In the near future, Detroit, Michigan, is a dystopia and on the verge of total collapse due to financial ruin and a high crime rate. The mayor signs a deal with the mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP), giving it complete control of the underfunded Detroit Police Department. In exchange, OCP will be allowed to turn the run-down sections of Detroit into a high-end utopia called Delta City.
OCP senior president Dick Jones proposes assisting the police with the ED-209 enforcement droid. At its first demonstration, however, ED-209 malfunctions and gruesomely kills employee Kinney. Bob Morton, an ambitious employee, uses the opportunity to introduce his own experimental cyborg design, "RoboCop". To Jones's anger, the company chairman (a.k.a. The Old Man) approves Morton's plan. Meanwhile, police officer Alex Murphy arrives at his new precinct following an OCP-directed transfer where he is introduced to his partner Anne Lewis. On their first patrol, they chase down a gang led by the ruthless criminal Clarence Boddicker, tailing them to an abandoned steel mill, killing two gang members. When he and Lewis get separated, Murphy is caught and repeatedly shot by Boddicker's gang just before Boddicker himself executes the helpless cop. Morton selects Murphy for the RoboCop program and replaces most of his body with cybernetics, except for his brain and part of his digestive system.
RoboCop is given three primary directives: 'Serve the public trust, Protect the innocent, and Uphold the law', as well as a classified fourth directive that Morton does not know of. He single-handedly and efficiently begins to cleanse Detroit of crime, earning Morton a promotion to vice president of Security Concepts. Enraged, Jones hires Boddicker to murder Morton in his home. Meanwhile, Lewis realizes that RoboCop is really Murphy due to the way he handles his gun after using it, and tells him his real name. RoboCop remembers past events from his life and returns to his former home, only to find that his wife and son have moved away. He connects to the police database, looks up the deceased Murphy's entry and discovers Boddicker's gang, who were responsible for his death.
Robocop then goes to a nightclub and sees Leon, forcing him to give up Boddicker's location. He then tracks down Boddicker to a cocaine factory and after a long gun battle, threatens to kill him. Panicked, Boddicker admits his affiliation with Jones, verbally triggering RoboCop's law-abiding programming. RoboCop arrests Boddicker and turns him over to the police. He then confronts Jones and attempts to arrest him, but begins to shut down. Jones reveals that he planted the fourth directive, which prevents RoboCop from arresting any member of OCP's executive board. Jones explains his larger goal of taking over OCP, and confesses to Morton's murder before activating his personal ED-209 to destroy RoboCop. During the ensuing battle, Jones calls the police claiming that Robocop has malfunctioned and gone rogue. Robocop manages to escape ED-209 (whose poor design is highlighted by its inability to descend stairs), but is soon cornered by heavily armed police units and is nearly destroyed. Lewis helps RoboCop escape, and takes him to the abandoned steel mill. As RoboCop repairs himself, he and Lewis discuss his former life.
Under pressure by OCP and fearing their replacement by RoboCop, the police go on strike. Jones frees Boddicker and supplies his gang with anti-tank rifles and a tracking device to hunt down RoboCop. The gang converge on the steel mill, where RoboCop and Lewis are able to kill most of them until they are subdued by Boddicker, but RoboCop stabs Boddicker in the throat with his neural spike, killing him.
RoboCop heads back to OCP headquarters, where Jones is presenting his improved ED-209 to the board. RoboCop once again faces off with an ED-209 guarding the building, but he easily destroys it using one of the anti-tank rifles from his encounter with Boddicker. Once inside, Robocop states Jones' guilt of murder and explains that he cannot intervene due to the fourth directive. He plays a recording of Jones' confession, exposing his role in Morton's murder along with his sinister plans. Jones retrieves a nearby handgun and takes the chairman hostage, demanding a helicopter. The chairman verbally fires Jones from OCP, thereby releasing RoboCop from the fourth directive. RoboCop then repeatedly shoots Jones, who crashes through a window and falls to his death far below. Grateful, the chairman says, "Nice shooting, son—what's your name?", to which RoboCop smiles and replies, "Murphy." An indication that he is now more human that cyborg.
RoboCop was written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. Neumeier stated that he first got the idea of RoboCop when he walked with a friend past a poster for Blade Runner. He asked his friend what the film was about and his friend replied, "It's about a cop hunting robots". For him, this sparked the idea about a robot cop. Allegedly, while the two were attempting to pitch the screenplay to Hollywood executives, they were accidentally stranded at an airplane terminal with a high-ranking movie executive for several hours. Here, they were able to speak to him about the project, and thus began the series of events which eventually gave rise to RoboCop.
In 1981 Neumeier wrote the first treatment, about a robot police officer who was not a cyborg but in the development of the story his computer mind became more similar to human. The plot takes place in a fairly distant future, the world is ruled by corporations and it was assumed that this world will be visually similar to the world shown in "Blade Runner". The treatment was rejected by many studios because of the incompleteness of the storyline and settings. In 1984 Neumeier met music video director Michael Miner, who worked on a similar idea; his rough draft of the script was called "SuperCop", a story about a cop who has been seriously injured and becomes a donor for experiment to create a cybernetic police officer. The two felt that they could successfully combine their ideas.
RoboCop marked the first major Hollywood production for Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Although he had been working in the Netherlands for more than a decade and directed several films to great acclaim (such as Soldier of Orange in 1977), Verhoeven moved away in 1984 to seek broader opportunities in Hollywood. While RoboCop is often credited as his English language debut, he had in fact previously made Flesh & Blood, starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh, during 1985.
On the Criterion Edition audio commentary (available on both the LaserDisc and DVD versions), Verhoeven recalls that, when he first glanced through the script, he discarded it in disgust. Afterwards, his wife, after picking the script from the bin and reading it more thoroughly, convinced him that the plot had more substance than he had originally assumed. Repo Man director Alex Cox was offered the opportunity to direct before Verhoeven came aboard. Kenneth Johnson, creator of television series V, The Bionic Woman, and The Incredible Hulk, said that he was offered the chance to direct, but turned it down when he was not allowed to change aspects of the script that he considered to be "mean-spirited, ugly and ultra-violent."
The character of RoboCop itself was inspired by British comic book hero Judge Dredd, as well as the Japanese toku series Space Sheriff Gavan and the Marvel Comics superhero Rom. A Rom comic book appears onscreen during the film's convenience store robbery. Another Rom comic appears in a flashback of Murphy's son. Although both Neumeier and Verhoeven have declared themselves staunchly on the political left, Neumeier recalls on the audio commentary to Starship Troopers that many of his liberal friends perceived RoboCop as a fascist movie. On the 20th Anniversary DVD, producer Jon Davison referred to the film's message as "fascism for liberals" – a politically liberal film done in the most violent way possible.
Before Peter Weller was cast, Rutger Hauer and Arnold Schwarzenegger were favored to play RoboCop by Verhoeven and the producers, respectively. However, each man's large frame would have made it difficult for either of them to move in the cumbersome RoboCop suit, which had been modeled on hockey gear and designed to be large and bulky. Weller won the role both because Verhoeven felt that he could adequately convey pathos with his lower face, and because Weller was especially lithe and could more easily move inside the suit than a bigger actor.
Stephanie Zimbalist, who at the time was one of the stars of the television series Remington Steele, was originally cast as Anne Lewis. NBC had canceled Remington Steele in 1986, leaving the stars free to accept other roles, subject to options for further episodes on their contracts. However, an upsurge of interest in the show saw the network exercise the options, which meant that Zimbalist was then forced to withdraw from RoboCop, to be replaced by Nancy Allen.
In the DVD director's commentary, Verhoeven explained that he intentionally chose to cast Kurtwood Smith and Ronny Cox against type by making them the central villains. Cox was an actor who, until then, was primarily known for "nice-guy" roles, such as fatherly figures. Similarly, Smith had been cast as more intellectual characters. Verhoeven chose to outfit Smith's character Clarence Boddicker in rimless glasses because of their intellectual association, creating a disparity in the character that Verhoeven found akin to the similarly bespectacled Heinrich Himmler.
Filming began on August 6, 1986, and wrapped on October 20, 1986. The scenes depicting Murphy's death were not filmed until the following January (1987), some months after principal shooting had ceased. Although RoboCop is set in Detroit, Michigan, many of the urban settings in the film were actually filmed in Dallas, Texas. The futuristic appearances of the Dallas buildings, such as Reunion Tower, are visible in the background during the car chase. The front of Dallas City Hall was used as the exterior for the fictional OCP Headquarters, combined with extensive matte paintings to make the building appear taller than it actually is. The steel mill scenes were filmed at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel's Monessen Works, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monessen, Pennsylvania.
Peter Weller had prepared extensively for the role using a padded costume (supposedly, development of the actual RoboCop suit was three weeks behind schedule). By the time shooting was underway and the costume had arrived on set, however, Weller discovered he was almost unable to move in it and needed additional training to become accustomed to it. Weller later revealed to Roger Ebert that during filming, he was losing three pounds a day due to sweat loss while wearing the RoboCop suit in 100 °F (38 °C) temperatures. Weller's personal assistant, Todd Trotter, was responsible for keeping the actor cool in between takes with electric fans and, when available, large ducts connected to free-standing air conditioning units. The suit later had a fan built into it.
Monte Hellman acted as second unit director after Verhoeven began to fall behind schedule. He directed several action scenes.
The 1986 Ford Taurus was used as the police cruiser in the movie, due to its then-futuristic design. As of May 2012, RoboCop's Taurus is on display at the Branson Auto Museum in Branson, Missouri.
Bob Morton's home was filmed in a home near Dallas featured in the show Beyond 2000 in 1987.
The task of creating the RoboCop suit was given to Rob Bottin. The studio decided that Bottin would be the ideal person to create the RoboCop suit, as he had just finished doing the special effects for John Carpenter's The Thing. A budget of up to one million dollars was allotted to the completion of the suit, making it the most expensive item on the set. A total of six suits were made: three intact and three showing damage.
Bottin himself had produced early design sketches for the suit's prototype that the studio accepted enthusiastically, albeit with the request of some minor adjustments. Influenced by the Japanese comic The 8 Man and the first Metal Hero Space Sheriff Gavan from Toei, Rob, Paul Verhoeven, and Edward Neumeier came up with the concept of the suit being more of an outer shell, with very little of the actor's actual face being visible. Bottin explained the basis of the design:
It's meant to look very speedy and aerodynamic. All the lines are measured to go on a slant – forward, forward, forward! All the lines were geometric, and complement every shape on the body from all angles. When Verhoeven came on the project, he requested numerous design changes, additions to the suit which looked more like machine than man-like. I've never done so many conceptional drawings for a director in my entire life – changing it, and changing it, and changing it!
However, the design ended up bearing a closer resemblance to Bottin's original design:
RoboCop looks the way he does because that's the way a man's body works! Although we went through fifty different variations, developing his character, everything came back to man-like. It's definitely a guy in the suit, which doesn't belittle it any.
The suit itself was attached to the actor in sections. To wear the helmet, Peter Weller wore a bald cap that allowed the helmet to be removed easily. After almost 10 months of preparation, the RoboCop suit was completed based on life casts from Peter Weller and Bottin's six-foot clay models. The suit's color was supposed to be bright blue; however, it was given a more grayish tint to make it look more metallic and produce less glare on the camera when it was being filmed.
Peter Weller had in the meantime hired Moni Yakim, the head of the Movement Department at Juilliard, to help create an appropriate way for him to move his body while wearing the RoboCop suit. He and Moni had envisioned RoboCop moving like a snake, dancing around its targets very elusively. The suit, however, proved to be too heavy and cumbersome. Instead, at the suggestion of Moni, it was decided that they would slow down RoboCop's movements in order to make them more appealing and plausible. Filming stopped for three days, allowing Peter and Paul Verhoeven to discuss new movements for the suit.
The original gun for RoboCop was a Desert Eagle, but this was deemed too small. A Beretta 93R was heavily modified by Ray Williams of Freshour Machine, Texas City, Texas, who extended the gun barrel to make it look bigger and more proportional to RoboCop's hand. The gun holster itself was a standalone piece that was not integrated into the suit. Off-screen technicians would operate the device on cue by pulling cables that would force the holster to open up and allow the gun to be placed inside.
The ED-209 stop motion model was designed by Craig Davies, who also built the full size models, and animated by Phil Tippett, a veteran stop-motion animator. As one of the setpieces of the movie, the ED-209's look and animated sequences were under the close supervision of director Paul Verhoeven, who sometimes acted out the robot's movements himself. ED-209 was voiced by producer Jon Davison. Davies and Tippett would go on to collaborate on many more projects.
In one scene, Emil attempts to run down RoboCop, but instead accidentally drives into a vat of toxic waste, causing the flesh to melt off his face and hands. These effects were also conceived and designed by Bottin, who was inspired by Rick Baker's work on The Incredible Melting Man, and who dubbed the RoboCop effects "the Melting Man" as an homage to the production.
Chiodo Brothers Productions fabricated and animated the dinosaur puppet in the 6000 SUX commercial. The dinosaur itself was animated by Don Waller, who also had a cameo in the same sequence, reacting to the rampaging creature in a tight close-up.
The soundtrack score for the movie was composed by Basil Poledouris, who used both synthesized and orchestral music as a mirror to the man-versus-machine theme of the movie. The score alternates brass-heavy material, including the RoboCop theme and ED-209's theme, with more introverted pieces for strings, such as during RoboCop's homecoming scene. The music was performed by the Sinfonia of London, conducted by Howard Blake and Tony Britten. The soundtrack initially was released by Varèse Sarabande containing highlights from the score in an order different from that heard in the movie. The final four tracks were included on later CD re-issues.
The complete score in film sequence order was released in 2015 containing four previously unreleased tracks, the full end credits suite and the four previous CD bonus tracks.
On the theatrical trailer, the theme of The Terminator (1984) was used instead of the RoboCop theme. The theme song also made its way into the arcade and NES RoboCop video games.
The song "Show Me Your Spine" by P.T.P. was played during the nightclub scene. P.T.P was a short-lived side project consisting of members of the band Ministry and Skinny Puppy. However, this song was not available in any official form and could only be heard in the film. It was eventually released in 2004 on a compilation album called Side Trax by Ministry.
The movie was originally given an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1987 due to its graphic violence, in sharp contrast to most other X-rated movies that received the rating due to strong sexual content. To appease the requirements of the ratings board, Verhoeven reduced the blood and gore in the most violent scenes in the movie, including ED-209's shooting of Kinney in the boardroom, Bobby being shot in the leg, the Boddicker gang's execution of Murphy with shotguns, and the final battle with Boddicker (in which RoboCop stabs him in the neck with his neural spike and Boddicker's blood spatters onto RoboCop's chest). Verhoeven also added humorous commercials throughout the news broadcasts to lighten the mood and distract from the violent aspects of the movie (most of the commercials satirize various aspects of the American consumer culture, such as the commercial for the 6000 SUX sedan). After 11 original X ratings, the film was eventually given an R rating. The original uncut version was included on the Criterion Collection LaserDisc and DVD of the film (both out of print), the 2005 trilogy box set, and the 2007 anniversary edition—the latter two were released by MGM and were unrated. The 2014 Blu-ray 4K master edition also features this unrated cut.
Regarding the omitted scenes, Verhoeven stated on the 2007 anniversary edition DVD that he had wanted the violence to be "over the top", in an almost comical fashion (such as the scene involving the executive that is killed by ED-209, and Bob Morton immediately asking "Somebody wanna call a goddamn paramedic?!", which was meant as black comedy). Verhoeven also stated that the tone of the violence was changed to a more upsetting tone due to the deletions requested by the MPAA, and that the deletions also removed footage of the extensive animatronic puppet of Murphy just before he is executed by Boddicker.
The following scenes are now presented in the uncut version of the movie available on Blu ray and DVD.
1) During the boardroom meeting, ED-209 begins to shoot Kinney who falls back on a table. We then see additional shots of him being shot at continuously in rapid succession. There is also an additional but quick shot of ED-209's programmer unsuccessfully trying to shut it down by ripping out its power cord.
2) Murphy's death is the most violent segment of the movie. Additional shots include when his hand is shut off, Murphy gets up and a visible stump is seen where his hand used to be. An additional shot of his left arm being shot off completely and him screaming in pain. In the theatrical version, this scene is missing and we see Murphy only with one arm without any explanation. The final seconds of his murder shows an additional shot of the camera spinning around Murphy as he withers in pain and Clarence shoots him in the head and a hole appears. This original shot was achieved using a sophisticated animatronic puppet of Peter Weller controlled off-screen. One final overhead shot also shows the bloody aftermath of what has happened to Murphy as Lewis looks on shocked at his dead body.
3) Bob Morton's death now shows a close up of additional bullet holes puncturing his leg before he falls down.
4) When Clarence is stabbed in the neck, an additional shot shows him turning around and blood squirting out of his neck before he falls to the floor.
RoboCop was released in American theaters on July 17, 1987. The film opened no. 1 at the US box office and grossed over $8 million in its opening weekend and another $6 million in its second weekend, again regaining the top spot at the box office. It topped rival films released at the same time, including Full Metal Jacket and Superman IV. In total, it grossed $53.4 million during its North American run, making it the 16th most successful film that year. It also grossed an additional $24,036,000 from video rentals in the United States.
The R-rated cinema version of RoboCop was released on VHS and LaserDisc in February 1988. It was sold for $89.98 on VHS, and for $39.98 on S-VHS. It grossed $24,036,000 from rentals.
The film was released on Philips CD-i VCD (Video CD) in 1994. Criterion released the uncut "director's edit" on LaserDisc in 1996. In 1998 Criterion released it on DVD while Image Entertainment released the R-rated cinema version. It was re-released on Region 1 DVD in 2007 and on Blu-ray in 2010 as part of the Blu-ray Robocop Trilogy. A remastered Blu-ray edition was released in January 2014 to tie into the 2014 RoboCop remake.
The film received positive reviews on Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively gave it a rating of 88% based on reviews from 57 critics and an average rating of 7.8/10. The site's consensus is: "While over-the-top and gory, RoboCop is also a surprisingly smart sci-fi flick that uses ultraviolence to disguise its satire of American culture".
Roger Ebert praised the film, calling RoboCop "a thriller with a difference," praising the way it puts the audience off-guard, and calling it a thriller not easily categorized with splashes of other genres added. Ebert praised Weller for his performance and his ability to elicit sympathy despite the layers of makeup and prosthetics. Walter Goodman, writing for The New York Times, believed the film's anti-corporate message "has more trouble emerging from Mr. Verhoeven's sizzling battles than poor Murphy does from his robosuit."
Feminist Susan Faludi called RoboCop one of "an endless stream of war and action movies" in which "women are reduced to mute and incidental characters or banished altogether." Author Rene Denfeld disagreed with Faludi's characterization of the film, calling it her "favorite blow-'em-up movie," citing Officer Lewis as an example of an "independent and smart police officer." In the commentary track of the Special Edition DVD release, the director explained that he intentionally depicted Officer Lewis as "gender neutral", thus her hidden gender during her introductory scene, a physical fight with a male in the police station, and the choice to give the character short hair.
In 2007, Entertainment Weekly named the film the #14 greatest action film of all time, and Complex rated it as the 19th best action film of all time in 2016. In 2008, it was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, placing at #404. The New York Times also included the film in their list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made. AMC Filmsite.org and Film.com rated it as one of the best films of 1987.
The film was on the ballot for two of the American Film Institute's 100 Series lists. These included 100 Years…100 Thrills, a list of America's most heart-pounding films, and AFI's "Ten Top Ten", a list of the best 10 films in 10 "classic" American film genres. RoboCop was a candidate in the science fiction category. At its release, British director Ken Russell said that this was the best science fiction film since Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).
In a 2013 interview, Edward Neumeier reflected on how the film's script is starting to play into reality: "We are now living in the world that I was proposing in RoboCop…how big corporations will 'take care of us' and…how they won't."
Two of the primary themes explored by RoboCop are the media and human nature. On the Criterion Edition DVD commentary track, executive producer Jon Davison and writer Edward Neumeier both relate the film to the decay of American industry from the 1970s through the early 1980s, with the abandoned "Rust Belt style" factories that RoboCop and Clarence Boddicker's gang use as hideouts reflecting this concern. Massive unemployment is prevalent, being reported frequently on the news, as are poverty and the crime that results from economic hardship.
Director Paul Verhoeven, known for his heavy use of Christian symbolism, states in the documentary "Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop" (featured on the RoboCop DVD) that his intention was to portray RoboCop as a Christ figure. This is represented in Murphy's horrific death, his resurrected return as RoboCop, and the scene at the steel mill in which RoboCop is seen walking ankle-deep in water, creating the illusion of him walking on water.
Darian Leader considers RoboCop one example of how the cinema has dealt with the concept of masculinity, showing that to be a man requires more than having the body of a man: something symbolic that is not ultimately human must be added. He sees RoboCop as similar to The Terminator and The Six Million Dollar Man in this respect. Leader wrote of RoboCop:
The RoboCop is a family man who is destroyed by thugs, then rebuilt as a robot by science. His son always insists, before the transformation, that his human father perform the gun spinning trick he sees on TV. When the robot can finally do this properly, he is no longer just a male biological body: he is a body plus machinery, a body which includes within it the symbolic circuitry of science. Old heroes had bits of metal outside them (knights), but modern heroes have bits of metal inside them. To be a man today thus involves this kind of real incorporation of symbolic properties.
Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek wrote that:
RoboCop, a futuristic story about a policeman shot to death and then revived after all parts of his body have been replaced by artificial substitutes, introduces a more tragic note: the hero who finds himself literally "between two deaths" – clinically dead and at the same time provided with a new, mechanical body—starts to remember fragments of his previous, "human" life and thus undergoes a process of resubjectivication, changing gradually back from pure incarnated drive to a being of desire. (...) [I]f there is a phenomenon that fully deserves to be called the "fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture," it is this fantasy of the return of the living dead: the fantasy of a person who does not want to stay dead but returns again and again to pose a threat to the living.
The depiction of Murphy's struggles in reasserting his humanity also deals with themes of identity. This is even touched upon in the cyborg's construction. On the Robocop: 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition DVD, Paul Sammon states:
Rob Bottin and Paul Verhoeven, and Ed Neumeier had all come up with a concept that there would be such a potential for psychological disruption. Even if you had supposedly wiped someone's memories and emotions they'd still might have some kind of residual humanity where, if they'd looked at themselves as a complete robot with no relation to their past organic form, they'd completely freak out and have a psychotic breakdown. So the idea was that surgeons had literally skinned off Alex Murphy's face and then placed it on the cyborg. So it's not like they transplanted his head, they just took his face off and laid it on the cyborg, and that was to give him his own little sense of identity.
The film novelization, written by Ed Naha, was released on June 1, 1987. The novel differed in several ways from the film by following one of the earlier drafts of the screenplay. It expanded on Murphy's struggle with being part man and part machine, and his memories. It also included more "humanized" dialogue from RoboCop, as opposed to the minimal, cold dialogue heard in the film.
The success of the movie spawned a large franchise, including merchandise, two sequels, a television series, a remake, two animated TV series, a television mini-series, video games, and a number of comic book adaptations/crossovers.
In February 2011, a humorous ploy asked Detroit Mayor Dave Bing if there was to be a RoboCop statue in his "New Detroit" proposal, which was planned to turn Detroit back into a prosperous city again. When Bing said there was no such plan, and word of this reached the Internet, several fundraising events raised enough money for the statue, which would be built at the Imagination Station. There were plans to unveil the RoboCop statue in spring of 2014.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Sony produced a remake of RoboCop, directed by José Padilha. Joel Kinnaman plays the role of Alex Murphy and Gary Oldman is "Norton", a new character, "the scientist who creates RoboCop and finds himself torn between the ideals of the machine trying to rediscover its humanity and the callous needs of a corporation." Samuel L. Jackson plays a powerful and charismatic media mogul, while Michael Keaton plays the CEO of Omnicorp after Hugh Laurie dropped out of the project in August 2012. Actress Abbie Cornish plays Murphy's wife and Watchmen star Jackie Earle Haley plays Maddox, the man who gives RoboCop his military training. The film was finally released in the United States on February 12, 2014.