Review for RoboDoc: The Creation of Robocop
I tend to think that the golden age of film documentaries is over. That’s not true of course; it’s more accurate to say that the golden age of ‘free’ film documentaries has passed. I bought the latest Mission Impossible film on Blu-ray recently, and that came with half an hour of electronic press kit soundbites and a perfunctory commentary. The days of Peter Jackson producing four-hour-long Lord of the Rings movies with twelve hours of extra content per film seem distant at this point. It was really the Laserdisc era that spoiled us for extra content, an approach that carried forward to DVDs, but hasn’t really stuck around for Blu-rays, although classic films do still get some interesting content. It is usually far more interesting to watch a critical retrospective of a film years after its release, than some contemporaneous promotional guff.
However even those classic films are limited in what they can do with documentary featurettes by studio requirements, promotional imperatives, or just plain lack of space on a disc. And most of the good bonus content is merely repeated from previous releases, even going back as far, like the Field of Dreams Blu-ray did, as to the original Laserdisc documentary. Having said all of that, the independent film documentarians are creating like never before. Nostalgia for classic films (which at this juncture means films of the eighties and nineties) has never been greater, and this was the time with the advent of video cameras, that behind the scenes material really boomed, while the creative talent behind these films are still available to sit down and interview. More importantly, filmmaking has become ubiquitous; anyone can use a phone to shoot video (although not everyone has the talent), and that means that fans are making independent documentaries about their favourite films, and that has been a game changer. A few years ago, I reviewed Cleaning Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters, and I was blown away by what was obviously a labour of love. Now, lifelong fans Christopher Griffith and Eastwood Allen bring us RoboDoc: The Creation of RoboCop; practically five hours worth of documentary split into four episodes, with extra features.
And even still, my first question is whether we actually need this. I’ve loved RoboCop since I first saw it on the pirate VHS that was making the rounds of my school. I’ve bought the film twice on VHS, on DVD, and twice on Blu-ray, and as a classic film it hasn’t been shy of meaningful extra features across the formats over the years. The DVD had the Flesh and Steel Documentary, the 2012 Blu-ray got a new Q&A with the filmmakers, while the 2019 release got new commentaries (with one from Christopher Griffith and Eastwood Allen) 2 hours of new featurettes, and the old archival featurettes from previous releases all the way back to Laserdisc. What could a new documentary add? It turns out quite a lot.
Across four episodes, we get the story of the making of RoboCop that has never been told, at lost not in one place and in this way. Archival content supports new interviews with the cast and the crew t, presented on two Blu-ray discs, with added extra features.
1. Destination Delta City (68:18)
2. Verhoeven’s Mantra (77:32)
3. Blood, Sweat & Steel (69:00)
4. Murphy & The Machine (83:48)
The documentary gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p presentation on these discs, with DTS-HD MA 5.1 English surround sound. There aren’t any subtitles, which isn’t good for the hard of hearing, but for everyone else, the dialogue is clear and audible throughout; no mumbling here, and RoboCop dates from an era where dialogue was important in films, so the film footage within is also just as clear when it comes to dialogue. The image is clear and free of compression issues, but varies in quality depending on the source. The new interviews are crystal clear, vintage VHS interviews, not so much. The filmmakers have used a bit of creative CGI to emphasise certain comments. The music for the documentary is very evocative, and has just enough of the original theme to resonate.
After playing a few trailers for other film documentaries (The Robert Englund Story, Pennywise: The Story of “It”), the discs boot to animated menus, the extras are listed as follows.
Meet the Makers (10:15)
Roboteam Assemble (12:08)
Major Firepower (7:50)
Call to Action (12:38)
Robo Cast Quotes (2:00)
Art of the Steel (3:00)
Part Man Part Machine All Videogame (8:23)
Guns! Guns! Guns! (3:52)
RoboDoc Trailer (1:42)
Documentaries usually find a narrative to follow, and are edited down from tens, maybe even hundreds of hours of interview footage to define that narrative. But that leaves a lot of material on the cutting room floor from which to put together some extra features. And I appreciate these extras to see the ZX Spectrum RoboCop computer game in high definition!
RoboCop is a 1 hour 45 minute film. You’ll need 5 hours to see how it was made, and every minute of that is well spent. I really enjoyed RoboDoc: The Creation of Robocop, and I only once thought about RoboCod: James Pond 2. Facetiousness aside, this is the definitive story of the making of the film. You often hear about warts and all documentaries, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen one. RoboCop was an amazing original story, and it was a groundbreaking piece of cinema, made back when studios really took risks. It could have been just another generic action b-movie, but they got a Dutch director with just one US title under his belt to helm the film, bringing a new brand of uber-violence and social satire to the screen, and the rest is history. It wasn’t as easy a production as you might think given how perfect and classic the final product is, and that is the education this documentary delivers.
As mentioned, typically these documentaries tend to find a narrative, an approach to the subject to concentrate on, and tell a decent story. For instance, the Ghostbusters documentary I mentioned at the start of this review found an untold story about the film’s effects work. Many documentaries follow a traditional template, following films from writing, pre-production, filming, post-production, and release, fairly chronologically. RoboDoc is bookended that way, with writing and pre-production at the start, and the film’s release and audience response at the end. But when it comes to the making of, it actually takes us through the original movie, scene by scene, from Alex Murphy’s arrival at Metro West to his victory in the OCP boardroom.
The doc looks at the making of each of these scenes, with contemporaneous behind the scenes footage, and new interviews with the cast and the crew. And the filmmakers have spoken to as many people as they could get, most of the surviving cast, and many of the crew, including the writers, the director and the producers. Even those who are deceased are represented by archival interviews. Pretty much the only glaring absence is that of Rob Bottin, who is apparently retired at this juncture. And for this documentary, you’ll hear a whole lot of stories and anecdotes that have never been committed to tape before. It really does do the ‘warts and all’ thing, relating the frictions and ructions that erupted during the making of the film, not least the conflict that arose between an always right Dutch director and an US crew that had a different definition of right. Profanity is to be expected, and not just in the RoboCop clips.
Since the eighties, we really have been spoiled when it comes to bonus content with films and TV shows. An EPK is standard for these things now, and there is always behind the scenes content to be stuck on a disc, or put online, or even shown on TV. And they always seem to follow the same template. You’re very rarely surprised by what these featurettes will tell you about a film (usually a sea of green). The Holy Grail of film documentaries will reveal something completely new about a film that you love and think you know everything about already. RoboDoc does that, and it does it for five hours. I’d buy that for a dollar!
RoboDoc - The Creation of Robocop will be available as a Blu-ray Collector’s Edition on December 18th and TVOD/EST from January 1st 2024.