I reviewed this title on Blu-ray almost a year ago, and then a funny thing happened: It was never released, reportedly because of distribution rights. This version hits the shelves without the audio commentary by the director, co-writer and executive producer that appeared on the aborted Blu-ray release, and minus four deleted scenes and a making-of documentary ("Flesh and Steel: The Making of Robocop"). So were the rights issues over the bonus features? It would appear so. I know that people have been speculating that the delay was over quality, but to the naked eye it's hard to tell much of a difference. This version appears to have been made using a slightly higher bit rate and has fewer imperfections, but because the original source master is rough, both Blu-rays still contain more grain than you normally see in High Definition. Still, it's the best that this film has looked, and of course for a film with near-cult status and a big following, the sporadic graininess will only add to the futuristic atmosphere.
Forget Big Brother and 1984. The year of this picture's release is 1987, and we fast-forward to a future where the Republican idea of utopia--complete and total privatization--is in effect, and causing no small amount of chaos. On the commentary that unfortunately turns up missing, Neumeier confirms that his "horrorscape" was based on Reagan's vision. Everything is outsourced in this unspecified future world, even police protection. And in Detroit, that means the same as it does everywhere else: corporations who provide these social services are mostly interested in profits, not service. They'll cut corners the same as BP just slacked off on its Alaskan Pipeline maintenance, spending less than a quarter of a cent for every dollar of profit to maintain the lines.
As a result, corporations in the future have all grown fatter and fatter, but the average citizen is living in a virtual war zone, where crime runs rampant and everywhere you look you see the same dilapidated scenes you were treated to in "Blade Runner." That's not a coincidence, since writer Edward Neumeier got the idea for "Robocop" after he passed by the set of that Harrison Ford film. Now a cult favorite, "Robocop" misfired at the Oscars when it was first released but did well at the Saturn Awards, winning for best sci-fi film, special effects, writing, make-up, and direction. Not bad for a relatively low-budget film. Verhoeven reportedly had $13 million to work with here, when just a few years later he'd be given $65 million to make "Total Recall."
With so many movies produced each year, it's impossible to see all of them, and this was one that's escaped me over the years. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. I expected a straight action film about cops in the future. You know, like the tag line says: "Part man. Part machine. All cop. The future of law enforcement." But what I got was a superhero film that weaves in a little anti-government satire, a little Charles Bronson-style revenge motif, a new twist on Frankenstein's monster and the Bionic Man, and a post-apocalyptic society that's decimated not by nuclear war but by corporate greed and governmental insanity.
It's the ideas that swirl around underneath all the shooting (and there is a bunch, and not just ordinary pistols) that make this film interesting. But it also works well on the simple level of a superhero who is wronged, transformed, and ultimately rededicated to foiling evil. And you know, some of the robots and weapons are pretty fun--like those Cobra cannons that the thugs use to shoot up the town the way gangs did in Old West towns.
Director Paul Verhoeven ("Total Recall," "Starship Troopers") does a good job of keeping things moving along, with an establishing shot giving us a sense of this future world, some development of Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) and his partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), and a parallel plot involving robotics shenanigans at the Omni Consumer Products corporate headquarters. Omni has been contracted to provide police protection for the city, and they're already looking for ways to cut costs and benefits. Cops are unhappy as it is, but OCP is moving in a different direction: the Ed 209, a robot that looks straight out of "Star Wars." The big guy (Dan O'Herlihy) and number two man Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) are impressed . . . until the robot cop can't even function properly in the boardroom demonstration, and shoots the place up.
Enter up-and-coming corporate guy Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), who says he's got his Robocop program just about ready for launching. Well, after our hero, Murphy, gets tangled up with a gang of thugs led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), a stooge for OCP, Bob gets his wish. Murphy becomes his prototype, is fitted with all sorts of armor and weaponry and computer-brain gizmos, and has his memory erased. Except some memories are just too strong to ever erase. And those flashes of recognition from when he was human, not cyborg, drive Robocop to go beyond his programming dictates: 1) Serve the public trust, 2) Protect the innocent, 3) Uphold the law, and 4) Classified. If you're like me and managed to miss this film I won't spoil it by telling you any more. Let's just say that all the motifs play themselves out. In true superhero fashion RoboCop has a number of run-ins with the bad guys, and in true revenge film style he has confrontations with those bad guys. And like Frankenstein, there comes a time when Robocop gets away from his inventor and becomes more human than anyone expected.
Visually, Robocop gives us a believable futuristic world, though not without illogical inconsistencies. We're far enough into the future where robots are being considered for police work, and yet Lite Beer cans still look as they did in 1987. And fashion police will laugh at the '80s hair and shoulder pads-there's no getting around that dated look. But hey, does that matter when we've got a supercop with a torso that bullets bounce off of and super strength that enables him to bend gun barrels, just like the Man of Steel? Some of the lines ("Your move, creep" or "Thank you for your cooperation. Good night") sound as if they could have come right out of Arnold Schwarzenegger's mouth, and on the commentary the filmmakers tell us that Ahhnold was briefly considered for the role. Except that the Robocop suit make an actor look bulky, and they were afraid that the already bulky action actor would end up looking like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. They settled on Weller in part because of his strong jaw-line. Verhoeven says that with only the jaw visible, it was crucial to get someone who had a strong jaw. Weller and the rest turn in decent performances, though nothing spectacular.
Likewise, the plot itself is pretty straightforward, even predictable, and we don't get the same narrative complexity or depth of characterization that we do in those other cyborg classics, "The Terminator" and "Terminator 2." And as far as the sci-fi elements are concerned, I think that films like "The Fifth Element" do a better job of parading futuristic gizmos in front of us. Still, the narrative thrust of "RoboCop" is strong enough to make for a fun 103-minute thrill ride, one that's worthy of the film's reputation as a cult favorite.
This Blu-ray release used MPEG 2 technology to transfer the film to disc in High Definition, and appears to have employed a slightly higher bit-rate this time around. But to the human eye, it's tough to tell the difference from the earlier Blu-ray. The 1080p picture is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen (which fills out the entire screen on a 16x9 TV). There's still more grain than you would normally get in a Hi-Def title, but there do seem to be fewer flickers of dirt and scratches than on the previous Blu-ray attempt. Overall, I'd give it a 7.
Here the studio made a big switch. The original Blu-ray featured an English PCM 5.1 soundtrack that was pretty good, but this new Blu-ray features English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless audio. Again, the difference seems slight to me. The DTS feels a bit richer in tonality and might have a wider spread, but other than that, bullets are bullets. They pop and zip all over the place in this popcorn movie. Other audio options are English English 4.0 Dolby Surround, and French or Spanish Dolby 5.1 Surround, with subtitles in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean. Curiously, the first release in Blu-ray had different subtitles (English SDH, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Thai). Go figure.
Zero extras, unless you count the theatrical trailer.
Bottom Line: "RoboCop" is a fun action flick that, for all its predictability, delivers an engaging portrait of a futuristic superhero taking it to the bad guys. This Blu-ray release seems more on the mark than the previous one, but the picture still looks rougher than we've gotten used to with HD releases.