’s most hazardous precinct, and is partnered up the station’s hard-ass commander Sgt Reed (Robert DoQui) with the equally tough Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The partners soon swing into action, chasing down a team of bank robbers commanded by the malevolent and ambitious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and pursue them to an abandoned steel mill. There, Lewis is knocked out and Murphy, after gunning down one of the crew, is bailed up by the rest and used for target practice by the gang, before Boddicker gives him a coup-de-grace in the head. Rushed to hospital, the medical team can’t save Murphy’s life, but his organic remains become the indispensible central component in Morton’s exercise in Frankensteinian public utility service.
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The savage boardroom sequence offers startling violence amidst arch mockery of corporate culture that has strong overtones of mirthful lampoons from days past like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1956) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), where young go-getters try to impress the man upstairs with wacky notions. The Old Man gives a speech of hollow self-congratulations met with applause, particularly from the eagerly brownnosing Morton, and hides his face in shame after Jones’ hiccup before admonishing him oh so solemnly, “Dick, I’m very disappointed.” The conceptual starting point is the same as Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho as the corporate world is revealed to be an arena of literal life-and-death competition, replete with cocaine orgies and blood-spattered exercises in free enterprise from these upstanding captains of industry, but it’s also a zone of slapstick absurdity, as the Old Man cradles his head in cringing embarrassment in the face of Kinney’s demise. “We steal money to buy coke and sell the coke and make even more money,” says Boddicker’s lieutenant Emil (Paul McCrane), which he holds as basic business acumen, and Boddicker and crew attempt a hostile takeover of a mob drug business.
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Street-level capitalism is soon revealed to be working in harmony with the glass citadels of corporatism, for Boddicker works under the protection of Jones, who offers him the rights to control all the crime proceeds in Delta City. “Good business is where you find it,” Jones and Boddicker both parrot, one of the many catchphrases that recur throughout the film, way-stations of commercialist mind colonisation: everyone in the film, well before Robocop first marches out to battle, is already brainwashed to a certain extent. Glimpses of television in this future are either ads, chop-chop news, or bawdy, soft-porn sitcoms, disgorging another catchphrase, “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Not, of course, that RoboCop was so unique in terms of its targets when it was released. Corporate honchos, snotty yuppies, and government heavies were kicked about in quite a few ‘80s action films, victims of a lingering suspicion of authority, a hangover in genre film reflexes from the counterculture era but gaining a more blue collar basis in the era of the common man (a couple of years later, in Leviathan, 1989, for instance, a female corporate boss gets a sock in the face from Weller, playing one of the workers she left to die).
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What makes RoboCop so striking in this regard is the way it coherently envisions its future world. The threat of collapse into anarchy is both imminent but also manufactured. The Old Man crows about changes to taxation that have allowed corporate growth at the price of running down civic infrastructure, to which the proposed cure-all is corporate governance. Meanwhile the assailed, under-resourced, cost-ineffective police are driven to the point of considering a strike, something Reed considers utterly verboten. RoboCop is a product intended, like ED-209, to render messy human components to the system unnecessary. And yet Morton’s idea needs the human element. RoboCop’s near-future has hues of dystopia and the shining prospects of renewal on the horizon seem to promise only new dimensions in iniquity. In terms of the science fiction genre in general and in more specific conceptual terms, the entire narrative can be seen as the stage before the construction of the great city of Metropolis (1926).
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In this landscape Murphy is a plain anachronism, a competent cop with a sturdy home life and an old-school delight in the mystique of the western hero, recreating the signature gun-spinning move of his young son’s favourite TV character, T.J. Lazer, protagonist of a sci-fi western blend, and admitting to Lewis that “I get a kick out of it.” Rebirth as RoboCop ironically remakes the gunslinger as futuristic hero, but as a 21st century myth, or at least a 1980s anticipation of one, the context is infinitely more questioning about the actual meaning of such heroism – what was the Old West hero but precursor and defender of more efficient exploitation of the land? RoboCop depicts the search for freedom in immediate and gruelling detail, perceiving the entire world, never mind the computer chips and LED screen that feed fragments of corporate circumspection to Murphy, as a trap of conspiring paradigms. It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Jones and Boddicker’s association closely resembles that of Frank and Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), hired gun and business potentate learning from each-other with mutual yearnings to be the other. The true cleverness of RoboCop, and the source of its power, lies in Verhoeven and the screenwriters’ precise feel for what to make sport of and what to take seriously, playing their hero and the other cops absolutely straight. This approach allowed Verhoeven to extend his obsession with the mysterious blurring of the sacred and profane to emblematic extremes.
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Verhoeven’s visual patterns constantly stress the act of seeing, experiencing, processing, and also the limitations imposed upon them. Verhoeven repeatedly returns to Media Brief bulletins and commercials without warning, assaulting the demarcations between standard movie narrative and meta-commentary, between movie-watching as self-evident flow and self-critical process. Point-of-view shots are a constant motif. These kind of shots were increasingly common in this brand of ‘80s sci-fi action movie, the red-drenched viewpoint of the Terminator, the infrared gaudiness of the Predator, evoking new ways of seeing the world through technological media. Verhoeven renders them more purposeful in terms of his hero’s experience. He obliges the audience to spend much time watching this world through Murphy-RoboCop’s eyes, or from those who look on at him with blends of heartache and fear. Murphy’s death and resurrection are first-person events, his viewpoint maintained as doctors try to save his life, in alternation with incredible close-ups of Weller’s glassy blue eyes. Flashback memories take on dimensions of spiritual symbolism, the sight of his wife and son waving to him from the driveway of his house as he drives away becoming a more permanent and piercingly wistful evocation of loss.
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Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop continues in this vein, experience reduced to brief snatches of online awareness, enough time to observe his creation team and overseers like Morton in all their crass and clumsy humanity. RoboCop is supposed to be a completely pliable tool, without memory or sense of self, only a series of simple and unswaying directives to guide his actions. As Murphy-RoboCop rises from his seat to the applause of the technicians and executives, his vision is pixelated by video feed and criss-crossed by targeting grids and computer read-outs, with a viewpoint that’s rigorously linear and straightforward, Verhoeven’s subtle jab at the drab functionality of much Hollywood filmmaking. But dream and memory come to disrupt the way of seeing OCP impose upon him, making the film, in its way, a new paradigm for the classic surrealist creed. Verhoeven cleverly extends the feeling of displacement and the shock of the new as the cops dash through the halls of their precinct trying to catch a glimpse of the outlandish newcomer in their midst, a gleaming hunk of technological force, a masculinised answer to the sleek robot Maria of Metropolis. One of the most logical throwaway details also contains one of its sharpest gags, as RoboCop has to consume a paste close to baby food to keep his organic parts alive, humanity at last perfectly infantilised and rationalised. The film found a way to weaponise David Cronenberg’s dank dreams of body perversion and intrusion.
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RoboCop is sent out to snare the bad guys – one of Verhoeven’s many circular motifs suggests something of Murphy’s spirit is still within RoboCop as he drives out of the precinct car park with sparks in his wake on the steep ramp. Verhoeven compresses vignettes of totemic pop vigilantism into gems of black comedy here, as he offers several hilariously hyperbolic versions of the kinds of street crimes reported breathlessly on nightly news and in cheesy movies. A stick-up man with a machine gun terrorising a market. A pair of denim-clad rapists. Disgruntled former councillor Ron Miller (Mark Carlton) holding the mayor hostage. The stick-up man is easily sent flying into a refrigerator as his bullets ricochet off RoboCop’s armour. More wit is required to take down the rapists: RoboCop successfully shoots between their victim’s legs to make mincemeat of an offending member. The hostage-taker is dragged through a wall and punched out a window (one of my favourite parts of the film is the terrorist’s list of demands to the negotiating cop outside, including fresh coffee, his job back, and a new car, and the cop’s assurance: “Let the Mayor go and we’ll even throw in a Blaupunkt.”) So successful are RoboCop’s forays that Morton’s hubris becomes outsized, crowing to the media that crime will be wiped out in 90 days and dissing Jones in the executive washroom at OCP without realising the target himself is in a toilet stall. Morton is soon assured he’s truly earned an enemy, but doesn’t quite realised how dangerous an enemy until Boddicker barges his way into Morton’s house, shoots him in the legs, and leaves him to watch a DVD of Jones gloating as a bomb ticks down to zero.
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Just prior to getting his goose cooked, Verhoeven gleefully portrays Morton and a pair of models indulging lashings of snow white and fetid sexuality, in a scene that feels eminently like the filmmakers probably witnessed such a scene or perhaps even indulged it somewhere in the Hollywood hills: “God I love to be with intelligent women,” Morton crows to the dimwit pair before snorting coke off one’s tits, summarising the mindset of the executive sexist with cruel exactitude. Boddicker and his crew, by contrast to the corporate corsairs, are a multiracial bunch of scumbags and overgrown school bullies who enjoy turmoil and tormenting, evinced as they sadistically blow pieces off Murphy, and later Emil threatens a geeky gas station worker (“Are you some kind of college boy?…Think you can outsmart a bullet?”). They’re logical end-products of a society based around dumbing things down and celebrating ruthless muscle. That process is in itself a product of the torturing dualism that Verhoeven constantly perceives in the human condition. People at the pinnacle want the seamy pleasure those as the bottom can give them; those at the bottom wish to drag everything down but then ascend in its place. By the time the cops do actually strike and leave the streets to the marauders, the crew unleash their casual destructive impulses with an impunity reminiscent of Verhoeven’s antihero in Turkish Delight, a madcap incarnation of impulse and basic organic hunger detached from all natural feeling for higher function, as well as the ensnared bisexual protagonist of The Fourth Man, who finds himself trapped between sweat-inducing desire and beckoning transcendence.
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Murphy meanwhile experiences the return of consciousness as a digital glitch, the face of his killer leering at him in fuzzy dream, wrenching him out of repose and driving him out into the night, with Lewis’ attempt to reach the man within – “Murphy, it’s you!” – ringing in his ears. Encountering Emil as he robs the gas station, mutual recognition spooks both men, and the device of recognition is, of course, a catchphrase: Murphy’s favourite quip, perhaps also culled from T.J. Lazer, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Some of the film’s funniest jokes are also its least subtle, like the constant repetitions of the diminutive of Jones’ first name, and the key object of consumerist fancy, the 6000-SUX sports car, a car that fulfils the dream of conspicuous consumption – it nicely meets Miller’s criteria for his dream car that it give “really shitty gas mileage.” Verhoeven returns to the first-person style as Murphy for an amazing sequence where his trash satire and poetic sense of elusive memory work in perfect tandem, following the breadcrumb trail back through Emil’s arrest record through to what used to be his home. Here he finds a smarmy salesman guiding him through his house on video screens, reducing the setting of his life to a series of metrics and brand names, whilst the ghostly memories of his wife (Angie Bolling) and son (Jason Levine) loom before him, conjured out of the past and dissolving again. Murphy, in his prowling distress, punches in one of the salesman video screens, the first overt act of revolt against the overwhelming web of choking commercialism and phony pleasantry glimpsed throughout the film. Characteristically, Verhoeven eases back from the emotional crescendo with a return to comedy whilst still managing to step up the narrative pace as he makes a crash-cut to a nightclub, as Murphy hunts down another of Boddicker’s associates, Leon (Ray Wise). Leon tries to kick the cyborg in the balls but of course gets only some broken toes for his pains and the dancing denizens hoot in approval as Murphy drags Leon out by his hair.
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One of Verhoeven’s master strokes was in casting, putting actors in vividly counter-intuitive roles, like casting the eternally girlish Allen as a tough cop, Cox, best known before this as the dreamiest member of the rowing foursome in Deliverance (1972), as a raging, strutting prick, and Smith, who mostly had played cops in various TV shows before this, as a brutal bandit king, utilising his aura of intelligent authority with an extra layer of antisocial acidity, converting all his lines into little arias of cruel humour. Weller had been circling the edges of stardom for a few years before being cast as Murphy, in cultish fare like Of Unknown Origin (1983), in which he played an everyman doing battle with a giant rat, and the title role of Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), where he played a polymath pulp hero; the diversity of such parts signalled both Weller’s skill as an actor and also his peculiar physiognomy, spindly, slightly hangdog, but equipped with soulful eyes and cupid lips. The latter feature being just about all you can see of him throughout RoboCop and so vital to his presence, some remnant of the human, the romantic, amidst the technocratic fantasia. Weller’s ingenuity as an actor is vital to selling RoboCop, in the mechanical gait of the character, the way he seems to struggle against his new form and then to use it effectively express his rage and distress as he begins to regain his memory. Somehow he manages to make all the stages of his role effectively expressive – from the all-too-vulnerable Murphy to the grimly stoic cyborg to the blank, haunted, quietly resolved remnant that emerges towards the end.
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Murphy’s crashing of a business meeting between Boddicker and a drug kingpin (Lee DeBroux) sees him wipe out a small army of hoodlums, and bash Boddicker around until he tries to warn off Murphy by telling him Jones looks after him, but it’s rather the reminder that Murphy is a cop that saves Boddicker’s life. Instead he casts him to Reed and heads off to arrest Jones, but soon finds a wicked limitation placed upon him – the incapacity to take action against an OCP employee, ingrained in his programming. In this future there is quite literally one law for the rich and another for the rest. Murphy has to elude an ED-209 set upon him by Jones – fortunately, that monstrosity, in what feels like a grand joke aimed at decades worth of impractical robots in movies, can’t negotiate the stairs – and then is almost shredded by the combined fire of ranks of cops called out to deal with the apparently rogue cyborg. Basil Poledouris’ tremendous scoring reaches an apogee here in the grand yet mournful evocation of mecha-Christ crucified over and over again. Lewis manages to snatch Murphy away and helps him self-repair and recuperate in the same steel mill where he was first shot up, and Jones sends Boddicker and crew after him, equipped with explosive shell-lobbing guns. Verhoeven, via Murphy and Lewis, dishes out nasty comeuppances to the criminals, but with a seething overlay of perverse, Looney Tunes-esque comedy: Emil, immersed in the contents of a well-labelled vat of toxic waste, is reduced to a grotesque mass of melting flesh before being run down by Boddicker; Leon is blown to smithereens by Lewis just as he whoops in triumph after trapping Murphy under some junk, and Boddicker gets skewered in the throat by Murphy’s data plug when he gets just a little too close to crow over his pinioned opponent, a deadly steel spike that also looks like an installation art take on flipping the bird.
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What holds RoboCop together is the conviction with which Verhoeven and Weller celebrate their heroes, the cops both human and augmented, even as just about everything around them is revealed to be some sort of sham. When Verhoeven would return to a similar blend of high cynicism and straight-laced thrills on Starship Troopers (1997), a lot more people didn’t, or wouldn’t, get the joke even as Verhoeven unsubtly clad his spacefaring warriors in Nazi-esque uniforms. Such a lapse that time around was due in large part because Verhoeven offered no wriggle room between the fascist precepts of his future society and the aims of the heroes obliged to live in it; on the contrary, the film unstintingly states that their qualities and desires are rather exactly fulfilled and expiated by that society, and infers a similar dynamic can seduce all of us. That quality in some ways makes Starship Troopers the more sophisticated and slyly unsparing as a ransacking of genre film, but in another sense the lack of such tension foils it; it can’t thrill in the way RoboCop can, and so isn’t as effectively two-faced. Murphy returns to OCP Headquarters to handle unfinished business, blowing up the ED-209 with quick efficiency – somehow Tippet and the sound effects team manage to turn the death reel of the decapitate robot, which collapses with a ratcheting click of its wayward toes, into a hilarious moment – before bursting into the company boardroom to brand Jones as a killer before the Old Man and all the other corporate sharks. But Murphy cannot fire, not until the Old Man delivers the true assassination according to his world’s values, by firing Jones as he holds a gun to his head.
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This conclusion offers rowdy, crowd-pleasing flourishes with a sarcasm so complete it circles right back around to earnestness, as Morton’s executive pal Johnson (Felton Perry) gives Murphy and thumbs-up, and the Old Man slides back into western flick argot – “Nice shootin’ son.” The executives, like the audience and Murphy himself, in the end desperately want and need the western hero to exist even when it completely cuts against the grain of all logic. Similarly, Murphy’s final, simple, smiling utterance of his name carries enormous power precisely because of the farcicality, the grotesquery that surrounds him, and the hilariousness of the context only sharpens the sting of Murphy’s self-reclamation. RoboCop was such a hit that inevitably it spawned sequels, but just how essential Verhoeven’s touch had been, and how smart Miner and Neumeir’s writing had been, was soon confirmed. The first follow-up, Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990), proved a disastrous mess which just about everyone involved blamed everyone else for, retreading most aspects of the original but this time with the foulness turned up full and the stabs at humour and excitement utterly leaden. Weller refused to return for the third instalment, released in 1993, helmed by Fred Dekker, so Robert John Burke was cast in the role instead. This time the result swung too far in the other direction from the second entry, playing more like an extended TV pilot with goofy humour and a broad approach. Still, it did actually manage to provide a worthier follow-up. Jose Padilha’s would-be thoughtful but actually merely verbose and heavy-footed remake from 2014 tried to turn its own by-committee, brand-exploiting status into the very subject of its riff, but neglected everything else, and simply reduced proceedings to a crying bore. Some prototypes, it turns out, just can’t be reproduced.

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