I couldn’t tell you exactly why I never got around to seeing RoboCop until tonight.
I vaguely remember at the time being scared off by stories of how ultra-violent it was. Later, I just dismissed it as being another 80s action movie. After that, I put it in the same category as Total Recall — I was sure it’d be entertaining enough, but stupid. Even after seeing Starship Troopers and (after a month or two) finally realizing how brilliant that movie is, I still wasn’t that interested in RoboCop.
I think my crippling fear of Ronny Cox had something to do with it, too.
Whatever the case, I finally know what all the fuss was about. What a great, bizarre movie. I can’t even imagine the confidence it’d take to pull something like that off — there’s absolutely nothing subtle about it, and yet you spend the whole time knowing that they’re in on the joke and still wondering if they’re taking it all seriously. It’s kind of like a quantum movie: simultaneously a straightforward, sleazy, cheesy 80s action movie and a satire of those movies and the 80s in general. (The movie has a guy instantly mutated by toxic waste, and Miguel Ferrer snorting coke off a woman’s chest!)
I mentioned it took me a while to get what was going on with Starship Troopers, and that movie was even more obviously campy, plus it came ten years later, after the audience had plenty of time to get used to deconstructionism. I remember watching True Lies and thinking it was such a clever spoof of action movies, but it didn’t even survive two years before seeming clumsy, vapid and obvious. RoboCop feels like it has after-burners: ride the initial launch as a super-violent action movie that seems a little smarter than average; ride through the irony wave of the 90s as a part of pop culture, surviving references and attempts to make fun of it; then gain a new appreciation two decades later, when viewers can marvel at seeing Laura Palmer’s dad as a hip club-goer and Eric’s dad from “That 70s Show” dropping f-bombs and shooting off people’s hands with a shotgun. And even with the jerky stop-motion and the barrage of 80s hair and glasses, you still have to watch it and think, “that’s just cool.”
I can guarantee that I wouldn’t have understood RoboCop in 1987, since 99% of the movies and TV made in the 80s was exactly like that, with no sense of irony. At the time, “Moonlighting” was still a years-ahead-of-its-time masterpiece of self-awareness and post-modernism, and looking back at those episodes now is almost painful.
The genius of RoboCop (and Starship Troopers, to a lesser degree) is that it still works as an action movie, even if you’re not in the mood for satire on urban decay, the evil that corporations do, and the emptiness of the media. It’s pretty ballsy to make movies that unapologetically say “screw you” to everyone, including the movie’s main characters themselves; to do that and make it not angry and pointlessly cynical, but actually entertaining, takes a hell of a lot of talent. And it leaves you vulnerable to so much that can fail from concept to execution — as Basic Instinct and Showgirls both prove.
Best of all: I finally get another reference from an old episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” In “Catalina Capers,” there’s a scene where the bots are saying their bedtime prayers, and Crow says, “and God bless ED-209, although I don’t know why you’d make a robot who couldn’t walk down stairs.” I’ve made it my goal that by the time I die, I’ll have gotten every reference the MST3K guys ever made. There’s still only a few thousand left.