RoboCop Limited Edition 4K UHD Review
Blu-ray Release: November 26, 2019
Video: 1.85:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color
Audio: English Dolby Atmos (TrueHD 7.1 core); DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 4.0, and 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 103:14 (Director’s Cut)/102:53 (R-rated Cut)/95:16 (TV Cut)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Note: I'm recycling the majority of my older Blu-ray review. If you're only reading this to get my opinion on the new 4K UHD transfer, skip to the Video and Audio sections.
Detroit: the not-too-distant future. Heroic cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is gunned down in the line of duty, only to be resurrected as RoboCop – a cybernetic mix of spare human parts and Motor City steel, and the latest defense against crime designed by the all-powerful OCP Corporation. As RoboCop’s memories of his former life as Murphy resurface, only his ex-partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), stands beside him to fight against the vicious thugs responsible for his death, as well as a nefarious top-level OCP executive orchestrating the chaos from above. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
While there will always (...somehow) be people who miss the considerable anticapitalist political ideology of RoboCop (1987), few viewers miss how outwardly funny the film is. The drollery mostly references the yuppie holocaust that the Ronald Reagan administration had loosed on the world, but the jokes blossomed in relevance over the decades that followed. In fact, capitalist greed, authoritarianism, and gentrification are perhaps more relevant in the 2010/20s than they were in the 1980s (not more prevalent, but at least more readily acknowledged in public spaces). Verhoeven never lets on as to exactly when his dystopian nightmare is taking place, but, from the current state of the actual city of Detroit to the scope of current police militarization, I’m frankly not sure this reality is any less dystopic than the one seen in the movie. For further proof, simply measure the destructive power of a real-world fighter drone against that of a clumsy ED-209 unit.
Dark and politically charged comedy was an intended element of Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s original screenplay (itself a combination of the two writers’ already mostly finished scripts), but it seems very unlikely that RoboCop’s wit would be as sharp had it been made by an American filmmaker (to their credit, the producers apparently also pursued British director Alex Cox for a time, probably because he had made his own quirky sci-fi comedy in Repo Man ). A major Hollywood outsider at the time, Verhoeven was one of the Netherlands’ top directors, known for sexually frank, romantically complicated, religiously critical movies, often with some connection to WWII, be it literal or metaphorical. His films were huge hits and won and/or were nominated for international awards. RoboCop would be his Hollywood debut, though, since he made it after the troubled production of his first English language film, 1985’s Flesh + Blood, and, because he hadn’t worked with extensive special effects before, his success was not a matter of course.
Initially uninterested in RoboCop, Verhoeven eventually connected to Murphy’s existential crisis and loaded the film with visual Jesus metaphors – both common interests for the director – but I believe it was his outsider status that led him to poke fun at the literally explosive antics of ‘80s American action movies. Obviously, the Neumeier/Miner screenplay described violent acts, but Verhoeven pushes violence beyond the point of shock and into hysteria. It’s sort of like the action movie answer to his last pre-American film, The Fourth Man (Dutch: De vierde man, 1983), which magnified the audio-visual rituals seen in Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and Dario Argento movies to similar extremes, all without losing track of the central drama. Neumeier and Vehoven reunited for Starship Troopers in 1997 and satirized the inherent fascism of Robert A. Heinlein’s book of the same name. Unfortunately, many critics and audiences weren’t as savvy to the joke this time and it took awhile for that film to be appreciated.
Connections between RoboCop and the classic Hollywood Westerns are found within its iconography. For instance, scenes of Murphy drawing from the hip and spinning his guns becomes a shorthand for the character’s pre-death motivations (he wants to live up to his son’s cartoonish version of heroism) and a simple visual cue for Lewis to recognize when she begins to suspect RoboCop is her former partner. But the film’s structure and basic themes also match classic Western narrative tropes. Beyond this, it is a sort of an adaptation of a comic that didn’t exist at the time. Its cartoonish violence, shamelessly stylized sci-fi production design, and even its satirical slant all owe a debt to a long line of (largely) European comics aimed at teens and adults, including 2000 AD (the magazine in which John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Dredd first appeared) and Heavy Metal (French: Métal hurlant). Additionally, fans have noted connections to Japanese manga and various tokusatsu superhero series (RoboCop himself bears an uncanny resemblance to Space Sheriff Gavan, in particular), though I’m not sure this particular connection has ever been substantiated by the creators.
RoboCop is also designed as an origin story in the tradition of American superhero comics. The cyberpunk trappings and sarcasm separate it from the likes of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), but, while Donner’s film is credited with proving live-action comic movies could become blockbusters, there wasn’t exactly a rush of similar origin stories in the ten years between the two movies. RoboCop’s most remembered cash-ins were cyborg movies that ripped off its design and/or plot, including Cullen Blaine’s R.O.T.O.R. (which was released only a couple of months after Verhoeven’s film in October of 1987), Godfrey Ho’s Robo Vampire (1988), David Chung’s I Love Maria (Cantonese: Tie jia wu di Ma Li Ya, 1988), Akihisa Okamoto’s Lady Battle Cop (Japanese: Onna batoru koppu, 1990), Sam Firstenberg’s Cyborg Cop (1993), Robert Kurtzman’s The Demolitionist (1995), but its mainstream legacy shines more in the likes of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), and the far less successful superhero movies in-between (including Raimi’s Darkman , as a matter of fact). The connection clearly wasn’t lost on the producers, who hired comic legend Frank Miller to write the RoboCop sequels.
RoboCop was a huge hit in theaters and yet it gained a far larger following on home video, beginning with a 1986 Orion VHS tape and lasting through multiple digital formats (it was reissued on VHS as late as 2000 and still hasn’t found its way to a 4K format yet). The Criterion Collection really set the stage when they released the first unrated/uncut version of RoboCop on Laserdisc in 1996. That disc was retooled for a 1.66:1, non-anamorphic DVD and existed alongside Image’s barebones, R-rated, 1.85:1 non-anamorphic DVD for a time. MGM then released the first anamorphic release in 2001 (it was also included as part of a trilogy set), a 2007 special edition that included an anamorphic version of the unrated cut (alongside the R-rated cut), an unrated/R-rated Blu-ray in 2007, and a remastered unrated Blu-ray in 2014, followed by Arrow’s BD in 2019.
According to specs, Arrow’s transfers were taken from MGM’s own 2013 4K scan of the original R-rated camera negatives. Restoration was completed in 4K and was approved by director Paul Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison, and co-writer/co-producer Edward Neumeier. Both the unrated and R-rated transfers were graded exclusively for this UHD in 4K HDR10 at R3Store Studio. Originally, MGM did not specify the source of the additional print elements used for the unrated shots. Arrow’s original Blu-ray literature warned that, since these inserts were scanned from lower-generation and positive elements, there is an unavoidable subtle shift in picture quality. That warning still stands; however, the 4K UHD includes new unrated inserts and the specs go into more detail, stating, “Additional film elements were sourced from the Cruikshank-Davison Collection at the Academy Film Archive in 2021 to restore the additional or alternate shots in the Unrated Director's Cut Version. All additional materials were scanned in 4K at Company 3, Los Angeles, and were graded & restored at R3Store Studios, London.” There are still little dips in quality, but they are less noticeable than they were on either Arrow or MGM’s BDs. Generally, the chunkiness of grain is decreased, despite the contrast/color differences between negative and positive sources still being clear.
Overall, since Arrow and MGM’s transfers are taken from the same source, there are only minor differences between them, at least in 1080p. Details, sharpness, grain texture, and even color temperature are practically identical on the Blu-ray. The HDR improvements of the UHD are, once again, the bigger story here and more immediately impressive than any increase in detail. There are occasions where Arrow’s previously (and arguably) over-boosted whites or blacks eat up some of the finer textures and shades. Also, to my eye, the grain during a handful of sequences appears more like digital noise, which is something I’ve started noticing with multiple studios’ UHD upgrades. I don’t have the technical knowhow to explain why this happens or if I’m just imagining it, but it’s not enough to sully an otherwise very impressive transfer, anyway. I imagine this will be the film’s high standard for quite a while.
A note on aspect ratio: Every MGM disc was framed at 1.85:1 and arguments have been made by videophiles that, because the Criterion disc was 1.66:1, Verhoeven and cinematographer Jost Vacano’s preferred that framing. Sure enough, imdb.com still lists 1.66:1 as the “intended ratio.” Whatever the intention, 1.85:1 was the theatrical AR and has been pretty firmly established as the HD AR – not to mention that Verhoeven also okay’d this transfer – though I do wonder, had Arrow done their own separate scan/remaster, if they would’ve opted for 1.66:1.
RoboCop was originally mixed for Dolby SR (Spectral Recording), which was a common stereo option for the pre-digital era. There was also a 6-Track mix created for the original 70mm blow-up and, later, a 5.1 remix was made for DVD. Arrow has dug into the archives to include a 4.0 multi-channel from the original audio stems, the 5.1 remix, which was produced by MGM and the only soundtrack option on several of their discs, a 2.0 downmix of the 4.0 original, all presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio, in addition to a fresh, UHD exclusive Dolby Atmos track, itself sourced from the 4.0 LCRS. The menu even instructs you how to set your player and system in order to enjoy the Atmos mix correctly.
I only have a 5.1 setup, so I didn’t get the whole 7.1 experience, but can verify that the Atmos track is significantly louder and broader than the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. It also has a sharper dynamic range and bit more directional movement than the other audio options. Surround and range aside, the differences in placement between the tracks is subtle. The 2.0 track feels the most natural, but has a tinge of hiss/distortion. Basil Poledouris’ fantastic industrial symphonic score sounds best on the 4.0 track, but the dialogue isn’t particularly well-centered, leading to occasional echo effects. The 5.1/Atmos track is the cleanest of the three and benefits from the discrete LFE channel, but has lower overall volume levels. In the end, it all comes down to the viewer's choice.
Disc One – Director’s Cut (unrated)
Archive commentary with director Paul Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison, and co-writer Ed Neumeier – I believe that this is the re-edited version of MGM’s first RoboCop commentary and that it is different than the one the same team recorded for the Criterion Collection disc (Verhoeven mentions Hollow Man, which didn’t come out until 2000). Either way, you’ve probably already heard it, but why not listen to it again.
Commentary with film historian Paul M. Sammon – The author of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (Borgo, 1996) offers up a typically impressive, fact-heavy track. His discussion is structured and not often screen-specific, though he does break for screen-specific comments.
Commentary with Christopher Griffiths, Gary Smart, and Eastwood Allen – The creators of RoboDoc: The Creation of RoboCop (post-production), Griffiths (director), Smart (writer), and Allen (editor/special effects) keep their personable group discussion moving along with a more screen-specific slant.
The Future of Law Enforcement: Creating RoboCop (16:51, HD) – Co-writer Michael Miner, who has not been very well represented on previous special features, talks about his sociological inspirations, connecting his ideas to Neumeier’s, themes, rewrites, and getting the movie made.
RoboTalk (32:08, HD) – A conversation between Neumeier and filmmaker David Birke (writer of Verhoeven’s Elle, 2016), hosted by Nick McCarthy (director of The Prodigy, 2019). Admittedly, there’s not a lot of new information here about the making of the film, but the format is nice and a good alternative for people who want to know more about Neumeier and how Verhoeven works with writers.
Truth of Character (18:26, HD) – Actress Nancy Allen recalls reading the script, being cast, preparing her character, and working with Verhoeven and her castmates.
Casting Old Detroit (8:20, HD) – Casting director Julie Selzer breaks down the film’s ensemble, cast member by cast member.
Connecting the Shots (11:06, HD) – Second unit director Mark Goldblatt (director of Dead Heat  and The Punisher ) talks about working his way up to a job on RoboCop and his frequent collaborations with Verhoeven.
Analog (13:10, HD) – A look at the film’s special photographic effects and lifetime work of supervisors Peter Kuran and Kevin Kutchaver, including footage from their childhood 8mm movies where they honed their craft.
More Man Than Machine: Composing Robocop (12:08, HD) – A tribute to composer Basil Poledouris featuring film music experts Jeff Bond, Lukas Kendall, Daniel Schweiger, and Robert Townson. Here, RoboCop’s major motifs are broken down into their musical and thematic parts alongside various anecdotes about the composer.
RoboProps (12:50, HD) – A tour of super-fan Julien Dumont’s collection of original props and memorabilia.
2012 Q&A with the Filmmakers (42:37, HD) – A panel discussion featuring Verhoeven, Davison, Neumeier, Miner, Allen, star Peter Weller, and animator Phil Tippett recorded at UCLA in 2012.
Director’s Cut production footage (11:34, HD) – Raw dailies from the filming of the unrated gore scenes.
Image galleries – Production stills, behind the scenes, and poster & video art
RoboCop: Creating a Legend (21:10, SD)
Villains of Old Detroit (17:00, SD)
Special Effects: Then & Now (18:21, SD)
Paul Verhoeven Easter Egg (00:38, SD)
Four deleted scenes (2:51, SD)
The Boardroom: Storyboard with Commentary by Phil Tippett (6:02, SD)
Two trailers and three TV spots
Theatrical, R-rated cut (102:47, HD)
Edited for television cut (95:16, 1080i from 2K scans) – Including all of the cuss-free dubs, alternate takes, and censorship edits.
Commentary with Verhoeven, Davison, and Neumeier
Composer’s original mix isolated score (DTS-HD MA 2.0)
Final theatrical mix isolated score (DTS-HD MA 2.0)
Split-screen comparisons – Theatrical vs. director’s cut (4:02, HD) and theatrical vs. TV cut (20:16, HD). Having rewatched the film the most times on TV and as part of the family-friendly VHS home game, I quite enjoyed the latter comparison.
Robocop: Edited for Television (18:35, HD) – A compilation of alternate scenes from two edited-for-television versions, including outtakes that have been newly transferred in HD from recently-unearthed 35mm elements (some sound is recreated).
The images on this page are taken from the remastered Arrow Blu-ray, NOT the 4K UHD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.