I have spent 30 years acquiring the technical expertise (and the proprietary platform) to articulate an opinion that I have had since I was a kid: RoboCop (1987) is one of the greatest movies ever made! (And I can definitely hear some of you scoffing into your phone, but hear me out.) Beyond it’s big budget blockbuster appeal, RoboCop is an objectively spectacular movie. Paul Verhoeven, the film’s director, gives us a movie that has a scintillating storyline, insightful social commentary, and great technical execution. (I will die on this hill!) And, moreover, (for all you literature nerds out there), RoboCop is a fascinating reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.
RoboCop and The Modern Prometheus are sensational and enduring works because they explore the sticky premise of creating life through science. They stir a controversy that is ripe for storytelling. Frankenstein titillates readers by offering a revolutionary blend of Gothic horror and science fiction. Mary Shelley gets bold and blasphemous by concocting a scenario where a man, freelance scientist and overall miserable person, Victor Frankenstein, plays God and engenders a life. Shelley challenges the world to read The Modern Prometheus and see if it can wrap its head around the audacity of her concept and RoboCop pays homage to that bravery in a cinematic way.
Verhoeven marches down a path that Shelley blazed in 1818 by making RoboCop intensely gruesome. And while RoboCop’s gruesomeness seems gratuitous at times, it is not. It is necessary to capture the essence of Frankenstein’s daring. Shelley has an intellectually arrogant man cobble together a whole sentient being with spare body parts that he pilfered from graves. Verhoeven has to match that intensity somehow! And to do it, he uses Omni Consumer Products, the spectral antagonist of RoboCop. OCP boldy manufactures the movie’s titular cyborg around the corpse of a fallen police officer, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), and it's pretty cavalier about it.
Weller plays Alex Murphy, a devoted husband, father, and law enforcement officer. Alex Murphy gets (gruesomely) killed in the line of duty, but receives the “honor” of being reincarnated as OCP Crime Prevention Unit 001. And that distinction is important because Weller’s delicate amalgamation of the two characters is what makes this movie a classic and couples it to The Modern Prometheus. In any given scene, Weller plays Alex Murphy. In any other given scene, he’s portraying RoboCop. Weller ostensibly plays one character in this movie, but, in reality, he plays several.
Peter Weller’s ability to transform Alex Murphy into RoboCop and then blur the existence of the two is simply brilliant. Weller dichotomously projects RoboCop’s robotic bravado: “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” While also projecting a sense of humanity through his nuanced interpretation of Alex Murphy’s struggle to reconcile his mortal side with his machine side: “I can feel [my family]. But I can't remember them.” (Aww!) Weller’s portrayals brilliantly capture the mental and emotional pain that one might experience in a situation where they have been unexpectedly transformed into a cyborg (or a cobbled-together monster).
Frankenstein and RoboCop both present exemplary manifestations of that frustration. For Frankenstein’s monster, it’s his murdering William Frankenstein. For RoboCop, it’s beating Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) nearly do death. Each character is driven to abhorrent behavior by the influence of their masters’ even worse behavior. (For some reason, the concept of Trickle-down economics just popped into my head, but I digress). RoboCop and Frankenstein’s monster exist in dark realities. Those realities being that powerful people’s perception and control over them dictates the machinations of their lives for better or worse.
RoboCop and Frankenstein’s monster go from being celebrated successes to perceived abominations because their handlers were assholes. I remember breaking down in tears as a kid when the entire Detroit police department cornered RoboCop/Alex Murphy in that parking structure and unloaded every bullet they could muster in his general direction. RoboCop was built to be a hero! Alex Murphy died a hero! Why are you doing this to him/them! It was so confusing. I imagine that anyone who has seen a movie like Frankenstein (1931) can relate. And while I was far less upset when Frankenstein’s monster met his demise (because it felt like a welcomed reprieve for him), it was still so sad. Ultimately, both stories are provocative and interesting indictments of arrogant assholes who think they can play God, and I’ve always enjoyed works that do that.
RoboCop is available to stream on The Roku Channel, Freevee, Paramount Plus, MGM+, EPIX, Spectrum TV, Prime Video or Vudu.