Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) is set in Detroit of the near future, a dismal drug infested city that is decaying rapidly. Nearly 20 years later Verhoeven’s prophetic film seems very topical as this decay has reached a final state of necrosis. Not only is the American auto industry in the last gasp stage but massive urban emigration had led to a collapse of real estate and signals the end of Detroit as a metropolis. In Verhoeven’s Detroit the police department is run by a large corporation, OPC, and they have major plans to unveil the droid ED-209 as a replacement of the police, and eventually military, force – but glitches cause the project to be scuttled in favor of the RoboCop program.
Peter Weller (Murphy) enters the scene as a new cop assigned to the precinct, is paired up with officer Lewis (Nancy Allen) and on their very first assignment they run afoul of Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang and Muphy ends up on his way to the ER and eventually pronounced dead. At that point he is reborn as RoboCop, a cyborg with a human brain, and a mostly indesctructible prosthetic body. The brain is “erased” and RoboCop is thrown into law enforcement as the ultimate weapon. But it is the human brain after-all and Verhoeven shows us (here, as he does yet again in Total Recall) that a mind is a bad thing to lose, and also a hard thing to lose. RoboCop/Murphy slowly gathers precious memories of his previous life and indeed in the very first introduction of the RoboCop we see him twirl his gun in a signature move that his son used to love!
Aided by Lewis, Robocop slowly figures out that he is Murphy and we see a gut wrenching sequence when he walks into his old home, now empty and up for sale, and wanders around aimlessly and emptily as various family memories flash through his “brain”. Of course Murphy was a good cop in a bad town, so as RoboCop he still ends up cleaning out the mess while nearly ending up in a body bag for cyborgs!
Peter Weller starts out as an awkward and stiff Murphy, but as RoboCop and with his face mostly covered and only a stoic chin and lips visible, he infuses the character with some real soul and emotion. The film picks up in intensity as it rolls along and in the end is a simple morality tale. The questions that Paul Verhoeven forces us to ask are – What is being human all about and what is just punishment for those who steal our humanity from us?
Three years later Verhoeven set off with the biggest HW budget at the time to adapt a Philip K Dick story “We can Remember it For You Wholesale” into Total Recall. This was a bonafide SciFi film set in the future where people traveled wherever they wanted – and those who did not could armchair travel by getting holidays memories implanted into their brains!
Quaid (Arnold Schwarznegger) is a construction worker who has Sharon Stone for a wife, but still his soul years for a trip to Mars and a brunette (Rachel Ticotin) who is naughty! So he takes the plunge and goes to a company to get the holiday memories he is craving. And that is when he finds out that his dreams were real, and his memories have been erased and new life given to him!
In reality he was a secret agent, and when he discovered the nefarious schemes of Cohaagen, the man who rules Mars by controlling the air-supply to the colony, he was electronically “lobotomized” and settled into a quiet life on Earth with fake memories.
The movie then turns into a fast paced romp through “space-port” security, and then on Mars in the posh and ghetto parts of the colony. Verhoeven uses all the money sent his way extremely well – right from the “woman” persona that Quaid embraces to get on a spaceship, to the woman with multiple boobs, and prescient Kuato – the midget who is growing out of his brother’s abdomen, to the extensive landscape on the red planet!
Arnold delivers the performance of a lifetime as the secret agent Quaid. All his suppressed longings for something different from his staid day-to-day life and beautiful wife, seem somewhat awry until he explodes in our faces as the secret agent who was done wrong! He is ably assisted by the supporting cast, with Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin deserving special mention. But yet again, this is a morality tale – it is not the monopoly and the control of breathable air that makes Cohaagen bad, it is the fact that a good man was robbed of his memories and his life. And who cares if he got Sharon Stone instead? He still wants the brunette, and he still wants a life on Mars! And this is why we root for Quaid as he nearly dies in the process of freeing up a planet from extreme tyranny, but also frees himself up from the tyranny of supplanted memories.
Verhoeven is the master of SciFi and this one-two punch of taut thrillers from him makes for some fine movie viewing.
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