Robocop Trilogy (M-G-M)
Robocop (1987) B B B B+
Robocop 2 (1990) B B D B+
Robocop 3 (1993) B- B- D C
the much sought–after upgrades in a popular home video title has involved the Robocop franchise. The first film has not had a competent video
release and most copies were the inferior R-rated theatrical version, while the
first two films have had sound problems on DVD since day one. When it was announced that M-G-M was going to
issue the trilogy themselves with upgrades and the first film would be uncut,
many were skeptical they would not deliver.
Now the box is here and it is more than enough to celebrate.
original Robocop (1987) has already
been in active debate on DVD before the box was announced. After my essay on the problems with film
sound on DVD in a Fall 2003 essay (Scores
To Settle) in Film Score Monthly Magazine, a letter was published in
agreement with key points of the article, singling out the sound drops in DVDs
of Robocop. The problem started when Criterion issued the
film uncut on LaserDisc in the early 1990s, with only 2-channel Stereo, despite
being issued to THX standards. It
claimed it was the original sound, but the film was intended at its best to be
played in 70mm blow-up with 4.1 Dolby Magnetic Stereo tracks, so this never
sounded right. DVDs of the R-rated
version from Orion/Image and prior MGM recyclings of that version had volume
drops. When the Criterion DVD version of
the Laser came out, it repeated the same problems, then went out of print when
M-G-M took over the rights. That caused
the title’s value to soar on DVD and the Laser version even held some value as
that format declined.
preview of what we might expect in a future U.S. Region 1 DVD, the DVD
Comparison section of the DVDBeaver website (www.DVDBeaver.com)
compared a Region 3 version at 1.85 X 1 from M-G-M that was anamorphically
enhanced, versus the non-anamorphic 1.66 Criterion DVD. The former had it noise problems, while the
latter looked a bit too dark. The issue
even surfaced about the 1.66 frame being the proper framing, until I pointed
out that 70-mm blow-ups would have a 2.20 X 1 frame, so that left the debate to
best picture quality and how to recapture that intended 70mm sound
experience. Here, M-G-M has delivered
and in the uncut version everyone wants.
film first came out, few knew who director Paul Verhoeven is, co-writers Ed
Neumeier and Michael Miner are still not known enough and some initial reaction
was that this would be another cheap, stupid B-movie pointlessly dealing with
the Superhero genre. Such films were
uncommon at the time. What resulted when
the word got out was a surprise hit film that gained instant fans for its
boldness and innovation in genre and a dark future ahead. It reaction to the Reagan Era cannot be
When Vietnam occurred, spoofs of Superheroes
surfaced along with some revisionism in the comics themselves. With comic books having set in more so and
their values having shot up extraordinarily, the genre was in a different position
by the 1980s, backed by the fact that a Superman
franchise had been launched that was initially very impressive and was
initially done right. Heroes with brains
and often super powers were being supplanted in the 1980s by ultra-muscular
reactionaries trying to “win" Vietnam long after it was lost. That cycle and the state of the Superhero
genre it trashed was bound to cross paths somewhere, and lucky for us, it
synthesized into Robocop. The fact it was a hit, and an R-rated one at
that, speaks volumes as to how badly the real world had become, even if many
were too distracted to realize what had been going on.
opening the film is a dark panning shot of the city, a white video noise zips
across the filmed image and the Robocop
logo arrives. We zoom in and see the
media first, where the news offers an uglier version of the world through its
news broadcasts offer how bad this near future has become and part of this
comes from the brilliantly dark commercials in between that show further how
badly things are that the news is showing.
Add the smiles form the newscasters, no matter what, and you know you
are in for something that will not play it safe.
brings us to Detroit, being torn between the “old”
version that is the real thing, despite its abject poverty, and an imagined new
one to be built by Omni Consumer Products.
The corporation is run by an old school corporate boss (the late, great
Dan O’Herlihy) who wants to rebuild the city and make it crime-free. This corporate utopia will be policed by
crime-prevention robots dubbed ED-209, as designed by a not-so-nice wanna-be
successor to the boss Richard Jones (Ronny Cox at his baddest best), until the
prototype malfunctions and kills an employee during a last minute test of its
“efficiency”. Enter the project that
will produce Robocop. All the head of
this unit (Miguel Ferrer) needs is a dead former cop.
same time, Murphy (Peter Weller) has transferred to the OCP Detroit Police
outfit and gets a very able-bodied partner in Lewis (Nancy Allen in a nice
turn), but even she cannot stop the extremely brutal murder a gang of thieves
and cop-haters pull off when they trap and shoot Murphy to death many multiples
of times. He is reborn as Robocop, and
though the programmers are certain of their legal standings and facts about
Murphy’s “death” and their ability to “erase his mind blank” and reprogram him,
it turns out to be very wrong. He starts
to follow his crime-fighting instructions, but the post begins to haunt
him. After an assist from Lewis, he
begins to slowly put the pieces together and what is really going on in Detroit.
A darker criminal plot is going on and Robocop is the one who has to
walk through this near-future hell to right wrongs. This dark revision of Superhero mythology
combines with Frankenstein mythology and strong elements from both the Horror
and Science Fiction genres to create a near classic. That is until you see it uncut, then you know
it is a classic.
In its R
version, it is a solid, hardcore action genre work, but the uncut version shows
just how high the stakes really are in the world of the film most clearly. Originally, the film received an X-rating towards
the end of that rating’s legitimate life for extreme violence before NC-17 came
around in 1990. The R cut was the only
cut available until the Criterion version arrived. The rest is history. Now, we have the film here in a fine transfer
that is as clean and good looking as anything since its original theatrical
release, but now it is uncut. The
Criterion LD & DVD was too noisy and soft, while other LDs and DVDs were
weak in color and definition. Though it
shows its age in parts, including some degraded images in some of the uncut
scenes, a transfer of this caliber is long overdue and M-G-M has done great
justice to the film like never before.
This is even clearer and more color correct than that import
version. It is a fine presentation of
the film that finally does justice to Jost Vacano’s incredible cinematography
and the classic vision that is the film.
Some have tried to say color and detail exist in the Criterion that is
not in the new transfer, but that is negligible at best and the style seems
more correct with the new version. It
would be nice for Vacano to tell us what he thinks.
Digital 5.1 AC-3 finally gets the sound right enough, with no more sound
dropouts and no lack of either surround information or deep bass. The original 70mm Dolby Magnetic Sound is
finally available 17 years later. It is
an amazing remix and for all intents and purposes, restoration of the
sound. Basil Poledouris’ score plays on
the expectations of “hero music” and laces it with darkness and false hopes,
especially in the way strings are used.
Since the 1980s, they have been used as illicit appeals to pity. Poledouris realizes this and twists that
every time he can to wake up the audience to reality. Too bad there is no DTS here, as it would
have revealed more of the great sound and detail from the new soundmasters. This was also the first-ever film to employ
Dolby remarkable analog Spectral recording system (known as SR) and that is
ultimately why the sound holds up so well.
Robocop 2 (1990) was a high budget sequel that replaced
Verhoeven with veteran director Irvin Kershner, who had proved himself in the
genre with The Empire Strikes Back
(1980) and the James Bond film Never Say
Never Again (1983). Even more
interesting is that comic book legend Frank Miller, who wrote the brutally
brilliant Batman – The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City (now being
turned into a feature) wrote the original story and co-=wrote the final
screenplay with Walon Green. Though it
is said the film did not follow Miller’s vision as closely as it could have, it
still managed to avoid Kershner’s idea of focusing more on a love story between
Murphy and Lewis than the action Orion wanted.
The result is a film as dark as the first, but with an even darker sense
of humor made explicit and sarcastic throughout.
time, OPC is trying again to rebuild Detroit in its image and wants to try again
with a new Robocop. The one of the title
will make our hero form the first film obsolete, but circumstances at OPC have
become more desperate and OPC itself has gotten away with more crime, so they
have become even more overconfident.
That can only mean more trouble.
To make things worse, the Cocaine from the last film has been overruled
by a far more dangerous red substance called Nuke, and the leader of the cult
that produces it is quasi-religious and a terrorist killer. Part of this is a reaction to the rise of the
Crack form of Cocaine. Kershner proves
what a great journeyman director he is, the money is on the screen and Miller’s
vision haunts the film throughout, meshing well with what was established in the
first film. This is in its only cut,
which was rated R, and is surprisingly hardcore still by today’s standards,
though like it predecessor, many of the ugly things considered here have become
over death also becomes more pronounced as the stakes of death become more obvious. Weller played the first Robocop for the
second and last time in a film that even manages to spoof its predecessor in
clever ways. Robocop 2 is a worthy sequel that does not repeat that predecessor
and took many risks. It did not do well,
though marketing seems to have been a problem, but it deserves serious,
positive revisionist attention and the feature version of Sin City will do this long after this great set has been
out for a while.
anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image was also intended for 70mm 2.20 X 1
blow-up and has not looked this good since its original theatrical
release. Unlike previous video releases,
this captures the color schemes and details better than all previous video
incarnations, which does justice to cinematographer Mark Irwin’s memorable
camerawork. Note the increase of both
colors, including day-glow and how they mix with darkness. The Dolby Digital 5.1 AC-3 is also impressive
for its age, was also recorded with Dolby SR analog and the film was a 4.1
sound picture in those blow-ups. The
previous DVDs had encoding errors in the right channel, but that has been
corrected here. All this combines to
give the film a great presentation, dynamic enough (despite no DTS again) to
make rewatching it fun. Leonard Rosenman’s
score is a plus, coming up with something original to enhance the film’s
growingly dark world.
also be noted that this was the last big-budget film to extensively use older
(and often still less-distracting technologies) like rear projection, matte
work, matte paintings, stop motion, stop and go motion and model work for its
effects. They can be obvious, but are
done in such an exciting way, that they put most lame dead-on-arrival digital
effects to shame, especially since they have much more character. It may not be as great as the first film, but
it often comes very close, despite production conflicts. Few sequels in any of the genres the film
covers since are anywhere near as bold or as good.
Robocop was never meant to be a
broad-reaching franchise for children, especially since the original film was
playing against everything that made such a thing possible or friendly. With the unfortunate failure of the sequel,
which shadowed the still-disastrous fall of Orion itself, the studio started
getting in trouble and tried to make Robo into something kid-friendly. The result was the unbelievably bad Robocop 3 (1993), a lame, tired,
predictable PG-13 wreck that throws in a little girl to befriend our hero (now
played by Robert John Burke, who has proved to be a good actor outside of this
film, but seems uninspired here), with a low budget premise in a cut-rate
picture. This was an outright bomb,
helmed by Fred Dekker, and the idea of OPC hiring mercenaries to remove the
populous for rebuilding is the most pathetic high concept they could have dug
up. The film trivializes much more
serious issues, something the first two films avoided, but bad Hollywood product always tends to do.
Miller co-wrote this with Dekker, but it does not feel like a Miller work in
any way shape or form. It also offered
an early use of digital that makes it feel far older than its predecessors and
lead to a pointless TV series and the perpetual degradation of a real original. The addition of Rip Torn and CCH Pounder are
made sad by how they are wasted and a returning Nancy Allen has little to
do. This was filmed in 1991 and took two
years to put out theatrically, so even Orion knew they had a dog on their
the anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image is the poorest in this set, offering
constant softness and the digital work is a big culprit. The cinematography by Gary B. Kibbe is barely
above a TV movie, but what could the man do under such poor circumstances. The Dolby Digital 5.1 AC-3 mix here is also
the poorest, which was simply an SR recording this time with no larger 70mm
sound intended. The return of Basil
Poledouris cannot make up for the endless list of problems this mistake of a
film cannot overcome. This film became
the disaster everyone thought the first would be, then it was followed by two
TV series, one of which was animated.
Only in Dark Horse Comics did the character in its truest form survive.
extras on the sequels are one trailer on per film, while the first film has two
of them, a TV spot, what at first seemed like the original Criterion commentary
with Verhoeven, Neumeier, Jon Davison and Robocop fan Paul Samson but is not, four
deleted scenes, a stills gallery, storyboards with Phil Tippett discussing the
visual effects for the infamous introduction of ED-209 (6:00) and three
featurettes: Flesh & Steel – The
Making Of Robocop (2001, 37
minutes), Shooting Robocop and the simpler Making Robocop (the last two both 1987,
8:00). That is all the Criterion
supplements and more, so that is a nice plus for fans.
M-G-M has done right by the films, and now the best possible versions are out
on DVD until High Definition (and maybe some DTS on the studio’s part) rolls
around. Robocop is one of the great, daring films of the 1980s and it shows
the kind of product Orion Pictures used to deliver when they were around. The
Robocop Trilogy is a keeper, with high performance from the first two films
that will surprise even the biggest skeptics.
- Nicholas Sheffo