RoboCop Trilogy [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - MGM Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (12th December 2010).
The Film

Try as I may, it’s difficult for me to take an objective look at why producers feel the need to taint the legacy of a near-perfect film by cranking out unnecessary sequels. I know it’s easy to squeeze cash out of moviegoers once you’ve already managed to get them on the hook with a successful first film but, more often than not, Murphy’s Law rears its head to remind you that the worst possible scenario they could place your favorite characters in has now become a reality. All of the goodwill and critical praise that befell your first film gets swept under the rug by the critical drubbing the latest entries garner. Even if you manage to get the second film right, and there are so few exceptions that you can count them on one hand, the odds of crafting a successful third entry are stacked against you. Even Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t safe from this curse (see “The Godfather III” (1990)… on second thought, don’t). But, the temptation to sequelize is a tough one to resist. I would imagine it’s especially difficult when you’ve created a character as memorable and iconic as RoboCop. First introduced to audiences in 1987’s “RoboCop”, the film’s titular hero exited cinemas on a perfect note, closing out one of the best science fiction films of the 80's and, arguably, of all-time. Then the gears of the sequel machine started to turn, and soon we got “RoboCop 2” (1990), a film which seems to have been utterly forgettable since I rarely hear anyone speak of its existence. Then, of course, we come to the de facto nail in the coffin, “RoboCop 3” (1993). Aside from the constant reminders from everyone that “it sucks”, the most quoted word-of-mouth review I hear is that “he flies”, as if that notion alone should be enough to deter potential viewers from wasting 90 minutes of their lives. In addition to those 2 sequels, “RoboCop” also spawned a wealth of merchandise, two television series, two animated television series, video games and just about anything else you can slap his metallic mug on. Thankfully, as diluted as the franchise has become, the original film is still considered to be such a brilliant, prophetic, satirical slice of cinema that, even some 20 odd years after its release, it’s considered one of the best the genre has to offer.

Detroit: sometime in the near future. Crime plagues the city, and the police force is on the verge of a strike after a series of police killings have left the Detroit Police Dept. with a force that is tired of going out to fight crime with outdated weaponry and little support from the bureaucrats. The powder keg finally explodes when Officer Alex P. Murphy (Peter Weller) is brutally gunned down in the line of duty while trying to arrest one of the city’s most dangerous criminals, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) with his partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). But, plans have been approved to use Murphy’s still-warm body as the foundation for Omni Consumer Products’ (OCP) latest invention: RoboCop. Designed by senior executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), RoboCop combines the organic body and brain of Murphy with a metallic exoskeleton to create the ultimate in law enforcement. RoboCop soon hits the streets to great success, but he draws the attention of nefarious OCP executive Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) when he begins to have flashbacks of his former self and goes on a quest to seek revenge against the men who killed him. Unfortunately, for him, the men are working for Jones, and soon the city’s police force, now owned and operated by OCP, is sent to take him out before RoboCop can uncover Jones’ plan and expose him for the criminal he really is.

Even though the subject matter couldn’t be any more different, I look at “RoboCop” in the same way I view George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” (1978). Both films are ostensibly made as vehicles for their respective genres, but they each contain a heavy undercurrent of social commentary which helps then stand tall among their contemporaries. Here, with “RoboCop”, director Paul Verhoeven has expertly tapped into the zeitgeist of American consumerism and politics, just as he masterfully did with “Starship Troopers” (1997). “RoboCop” features a number of news breaks with local anchors filling viewers in on the chaos which is slowly beginning to boil over on the crowded streets of old Detroit. These breaks are often followed by a satirical commercial taking a thinly-veiled jab at everything from over-sexed shows designed to lure in viewers (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) to the nuclear arms race and even American automobiles (the 6000 SUX and its astoundingly poor MPG rating). These commercials, though humorous in tone, are clearly designed to poke fun at the excessive consumerism which has run rampant in America. These themes should be evident to any viewer of the film, though some might see them as relative humor confined to the film, missing the point the director is making about how we value material goods and excess over the polarizing social issues and gentrification which are unfolding in the film...

Many might not be aware, however, that Verhoeven uses heavy Christian symbolism in his films. He is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group founded in 1985 which seeks to piece together the life of Jesus Christ. In one of the bonus features on the most recent special edition DVD of “RoboCop”, Verhoeven talks about how he sees Alex Murphy/RoboCop as a Christ-like figure. He is brutally killed with shots to the arms (meant to symbolize the nails in the hands of Christ) and head (the crown of thorns) before being resurrected as a savior for Detroit. This metaphor is most evident during the final sequence at the old steel mill during a scene where RoboCop walks ankle deep in water, giving him the appearance of walking across it as Christ was once rumored to have done. I’ll admit that I noticed none of this before having it pointed out by Verhoeven, but I applaud him for keeping it subtle enough that a non-believer like myself wasn’t distracted by heavy-handed religious themes. In fact, I think it’s kind of awesome that Verhoeven realized his version of a cybernetic Christ using firepower to be a shining light in this dim city of Detroit. Take note, real Jesus Christ, that if you come back I expect it to be in a robot suit with some heavy artillery.

Can I devote a short paragraph to express my undying love for Basil Poledouris’ score? The themes he composed for the film, especially the main title theme, are remarkable. Combining both orchestral and synthesized music, his score for “RoboCop” is a large part of what fills some of the most memorable scenes with such gravitas and emotion. Poledouris has always been know to create scores that sound so broad and epic, creating an all-encompassing soundscape which absolutely drowns the listener in heroic cues and sweeping musical numbers. His score for “Conan the Barbarian” (1982) is among his finest, but I still get chills down my spine every time I hear the music swell when RoboCop grabs the keys to his Ford Taurus and hits the town for the first time looking to dispense justice.

I’ve got to applaud Peter Weller for his stellar performance here as Alex Murphy/RoboCop. He only spends a small portion of the film as a street cop and loving husband & father before being blown to pieces and given new life as RoboCop. Once he’s RoboCop, though, he has to rely almost exclusively on facial gestures and physical acting until the film’s final act when his visor is removed. Weller has said that he spent a considerable amount of time training with a mime coach, only to learn that his suit was so bulky that nothing he learned could be applied, leading to delays in production. Even worse, the suit would get so hot in the 100 degree temperatures they were shooting in that he was losing 3 lbs. a day in water weight, so a fan was eventually constructed inside the suit to give him some ventilation. I’ve always found Weller to be a solid actor who should have gone on to greater acclaim, although if my claim to fame were playing RoboCop, I think I’d be content with having that as my legacy.

I’d be remiss to not give a quick mention to Rob Bottin and his crew for the creation and design of the RoboCop suit. Anyone who knows me is well aware of the fact that I think Bottin is one of the greatest FX gurus in the history of film, and his effects work on John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982) have still not been surpassed. I haven’t seen any of the aborted concepts for RoboCop’s design, but I think Bottin perfectly nailed it with what we’re given in the finished film. It’s elegant and sleek, yet also intimidating as hell.

Note that this set contains the unrated 103-minute version of “RoboCop” which has an additional minute or so of gore effects which were cut to avoid the X-rating it was slapped with by the MPAA.

Weller dons the suit one last time for “RoboCop 2”, but there’s something “off” about the whole production. Several cast members return here, but it’s obvious from the first frame that this film is just a pale imitation. Director Irvin Kershner is a more than capable director (he did handle “Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), after all), but it feels like he’s trying to make a Paul Verhoeven film. And no one but Verhoeven can make a Verhoeven film. The original film looked like a groundbreaking production, whereas this comes off like a bad B-movie. They managed to maintain a great sense of continuity by retaining several key cast members from the first film, there are several news breaks (Leeza Gibbons returns as the anchor) and tongue-in-cheek commercials, the sets and RoboCop suit all look authentic… but there’s something lost in the mix here to make this feel like the sequel it needed to be.

Even with the advent of RoboCop, crime is only getting worse on the streets of Detroit thanks to the rise of a new drug, Nuke, which is being produced and sold by Cain (Tom Noonan), a lowlife who runs the gang that makes it. OCP has decided that they need a new, upgraded RoboCop, dubbed “RoboCop 2”, to combat this new menace. The Old Man (a returning Dan O’Herlihy), head of OCP, puts Dr. Faxx (Belinda Bauer) in charge of the project. They run through prototype after prototype before finally finding a suitable candidate to provide the brain for this new monster: Cain. After a run-in with RoboCop, Cain is left badly wounded in the hospital, so Dr. Faxx swoops in to remove his fresh brain to power her creation. Unfortunately, much like the ED-209 of the first film, RoboCop 2 goes ballistic and it’s obvious that only one thing can stop him: the real RoboCop.

A sequel needs to retain some of the characters we loved from the first film while also introducing new players and elevating the situation so the stakes are higher. “RoboCop 2” fails in this respect because it introduces nothing more than some careless lowlife gang members and a villain which feels stale. RoboCop fought, and destroyed, ED-209 in the first film in addition to uncovering the corruption at OCP. Here, he’s fighting a robotic creation that seems like no more a match than ED-209 was, and they’ve now made the once kind Old Man from the first film into a nefarious CEO hell-bent on ruining Detroit, someone concerned only with profit and results. It bothers me that they would take a likeable character and make him a miserable old bastard just for the sake of giving us a different villain at OCP. Dr. Faxx is barely interesting enough to be the film’s sole corporate villain, but she should have been the only threat at OCP since much of the film focuses on RoboCop’s street war with Cain and his cronies.

If there’s anything I can praise the film for, it’s the use of stop-motion animation to realize the final battle between RoboCop and RoboCop 2. Phil Tippett, master of stop-motion and FX work, made sure there was a more than capable crew behind the scenes on this picture. Stop-motion is an art form that is all but lost in cinema today, showing up only when Tim Burton or one of his contemporaries wants to make an all-ages film. It’s fantastic to see some truly wonderful work on display in high-definition here. I find it to be the film’s one true saving grace. Without it, I think we could consider “Robocop 2” to be completely D.O.A. Speaking of which…

“RoboCop 3”. Oh, I don’t even know where to begin here. It sucks, ok? That’s all you need to know. I had a VERY tough time getting through it. Between the lead role being taken over by another actor (Robert John Burke), the robotic ninjas, the weak PG-13 rating and having him fly, I don’t think anything could have saved this film from being the abominable piece of excrement it is. Even Nancy Allen had the foresight to refuse signing onto the film unless her character was killed in the first half. I truly feel sorry for director Fred Dekker who, after making two of the most loved cult horror films of the 80's (“Night of the Creeps (1986) and “The Monster Squad” (1987)), he thought he’d hit the big time by getting this gig. And it sank his career so quickly that he never recovered. Seriously, he hasn’t directed a feature since. Although, since you’re only as good as your last film in Hollywood, this would be as fitting a nail in someone’s coffin as any.

Don’t. Even. Bother.

It’s sad to see the RoboCop trilogy end on such a low note. To see them go from the astounding “RoboCop” straight down the crapper to “RoboCop 3” is quite a feat. I haven’t seen any of the television series that have followed, but word is that none are worth spending any time watching. There’s a rumor going around that director Darren Aronofsky is eyeing a remake of the original film. Personally, I don’t think anyone could possibly make a better film than Verhoeven, but so much time has elapse since “RoboCop 3” that a further sequel seems unlikely. Plus, who wants to follow that film? Maybe what RoboCop needs is a fresh start in cinema.

“RoboCop” film rating: A
“RoboCop 2” film rating: C+
“RoboCop 3” film rating: D

Video

It’s both a blessing and a curse when a series of films gets announced for their high-definition debut. Chances are usually good that the first film in a series (typically the best) will look the worst since it’s aged the most and the available film elements might not be in the best condition. Likewise, the latter entries are bound to look considerably better simply because they’re more recent. Such is the case here.

The edition of “RoboCop” included in this set is the same old single-layer 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps MPEG-2 encoded image we got last time, so don’t let the new disc art fool you. Is this the best the film has ever looked? Yes, undoubtedly so. But, the image probably would be much better had they re-encoded it with MPEG-4 and used a dual-layered 50 GB disc. As it stands, the image benefits from the standard upgrade in detail and clarity, though fine detail isn’t nearly as sharp as it could be. I also noticed that the brightness has been boosted over previous editions. Many shots are hampered by excessive noise and film grain, most notably the shots that were originally removed to maintain an R-rating. Night time scenes don’t look as terrible as I expected, though there is a loss of detail among the dark images. Colors and skin tones generally appear natural and well-rendered. I’ve seen “RoboCop” countless times on various home video incarnations, and this is easily the best I’ve seen it look. It might be far from demo-worthy material, but fans of the film will be pleased to see it looking as sharp as it does.

“RoboCop 2” and “RoboCop 3” both arrive new-to-Blu-ray with 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded images that are, sadly, superior to the originals film’s transfer. The differences between the two are so minor that I can easily cover both in a single paragraph. The most immediate benefit of the high-def picture is the massive upgrade in fine detail and clarity over the original. Lines around objects are crisp and well-defined, always looking sharp. There is a great array of colors on display here, and they look spectacular, almost popping off the screen at times. Black levels hold up much better with less detail being lost to the shadows.

“RoboCop” video rating: C+
“RoboCop 2” video rating: B-
“RoboCop 3” video rating: B

Audio

All three films sport a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track mixed at 48kHz/24-bit, all of them fairly solid offerings. I’d hesitate in saying any one track outshines the others, but the original does benefit from the awesome power of Poledouris’ score in lossless surround sound. Aside from that, they all offer up the same effects work which seeks to pummel your ears with excessive gunfire, explosions, robotic squeals and Miguel Ferrer’s penchant for nose candy. Just like with the video quality, however, the audio gets a minor boost as we trudge through the series. Most of the original film’s soundscape is relegated to the front speakers, and the guns and rocket launchers don’t sound as menacing as they probably could have. I’d say that “RoboCop 3” makes the most of the rear speakers, but it still lacks a great deal of the dynamics that make modern action films sound positively punishing. Nothing particularly stood out to me as impressive or bombastic when comparing all three tracks. I should also note that “RoboCop” was originally mixed in 4.0 when released, whereas “RoboCop 2” and “RoboCop 3” were given 5.1 surround sound tracks theatrically.

“RoboCop” includes an English Dolby Digital 4.0 surround sound track and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound tracks. “RoboCop 2” and RoboCop 3” both have a French DTS 5.1 surround sound track and a Spanish 5.1 surround sound track. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish.

“RoboCop” audio rating: B-
“RoboCop 2” audio rating: B
“RoboCop 3” audio rating: B

Extras

MGM made a mistake… and I wish I could erase that mistake. They blew it when “RoboCop” was released on standalone Blu-ray a couple years ago by not including any of the myriad extras found on the 20th Anniversary 2-disc DVD set. This was their golden moment to rectify that mistake, but instead they just tossed all 3 films out with nothing but a few theatrical trailers. Pathetic, really. The supplements on that previous release were all fantastic, and this would have also been a great opportunity to show some love (whether it’s warranted or not) to the lesser sequels. But, no. We get nothing.

DISC ONE: "RoboCop"

the original “RoboCop" theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 1 minute and 23 seconds.

There are also bonus trailers (1080p) included for the following:

- “To Live and Die in L.A.” runs for 2 minutes and 5 seconds.
- “The Usual Suspects” runs for 2 minutes and 23 seconds.
- “Bulletproof Monk” runs for 1 minute and 57 seconds.

DISC TWO: "RoboCop 2"

Theatrical trailer 1 (1080p) runs for 1 minute and 25 seconds and theatrical trailer 2 runs for 1 minute and 57 seconds.

DISC THREE: "RoboCop 3"

Theatrical trailer 1 runs for 2 minutes and 3 seconds.

Packaging

The 3-disc set comes housed in a single-width amaray keepcase with a swinging tray holding discs 1 & 2, while disc 3 is affixed to a hub on the rear interior. The translucent case allows the back of the cover art to show off some artwork, while the front cover features a shot of RoboCop standing tall. A slipcover, which has a shiny, metallic appearance, features a large shot of RoboCop’s visor. It looks rather sharp.

Overall

The first film is a total classic, but the included sequels provide vastly diminishing returns. I’m hesitant to recommend this unless you’re a serious fan of the series. The only reason most sane cinephiles would buy this set is for the first film, and that can be had for under $10 at most retailers or online. And the complete lack of bonus features means that this is only an upgrade in picture and sound for the sequels which are new to high-def.

The Film: C+ Video: B Audio: B Extras: D- Overall: B+

 


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