Man vs. Machine: Why 1987's RoboCop was awesome then, and is iconic now

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Feb 10, 2014, 1:13 PM EST

"Part man, part machine, all cop." That was the tagline for 1987's RoboCop. The title character was deemed the future of law enforcement and the solution to a crime-ridden Detroit. The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, who'd go on to make Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man. A lot of Verhoeven's films have earned cult status but, arguably, none are as beloved as RoboCop. Nearly three decades after its release, it's still revered in both sci-fi and pop culture in general.

Why has RoboCop stood the test of time? It was released when Hollywood was overrun by action films with paper-thin plots. In '87 alone, we saw Jaws: The Revenge, Deathwish 4: The Crackdown, Over the Top, and -- who can forget -- Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. RoboCop could have easily been another forgettable summer blockbuster. Its main character is a cyborg who fights crime in a dystopian near future. But the film pulled a bait-and-switch on audiences. The seemingly empty testosterone-fest was really a smart satire with soul.

Yes, I said RoboCop has soul. At its very core are the life, death and rebirth of Alex Murphy. He's a police officer whose body is used as a guinea pig for the RoboCop program. Is it fun watching RoboCop throw bad guys through glass and blow stuff up? Sure, but that's only part of the character's appeal. And considering the amount of action-heavy films available, that's nothing new. It can get very old very fast. The man-vs.-machine element is why RoboCop works.

To this day, it's still captivating to watch RoboCop struggle with his identity. Some of the film's best scenes are when Alex's memories seep into his programming. In the beginning, you're introduced to Alex as an idealistic cop. He's likable and trustworthy, which is what makes his fate so heartbreaking. Verhoeven pulls no punches during Alex's death scene. It's visceral and violent, but also necessary. It lights a fire in you. As a viewer, you want to see this man avenged. RoboCop is good, but his past as Alex is what makes him great. It endears him to the audience, which has been essential to the film's success.

The film as a whole tackles some heavy issues. But they're usually overlooked because it's so entertaining. The biggest, and most obvious, themes are corporate greed, privatization, gentrification and corruption. It's set in a world in which a business firm can own the police force, where Yamaha and Jensen Electronics produce artificial hearts and sell them at discount prices. In one scene, a city official holds the mayor hostage, and his list of demands include a bigger office and a new car with cruise control. It sounds ridiculous, but if you look at what really happened in the '80s, it wasn't that far off.

RoboCop's commentary goes beyond its time period. The same problems exist today; they've just evolved. That's why the story continues to be relevant. When you think about it, some of the dialogue is truly disheartening. When OCP executive Dick Jones has his business competitor killed, he tells him, "Bob, I'm cashing you out." He's referencing both his life and money, because in this film, they're one and the same. Or, when crime boss Clarence Boddicker requests military-grade firearms, Jones replies, "We practically are the military." Those gems are usually overlooked in favor of catchier lines like "Dead or alive, you're coming with me" and "I'd buy that for a dollar."

RoboCop isn't a washed-up action hero or relic of his time. He represents perseverance in the face of adversity. Despite his programming, despite the erasing of his memory, Alex, the man, still pushes through. His moral compass was more powerful than the most advanced technology. That type of survival resonates with people. The film's most important message is this: The human spirit matters, and it will never be obsolete. That's why RoboCop is more than heroic; he's iconic.