Robocop (1987)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen,
Extras: Commentary Track, Making Of” Documentary, Storyboards, Storyboard to Film Comparisons, Production Notes, Trailers

"Robocop" has become one of the most influential and memorable action films of the ‘80s, with its numerous special-effects-laden sequences and the provocative directorial style of the Dutch director, Paul Verhoeven. "Criterion Collection" has now released this film in a Special Edition, and since Criterion has earned almost a cult status within the Laserdisc industry, I thought it was time to see how they are doing on their fairly new DVD branch. Criterion’s releases come at a $5 premium compared to Universal’s Collector’s Editions and as such mark the upper end of the price scale.

Murphy (Peter Weller) is an experienced policeman who just started work in a new precinct. With his new partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), he patrols the streets of Detroit. A radio call puts them on the trail of a group of bank robbers, and while in pursuit of the robbers’ van, the gangsters open fire on the following police car, and try to lose the cops in an old steel mill. While waiting for their reinforcements to arrive, Murphy and Lewis follow the men into the abandoned mill. They split up to look for the criminals and soon Murphy is trapped and gunned down by the cold-blooded criminals. Murphy is comatose when ambulances finally arrive, and soon after, the officer is proclaimed dead.

In the meantime, a high-tech corporation is working on the ultimate crime force in the shape of robots and biomorphic cyborgs. The corporation utilizes parts of Murphy’s body and his brain to create their latest weapon against crime: the indestructible "Robocop". With a police strike on the horizon, Robocop is put to work on the crime-ridden streets of Detroit. His methods, just barely within the letter of law, catapult him to public fame. Behind the hard shell body armor, Robocop’s memories from his past life start breaking through, and he slowly remembers that he is not what everyone wants him to believe. With the help of his former partner Lewis, who recognizes the masked robot, he is able to loosen his technological shackles and break free of his conditioning. Soon he discovers that the real threat to the city, the force behind the crime waves shaking the city, is sitting in the executive ranks of CPO, the corporation that created him.

The story of "Robocop" is gripping and well told, keeping the viewer’s attention focussed on the screen for the most part. The only moments when this suspension of disbelief is broken is when the story comes up with one of its numerous illogical twists. The one that personally upset me the most is the fact that Murphy survives a close range shot to the head that visually sprays his brain over the floor… which brings me to my next point. "Robocop" is a very violent and graphic film. Director Paul Verhoeven is known for his extreme display of violence on screen and has gathered a great many followers in doing so. Looking at most of his works, however, I have to admit that I can never get rid of the feeling that he seems to attempt cover up his sometimes-weak scripts and plots with those gruesome images. His latest release, "Starship Troopers", exemplifies this with an unimaginative script, poor acting, amateurish dialogues, covering it up with tons of superficial bloodshed, gore and mutilated bodies. If it weren’t for the unmatched quality of the special effects, "Starship Troopers" would probably rank as one of the worst major movies of the past years in my opinion, although I understand that many of you would disagree. Fortunately, "Robocop" is not nearly as bad, despite its weaknesses and inconsistencies.

The way the story is delivered creates a thrilling action spectacle that keeps you on the edge for the most part. The story is secondary, and although the film tries desperately to give its main character depth, it clearly lives on its action merits and the well-paced editing. The acting is good and especially the cyborg creation works out quite well, creating a futuristic, high-tech superhero that is still somewhat believable and organic in feel. Criterion has released "Robocop" in a "Director’s Approved" version. Looks like "Director’s Cuts" don’t do it any more these days and some publishers have to dig a little deeper in their chest of tricks, as in this case. This "Director’s Approved" version of the film adds a few scenes that are overly gory and superficial, and do nothing for the film. It smells extremely like a pure marketing gag, but since Criterion’s goal is to deliver the ultimate film versions for their customers, I let this slip. The fact that the disc is not even <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced doesn’t sit so well with me, however. So far, not one of their DVD releases has seen a 16×9 enhancement, and for the company that has become best known for its rich content and quality of their releases, this is slightly embarrassing. The film comes on a <$RSDL,RSDL> disc and the back of the package mentions "For higher quality". I have no idea what happened to Criterion’s quality control, but this DVD is average-looking at best, despite the RSDL disc. Not only are artifacts noticeable in a great number of shots, the film looks also washed out and loses all detail in the shadows, creating a flat looking, lifeless image. The original theatrical version of the film had slightly undersaturated colors, but on this disc, color reproduction clearly varies from good to average, and sadly many shots exhibit overly red hues. For this Criterion release the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been reframed at a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, adding slightly more image content at the top and the bottom of the screen.

Criterion’s strength always lay within the bonus materials supplied with their releases, and this disc, too, contains a number of excellent supplements. There is a <$commentary,commentary track> with director Paul Verhoeven, co-writer Edward Neumeier, executive producer Jon Davidson and Robocop expert Paul Sammon, as well as storyboards, a film-to-storyboard comparison, a "Making Of" documentary, and a number of trailers. Oddly, Criterion has decided to drop the printed liner notes they used to have in their laserdisc releases and replace them with what they call "interactive" on-screen notes. While it may contain the same information, it is not nearly as impressive or helpful. After only a few pages of text, reading the notes becomes overly tiresome and not even the "interactivity" makes the experience more pleasurable. All other supplements are of top-notch quality, and can easily measure up with some of the best Special Editions in the market, especially the extremely well-done fully-animated screen menus, which are one of the disc’s highlights.

"Robocop" contains a powerful <$DS,Dolby Surround> soundtrack. Basil Poledouris wrote the memorable score to the film, a score that clearly carries his unique trademark. It encompasses and emphasizes the high-tech aspects of the cyborg cop, yet carries a somber and dark note that is perfectly suited for the decadent, crime-filled streets of Detroit. Featuring a strong, contemporary-sounding leitmotif throughout the film, Poledouris delivered a score that gave the film additional leverage. The film comes dubbed in English only and does not contain any subtitles which is, once again, an element that I believe Criterion should have supplied if they intend to maintain their reputation.

After so much bashing, you are probably wondering why, after all, I recommend the movie. The answer is that at its core, I really like the film. It is a solid piece of action cinema in the best Hollywood tradition, one that will grab you and won’t let go until it is over.

Is this disc worth your money? Well, let me put it this way – generally speaking, the disc is clearly sub par but it delivers some very good supplements not found on other releases. If you are simply interested in the film itself, you might actually pick up Image Entertainment’s earlier release of the same film that is about $15 cheaper. If those bonus materials are what you are looking for however, Criterion’s release of "Robocop" is definitely the way to go, because it gives you the most complete version of the film together with high quality supplements.