Spotlight on Editing & Directing: Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987)

With its “body-horror” preoccupation, excessive violence, and tongue-in-cheek dialogues, RoboCop (1987) is a quintessential 1980s film, inspired by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and made on the back of the success of The Terminator (1984). There are many things that made it good, including its cinematography provided by Jost Vacano (Das Boot (1981)), its unusual director choice – Paul Verhoeven (who had to be persuaded for a long time to do this film), and the choice to cast lesser-known actors, but on some reconsideration, it is also clear that its editing (choice of shots and their sequence)/directing (position of shots) simply awe – these are the things of beauty in his film. In fact, RoboCop was nominated for film editing at the Academy Awards 1988, but, sadly, lost to Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. This piece will contain spoilers.

RoboCop may be a film of 1987, but its themes of the possibility of a machine turning against its makers a la Frankenstein and a robot “gaining consciousness” are as relevant now in the year 2022, with popular interest in robotic technology rising and advances in engineering making leaps and bounds. Film RoboCop is about a newly-constructed robotic machine that takes the form of a man and who starts to serve at the police force in dystopian Detroit. It was built taking the consciousness and body parts of the deceased police member Alex James Murphy. RoboCop slowly realises his identity, vowing revenge on his killers. In the background, there is a satire on corporate power and greed, as one businessman Richard Jones, makes a deal with criminals.

Film editor Frank J. Urioste did a remarkable job (the script was written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner). In fact, a huge part of the “entertainment” factor of RoboCop is due to the sequence of its shots. The overhead shots showing the building of evil Omni Consumer Organisation gives a sense of a truly dystopian, futuristic world, where efficiency and greed are prioritised over humanity and morality. The sequence of shots detailing Murphy’s operation is equally impressive. From the symmetrical, long-distance shots of him being prepped for surgery, to the multi-faceted scenes of him opening his eyes for the first time after the complicated medical/technological procedure.

The killing of the main character so early in the film surprises and subverts our expectations (the scene was inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)), and the clever decision was not to show us the resurrection of the main character or RoboCop as a finished product at the start. We know how much damage the criminals did to Murphy’s body, and we are kept in suspense as to what a company can do in future in terms of technologically “reconstructing” a man. In fact, we get acquainted with RoboCop from his point of view – we see “our” makers (employees of the Omni Consumer Organisation) through the eyes of the RoboCop. This makes us both intrigued and subconsciously sympathise or “side” with the new robot, especially since the world as seen from his eyes appears only slightly different from ours. And, our suspense does not end there, because, then, we see and find out about RoboCop from the point of view of Detroit’s law enforcement officers.

Verhoeven’s direction remains smart and darkly comic throughout the film. The violence depicted is “over-the-top”, surreal and unbelievable – and that was the point, and the action sequences impress as much as those that unveil RoboCop at the start of the film. One car chase is shown from so many different camera angles (front car screen-shot, ground-level shot, etc.) and the shots are so seamlessly stitched together, there arises this feeling that we, the audience, are also part of this hectic car-ride in some way.

The final film sequence deserves a special mention. This is where RoboCop, now unmasked (so that the audience can more freely “associate” themselves with the hero) disrupts the villain’s board meeting, and, in a few minutes, not only changes the minds of the city’s elite, but also ensures justice. In this one sequence, the director somehow managed to do so many things, it beggars belief – there are humour (a thank you from RoboCop on Directive 4 being overruled), irony and violence, and the shots are again over-head, long-distance, and from the point of view of RoboCop himself. The film culminates on one understated, but powerful and memorable ending (the hero completes its journey by finding his identity and restoring justice). Frank J. Urioste’s film editing job in RoboCop ensured that the film is an immersive and transportive experience, underlying the point that film-editing is an art that should never be under-valued, ignored or overlooked.


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