RoboCop

Turning an ultra-violent satire on consumer culture into one of the most highly merchandised films of the decade.

Before realizing the magic of Verhoeven and ages ahead of crushing on Peter Weller or ED-209, I was a fan of the Sleeze Boyz’ brilliant dance single “RoboCop, Dance ‘til You Drop.” A die-hard fan of break-dancing after having seen Breakin’ (Joel Silberg, 1984) in the theater, I have vivid memories of this song being smoothly embroidered into the aural landscape of Venice Beach in the summertime. That was a great place to be a kid: it was no big deal to see large groups of teenage boys skateboarding like maniacs or spinning, twisting and contorting their bodies into quick dance moves on beat-up lengths of cardboard, metal boxes exploding with sound right next to them. Back then I knew nothing of the film. But boy, howdy when I DID finally discover RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)? That song (and all its attached memories) meant so much more!

 

 

The above is a fan-made music video. Clearly I’m not the only person on the face of the planet who has a dedication to this sample-stravaganza. But on the more official side? It wasn’t so popular. The first bit of trivia I offer in this piece about the legacy of Verhoeven’s dystopic film about the evils of media, corporate corruption and violence centers on the Sleeze Boyz’ song. See, Orion Pictures (the folks who released RoboCop and held all the copyrights) were none too pleased that the song had sampled the film so many times. Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambataa were clearly looser about their samples since they never threatened the musicians or their label, Sheik Records, with legal action. But Orion…not so much. Although the song was hitting the charts pretty hard, competing with Pet Shop Boys “Domino Dancing” and Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” (no small feat!), any song that might somehow take the focus off of Orion as the main rep (and money recipient) for RoboCop was a no-no. Thus, the Sleeze Boyz were forced to remove the samples and release a much more… well, they were forced to release the boring version. But what Orion could not do was control the pressings that were already out there of which there were plenty! Copies of the original vinyl continued to be distributed so if you wanted to hear the OG song… it wasn’t altogether hard to find. It still isn’t. Just ask a good DJ. If you’re curious about the version the Sleeze Boyz put together post-Orion-hissyfit, it’s called “Dance ‘til You Drop” and you can check it here. It maintains a sense of humor but… it’s missing the RoboCop:

 

 

Paul Verhoeven had a difficult time releasing this movie. The MPAA was adamant on the X-rating due to the graphic content, extreme violence and dark themes. He submitted several cuts, all to no avail. It still got an X. Finally after 11 or 12 (the number depends on who you ask) submissions; the film received its much-desired R-rating and was released. But that didn’t mean that all was well. For a film that pointedly satirized consumer culture and openly critiqued the evils of commercialism, corporate greed and corruption of the highest level, it was REALLY WEIRD that it was chock full of commercial advertisements. They are, of course, the best ads you’ll ever watch, but they are ads nonetheless. Many critics and audience members didn’t seem to “get it.”  This was a film, not TV. Why would you break the narrative like that? Too damn experimental. While these commercials are certainly entertaining and funny and they may seem to lighten the mood after seeing people’s guts getting spilled all over the screen, they are, perhaps one of the most horrifying portions of RoboCop. The MPAA cared about people getting killed, shot to bits, etc. But they didn’t give a hoot about the genius of the slew of advertisements that hit the screen. But….UM, HOLY SHIT. These commercials hit dead center. They go straight to the guts of America: Parker Bros and family games, car “safety” and physical well-being. These threaten everything Americans hold dear. 15-30 seconds and these ads rip us apart. In talking about these ads and the public’s response, Verhoeven said, “The critic of the Los Angeles Times, I think, was watching [the movie] and some commercial comes on, and that critic walked out to the projectionist and told him, ‘You’ve put on the wrong reels.’…I mean, that really happened. The whole style of these intermezzos of news in the middle of an action movie I think was almost unheard of at the time. Although actually he should have known, because Citizen Kane does some of the same stuff.”

 

 

One might think that since this was a hard R, almost X-rated film, it would have been off-limits for children’s marketing and merchandising. One would have been wrong. So very wrong. This was the ’80s, remember? So this treasured film that platforms a satiric commercial for the Butler Brothers nuclear war board game NUKEM? It became SEVERAL DIFFERENT KINDS OF GAMES. Let’s check them out!

In Parker Bros’ RoboCop and the Ultra Police, it’s “heroes vs. vandals in a rooftop chase”! This physical board game came in both European and US versions and was recommended for kids between the ages of 5 to 10. Inside the box, you will find the game pieces and the object of the game written out (read dramatically for full effect): “It’s a rooftop chase as the Good Guys, ROBOCOP and his Ultra Police Force, try to capture the evil VANDAL HEADHUNTER and bring him to justice. Players move from rooftop to rooftop, earning Ultra Hero Medals for their bravery as they nab the nasty VANDALS – unless the bad guys escape. The player with the most Ultra Hero Medals and vehicles at the end of the game wins.”

 

robocop-boardgame

 

Then there’s the super amazing RoboCop VCR game. Remember VCR games? Yeah, well, some worked and some didn’t. This was part board game, part VHS play-along and used real clips from the film. It didn’t get very good reviews but I still think it looks pretty fun. And the slogan, “The Future of Law Enforcement Is You…” makes me giggle since these folks clearly have no idea what they are dealing with. Have they seen the film? Do they know what or why they are making this game? 10/10, would still play.

 

robocop-vcr-game

 

Obviously there were tons of videogames – Nintendo, SuperNintendo, Genesis, even Atari and Amiga. The arcade game that was licensed from Orion and created by Data East is pretty fabulous though, and well worth watching the first level:

 

 

robocop-arcade-game

 

 

As for myself, I’m a pinball girl, so I will be on the lookout for this machine. Who knows? It may be like the Sleeze Boyz song. I may have played it already sometime in my younger years and not known it. But now that I am awake, aware and RoboCop-ing sensibly, it is certainly a goal.

Also by Data East, this machine advertises “pinball excitement!” and “the world’s first solid-state flipper!” Totally in. I have a thing for solid-state flippers…don’t tell!

 

robocop-pinball

 

Moving past the games portion of the RoboCop endowment, we have one of the stranger episodes in 1980s marketing: creating toys from ultra-violent films and marketing them to children. No, this is not me being judgmental. This is simply a part of our commercial history that can be filed under the “Things That Make You Go Hmmm” section. Of course, this is extra fascinating in this case because the content of RoboCop is MOST critical of these kinds of consumer choices. Having noted Verhoeven’s love of satire and its pointed use in RoboCop’s fake ads, looking at these very real commercials is slightly chilling. RoboCop was not only scarily accurate for its time but the way in which it got consumed and marketed to children illustrated how blind the people who distributed it were to its message. Verhoeven laughed all the way to the bank (the film was extremely popular at the box office) and Orion made a healthy profit off all these assorted merchandising efforts but did anyone at Orion look in the mirror and think about Omni Consumer Products or who that was really supposed to be? Not likely.

So, this set of toys – RoboCop and the Ultrapolice – with REAL CAP ACTION – were for ages 4 and above. So make sure that Johnny has some familiarity with ED-209 before he hits Kindergarten, ok?

 

 

This toy, the RoboCopter, has fuckall to do with the film, and yet… clips from the film make their way into the ad. RoboCop is not a movie for kids. It’s probably ok for young adults, but definitely not children. The way this ad is constructed makes it seem like not only are the toys fine for kids to access, but RoboCop is fine as a media playmate as well. Okay, so the truth is that most of us born in the ’70s or before saw lots of violent films early on. And really? Most of us are just fine. This isn’t about gauging or deciding when a kid should engage with a media text as much as it is about how dreadfully tone-deaf this ad (and all the other children’s toy ads) are when it comes to what the film is about. Turning RoboCop into a kids’ toy ignores the complexity of the violence in RoboCop, and rejects the valuable commentary evoked from even the most graphic of scenes.

 

 

So I’m not going to end with a downer. In reality, while there is a certain problematic aspect to the fact that R-rated toys were marketed to babies and a film that deeply critiques consumer culture was turned into one of the most highly merchandised action films of the 80s, there is absolutely something wonderful about being able to enjoy this paraphernalia. There is a reason that many people, as adults, continue to buy toys (even RoboCop toys!). It is fair to look at these things and grimace at the companies that produced them and go: did they even see the film? And if so…. um, ew! It is just as valid to have a wonderful and joyful reaction to the action figures and start making Google alerts to try to find them for your own collection.

The real lesson here: just watch the damn film. At the New Beverly if you can. With bunches and bunches of other people. Enjoy it. Love it. It’s a great film. It’s desperately relevant at the moment, and will probably remain so for…who knows how long. In any case, grab a friend tell them you’re taking them to the New Beverly and if they’re undecided just do what I would do- lean down and whisper, “Come quietly, or there will be…trouble.”

 

Added bonus for my wrestling homies:

RoboCop was part of the squared circle!! CHECK IT OUT!!

 

 

 

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