When The Present Echoes The Past's Dystopian Future: Reviewing RoboCop In 2019 Detroit – The Arrow Video Limited Edition Reviewed

As an action film, RoboCop needs no introduction. It stands alongside the likes of The Terminator, Predator, and Die Hard as one of the most consistently beloved action movies of the 1980s, and it instantly transformed the career of Paul Verhoeven from a Dutch director of boundary-pushing art-house thrillers to one of the biggest directors of (still very boundary-pushing) R-rated blockbusters in Hollywood. RoboCop became a cottage industry in its own right, spawning two sequels, a live-action TV show, a Saturday-morning cartoon, and a slew of video games and action figures. Those last couple points are what ultimately lead to the unraveling of the franchise with the PG-13 RoboCop 3, as the premise was being softened and dulled at the edges to appeal to kids, and Verhoeven's dark vision got lost in the process. With all that other media and merchandising, and with how the franchise ultimately ended in Power Rangers-esque self-parody, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the original RoboCop is so much more than just another '80s action franchise-starter; it is a deceptively intelligent and cleverly-written social satire and philosophical parable, and a brilliant film in its own right. It is a movie that is good enough, and packed with enough thematic depth, that it was one of the earliest films canonized as an important work of modern cinema by The Criterion Collection in their DVD run (spine #23). That disc went out of print over fifteen years ago, however, and in the intervening time, the film's legacy has often blended back in with the rest of its franchise, and with the canon of '80s sci-fi/action favorites of which it is undeniably a part. It may not need an introduction as a great genre film, but for a lot of viewers it does need a reintroduction as a very prophetic work of social commentary that predicted a few of the more dystopian elements of American culture in the present day. Fortunately, RoboCop has finally once again been given the sort of lavish special edition that it has long deserved, which provides the context to see it not just as the first in its franchise, but as a great movie that stands on its own. What Criterion did for the age of DVD, Arrow Video has done – and done significantly better – for the age of blu-ray, giving us an appropriately lavish and distinguished RoboCop limited edition.

The film is set in Detroit, in an unspecified dystopian near-future. The city is ruled less by government, and more by the manipulative corporate autocracy of Omni Consumer Products – OCP – who own most of the land in the city, and have just bought out and privatized the police force. In their efforts to control the city by controlling the police, they plan to replace human cops with robots built and programmed by them, which leads to the creation of RoboCop, a prototype cyborg built around the corpse of good-guy cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller in the role that would make him famous), who was killed in action trying to take down Old Detroit crime-lord Clarence Boddicker (an absolutely terrifying Kurtwood Smith in a performance that makes it seem unthinkable that he would go on to be a sitcom dad). But as RoboCop/Murphy starts to rediscover his buried humanity, he sets out to figure out who he was and solve his own murder, which pits him against both the sadistic thugs of Boddicker's gang and the corporate evil of OCP's leadership (principally Ronny Cox). This premise certainly could be played as a straight-faced sci-fi/action film, and it does function on that level too, feeling at times like the best comic-book movie made prior to Batman, despite not actually being based on a comic book. But thanks to the very intelligent, grimly funny sensibilities of director Paul Verhoeven and writers Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, it is also so much more. It is a very clever, absolutely savage social satire about corporate greed, privatization, and the buying of political influence slowly but surely eroding American democracy and turning us into a quasi-fascist state run by business conglomerates rather than politicians. It is also a philosophical sci-fi story about what it means to be human, which plays at times like a cyberpunk retelling of Frankenstein as its title character built from dead tissue and machinery searches for his memories, humanity, and soul.

Rewatching RoboCop in 2019, in Detroit, is an eerie experience: there are a lot of things that Neumier's social satire predicted with astounding, sometimes depressing accuracy. Like so many cyberpunk-ish sci-fi stories of the 1980s (I would say that RoboCop at least loosely qualifies as cyberpunk in its ideas and world-building, though not its aesthetic) it imagines a dystopian future brought about by corporate greed run amok, to the point that mega-corporations are more powerful that governments, and wield that power very amorally. While it is at least true that we do not yet have any companies in America quite as powerful as OCP (though Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are certainly trying, and that is also no doubt what Trump has always dreamed of), the ways in which the company achieved its power strike very close to home. In the iconic boardroom sequence at the beginning of the film which introduces us to the various sleazy characters and outright villains of OCP (including, fatefully, the ED 209), Ronny Cox's Dick Jones gives a speech about the growth of the corporation over the years that is meant to instantly tell the audience that this is a morally bankrupt company that is up to no good. The speech revolves around how OCP built their power and fortune by privatizing and making huge profits off of formerly-nonprofit sectors. But watching the film today, every single one of the sectors that Jones names as an OCP foothold are things that have indeed been privatized and exploited for profit since the film came out, often with highly controversial results that disproportionately hurt the poor and/or minorities. Space exploration is the most innocuous of the sectors, though nowadays the reference unavoidably conjures thoughts of SpaceX. But the other three sectors? Private healthcare, for-profit prisons, and corporate-run police. Yep, all of those things have certainly come true in the intervening 32 years, and are topics of heated debates which often circle back to issues of human rights now more than ever. This is particularly true in Detroit, where the film is set: healthcare is of course a debate at the heart of our political discourse nationally, but this is a region where the school-to-prison pipeline exacerbated by the for-profit prison industry has been a major issue in recent years, and private security forces with little transparency and unclear accountability, especially when it comes to racial discrimination, have likewise been deeply alarming. On the one hand, to see a movie villain using these same tactics feels very appropriate and ahead of its time, but on the other hand, it is very depressing that the supervillain tactics of 32 years ago are today's reality.

Furthermore, the ultimate insidious grand plan of OCP and its CEO The Old Man is one that feels very relevant to 2019 Detroit. One of the biggest and most debated cultural issues in the city today (and in many/most cities for that matter) is the tension between equitable development and gentrification; the desire of Detroit neighborhoods to be in control of their own destiny and guide development in a way that involves and benefits those long-established communities rather than pushing them out, and the fear that outside corporations and interests will come in, alter the communities in ways that do not involve or respect the current residents, and price them out to create new, gentrified neighborhoods in their place. Against this modern backdrop of the debate over who should and will shape the city's destiny going forward, RoboCop's story of an opportunistic corporation secretly buying up plots of land all around the city with the endgame of bulldozing “Old Detroit” en masse to make room for a shiny new corporate metropolis (which I think we can take for granted is intended for wealthy white people who look like most of OCP's board, and not for the current residents of Detroit; there's probably not going to be affordable housing in Delta City) feels exactly like what Detroiters in 2019 would come up with if asked to write a nightmare scenario of a future dystopian version of the city. Indeed, this plot feels like the extreme logical conclusion of the concerns that a lot of Detroiters had when huge swaths of downtown and midtown were first being bought up by Quicken Loans and turned into swanky new developments that the former residents of those areas couldn't afford; I heard people on multiple occasions use the analogy that they feared Quicken was becoming our OCP, turning downtown and midtown into their Delta City. That the Quicken companies also created their own private security force that act like police, and that have gotten busted for racial profiling and pretty explicitly enforcing the gentrification of downtown, just further drives the similarities home; indeed, there have been times when it felt like the only thing stopping us from echoing the RoboCop future was the lack of any actual robotic cops. Progress is being slowly made in (the real-life) Detroit in terms of making development more equitable in how it involves community organizations and long-term residents and keeps gentrification in check, thanks to the hard work of advocates and activists within Detroit who want to prevent exactly this kind of dystopian, divided future for the city, but it is very much an uphill battle against the tendency of the “reinvention” of cities to lead to gentrification, and if there's an obvious supervillain plot that could befall the city, the plot of RoboCop is definitely it.

On the other hand, the film doesn't really interact with the residents of its fictionalized Detroit at all, or dive very deep into its socioeconomic situation outside of the immediate action. For all intents and purposes the only characters in the film are the cops, Clarence Boddicker's gang, and the employees of OCP; the city is basically just a backdrop, with the lives of its inhabitants left largely offscreen. And for a movie that is supposed to be set in a city as diverse as Detroit, most of the characters in the movie are white. Add in the fact that the film was shot in Dallas (although it at least opens with a helicopter shot of the Detroit skyline, swooping in over the river and above until-recently-Cobo Hall), and it becomes apparent that the movie isn't set in Detroit because of any familiarity with, or affection for, the city itself, but just because in 1987 it was a city with a bad reputation that made an easy target for a sci-fi film to turn into a crime and corruption-ridden wasteland. It definitely is no compliment that the film is set here.

But still, even if it is largely unintentional, perhaps just as a function of how Detroit has often in recent years acted like a microcosm of America itself in terms of economic and social issues, RoboCop's social satire has only become more relevant with time. Present-day Detroit certainly does not resemble the film's bleak and violent futuristic wasteland any more than Manhattan resembles Escape from New York, but a plot where the bad guys are trying to take gentrification to supervillain-level extremes certainly resonates as strongly as ever in a city where anxieties over ethics and equity in new development are very real and very justified. And it is shocking how many of the then-over-the-top ways in which OCP shows its corporate evilness have actually come to pass, and have been issues of major debates in Detroit and nationally. For a Reagan-era social commentary with a decidedly cynical view of the city that it uses for a backdrop, RoboCop is shockingly relevant and topical in 2019.

And all of that doesn't even yet touch the film's philosophy about humanity, memory, and consciousness, which likewise works shockingly well. Every time I watch RoboCop I am consistently amazed and impressed by just how sincerely moving and emotionally resonant Alex Murphy/RoboCop's character arc is. It works as well as it does thanks equally to the thoughtful writing and to Peter Weller's excellent, career-making performance, which gives the character a great deal of nuance and personal evolution. Upon first awakening as RoboCop, he is purely robotic; a memory-wiped empty shell that only knows his OCP programming. But as he first becomes aware that he was once human, and as he starts to seek out his stolen humanity, personhood and a sense of human ethics beyond his programming start to creep back in. As he grapples with whether he is still a human or merely a machine, and with the question of whether Alex Murphy's ghost memories are his own memories or the echoes of a dead man who was a different person, RoboCop gets more philosophical than probably 98% of action films. The questions of whether machines can achieve personhood, and whether memories make us who we are or if there is a deeper intrinsic humanity underneath, have certainly been explored by other great sci-fi movies, but not many that also function as viscerally-intense and bombastic comic-book origin stories. It is a testament to the skills of Verhoeven, Neumeier, Miner, and the rest of their team that this delicate balancing act between thoughtfulness and bloody bombast actually works; a misstep in either direction and the odd tonal blend could have easily fallen apart into an ambitious failure.

Which takes us beyond RoboCop's rich themes to the simple fact that it is a very well-crafted thriller. In a 2001 making-of documentary (which is not on this set – more on that later) Paul Verhoeven says that this is probably his best English-language film, and I would wholeheartedly agree. It was made on a fairly low budget for this kind of film, and suffered a deeply troubled production full of delays, overruns, and horrifically unpleasant working conditions, but a highly talented crew gave excellent work all around. Director of photography Jost Vacano, Verhoeven's go-to DP as well as Wolfgang Petersen's, shoots the film beautifully, walking the movie's line between grim violence and sly social satire with a carefully-crafted aesthetic that sells both. He also makes excellent use of analog video technology, which appears frequently in both the film's satirical news reports and RoboCop's camera-vision. Special effects artist Rob Bottin likewise does excellent work crafting the RoboCop armor, which is just as important to capturing the soul of the character as Weller's performance, as the mask hides Weller's face for most of the running time, and Phil Tippett does just as strong a job realizing the ED 209 through Harryhausen-esque stop-motion. Verhoeven also populates the film with a very strong supporting cast. In addition to Weller, Smith, and Cox as the three central figures in the film's justice-vs-corporate-evil conflict, it features very strong performances from reliably good actors like Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Ray Wise, and Dan O'Herlihy. They all fully commit to the multilayered but nonetheless wacky script, and there isn't a weak performance in the bunch.

RoboCop is one gutsy genre blend; and unpredictable cocktail that does not seem on paper like it should work half as well as it does. As an action movie, as a deceptively thoughtful sci-fi tale, and as darkly funny social satire, it succeeds on all levels. It has got to be one of the most multi-layered and thematically ambitious blockbuster films of the 1980s, and a genuine modern classic. If you are one of those who have underestimated RoboCop because its reputation as a single film has gotten drowned out by the ubiquitous pop-cultural legacy of the increasingly disposable franchise that it started, you must go back to it for another re-watch. Just pretend that the sequels don't exist – outside of profit motives, they shouldn't; this film ends on a perfect note, and Alex Murphy's story should have just been left there – and watch it as a singular experience; a wildly ambitious tonal experiment that transcends its genre trappings and achieves something pretty special.

Score for the film:

The Transfer:

RoboCop comes to us on this Arrow Video limited edition in a 4k remaster which – for the most part – isn't new for this release, but is nonetheless a stellar presentation. Since the release uses an existing transfer, it can't be said that Arrow gives us the film as we've never seen it before, but it does give us what is likely the definitive restoration. RoboCop has had ups and downs in picture quality on its various releases over the years, but really good transfers have always existed if you knew which one to get. Ironically, for a long time – even in comparison to the movie's first MGM blu-ray – the 1998 Criterion Collection transfer supervised by Paul Verhoeven was the best-looking version of the film in terms of color, contrast, and natural film grain looking faithful to the theatrical presentation. The subsequent MGM DVDs looked overly pumped-up in terms of their color and contrast, and showed signs of some digital scrubbing, and that first blu-ray even more so, making the Criterion transfer the genuine director-approved article despite being a dated non-anamorphic letterboxed presentation. The 2014 4k restoration, like that Criterion transfer, was once again supervised and approved by Verhoeven, and that is what is used here. However, one small but important change has been made: as is so often the case, the gory extra bits that make up the unrated-version footage only exist in a lower-quality element, as opposed to the negative of the theatrical cut that was used for the bulk of the 4k restoration. On the 2014 blu-ray the shifts from R-rated to unrated footage at times looked fairly obvious, and Arrow went back and tweaked the restoration and color-correction on those scenes to help them match the rest of the footage as well as possible. While a keen eye can still sense a minor difference in quality, the unrated footage is now the most seamlessly-integrated that it has been since the Criterion DVD, when the two source elements used to assemble the unrated cut were less noticeable by virtue of the format's limitations. With that minor added tweaking, this is THE definitive visual presentation of RoboCop: the clarity and detail are absolutely beautiful, and the film retains a healthy natural grain structure that preserves the 35mm film look. The audio is equally strong, with 5.1, 4.0, and stereo mixes that sound crystal clear.

Crucially, this transfer uses very similar color-timing and contrast/saturation levels to the Criterion Collection transfer. Gone is the oversaturated, digitally-cleaned-up look of the MGM DVDs and first-generation blu-ray, and restored is Paul Verhoeven's preferred color-timing, which is faithful to the theatrical presentation and the previous much-loved release that captured it best. This is no surprise, since this is the first transfer since the Criterion disc to be supervised and approved by Verhoeven. One difference between the two transfers is that Arrow (and the previous MGM blu) use the film's theatrical aspect ratio, while the Criterion disc (per Verhoeven's request) was matted differently in a ratio that showed more picture information at the top and bottom of the screen. However, Verhoeven has stated that that was his preferred ratio at the time in part because it was best-suited to the viewing experience of 1998's TVs; it was indeed his choice to return the film to its theatrical ratio for this 4k remaster. Difference in framing aside, this transfer looks the closest to an HD upgrade of the Criterion restoration, and is thus the first transfer to dethrone that disc as the definitive look for the film.

Score for the transfer:

The Extras:

Since the transfer used on this Arrow limited edition set is not a new one, the question of whether or not the set is worth a double-dip for those who already have the 2014 4k-remastered blu-ray comes largely down to the extras and the packaging. The packaging, of course, is stellar, as Arrow's limited editions always are: a hard outer box, a booklet, a poster, and six art cards. The extras are very plentiful according to the usual high Arrow standards, and a strong mix of old and new, but not quite definitive. For starters, as Arrow tries to do whenever possible, the set contains all three primary cuts of the film: the unrated director's cut, the R-rated theatrical cut, and the TV version which contains some alternate takes and scenes, as well as featurettes which compare the differences between the versions. It also features no less than eight brand-new interviews and/or featurettes, most of which range from fifteen minutes to half an hour in length, and which are reliably quite thorough, in-depth, and entertaining. The interviews are with co-writers Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, co-star Nancy Allen, casting director Julie Selzer, second unit director Mark Goldblatt, and special photographic effects artists Peter Kuran and Kevin Kutchaver. Of these, the half-hour chat with Neumeier may be the most interesting, and certainly the most conversational and fun, but they are all strong extras. The other two original featurettes are a tribute to the composer of the film's score, and a tour of a collection of props from the film. It is very disappointing that Paul Verhoeven and Peter Weller didn't return for new interviews, but they are at least present in the archival extras, so that can be forgiven. From past releases the disc ports over an excellent 45-minute 2012 panel featuring most of the film's principle cast and crew (Verhoeven, Weller, Nancy Allen, writers Neumeier and Miner, and special effects artist Phil Tippett), three vintage featurettes from the MGM special edition DVD, and an assortment of deleted scenes, storyboards, and dailies. On the audio side of things, the disc features new commentaries by a film historian and a trio of fans of the film, and an older commentary from the MGM special edition DVD featuring Verhoeven, Neumeier, and producer Jon Davison. It is worth noting that it is not the same commentary that the same three participants previously recorded for the Criterion Collection DVD – that one remains exclusive to the Criterion disc, and likewise always will, but the one used here is still a very good track.

Notably absent from the release, however, are two crucial extras. The disc for some reason does not include the 2001 40-minute documentary Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop, which was made for the film's MGM special edition DVD and included on the 2014 blu-ray. It also does not include the upcoming RoboDoc, a 4-hour documentary currently touring the festival circuit, which belongs to the same sprawling, definitive, leave-no-stone-unturned school of behind-the-scenes documentaries as Never Sleep Again, Crystal Lake Memories, You're So Cool Brewster, and Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound. Arrow tried to get the rights to include the new doc in this set, just as they included Leviathan in the Hellraiser Trilogy Scarlet Box, but they were unable to secure such a deal. RoboDoc is still a brand-new film, so it makes some sense that it would be receiving a standalone release instead of being packaged with this one, but it is stranger and more surprising that the set doesn't include the older documentary. As such, the Arrow edition of RoboCop contains a wealth of new and old interviews and commentaries which makes it well worth picking up, but is lacking a proper behind-the-scenes documentary, which is something that Arrow usually excels at providing. That makes the special features on this set very impressive and thorough, but not definitive. It is a much more robust set of extras than the 2014 blu-ray in general, but that blu-ray has Flesh and Steel and this one doesn't, so those who double-dip will need to hang onto both in order to truly get the whole package, and serious fans will want to leave a space on their shelves next to this one for the future blu-ray release of RoboDoc. These omissions are certainly a bit disappointing, but were probably inevitable rights-wise; the extras that are here, at any rate, are impressive.

Score for the extras:

Arrow has assembled a very impressive package, as always, and the box set that it is packaged in is absolutely stellar. For those who don't already own the 2014 blu-ray of RoboCop featuring the same 4k restoration, picking this disc up should be a no-brainer. It is, however, unclear if the disc is really worth a double-dip to those who do have that edition, given that it uses the exact same transfer, and given that it doesn't include the making-of documentary featured on that previous edition, though it does have plentiful new extras to make up for it. It is overall a very good release, but not quite a definitive one (it would need to include Flesh and Steel and the upcoming RoboDoc to be that). As such, it isn't an Arrow limited edition that all fans of the film absolutely must buy, but a case where fans will need to weigh how much Arrow's bells and whistles are worth the double-dip to them. For those who don't have the previous blu-ray, however, this is unquestionably the RoboCop release to get. It is certainly one that's worth buying for a good deal more than a dollar.

Overall Score for the Arrow Limited Edition:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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