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Some of that lingering sense of shock comes from the way Verhoeven films the sequence, and from the Old Man’s callous attitude. But at least as much of it comes from the performance Tippett elicited from a puppet not much taller than a beer bottle. A full-size, 7-foot, 300-pound model was also built and filmed, but the shots where ED-209 walks were all of Tippett’s miniature. That one is the actor. It hesitates. It stutters. It flails its three-toed metal foot, searching for its footing. Later in the film, an outgunned RoboCop survives his showdown with the clunky beast because it can’t climb stairs — it tries, slips and ends up like a beetle on its back, kicking its swollen legs and wailing. Its humiliation was ironic because, in reality, actor Peter Weller couldn’t negotiate stairs while bolted into his clunky $600,000 Robo-suit, either.
I remember a photograph from an issue of the long-defunct sci-fi magazine Starlog of Verhoeven standing in front of the full-size ED-209 model on the set of RoboCop, his hands raised above his head, his features contorted into a mask of rage. To this day this is the picture of Verhoeven that comes to mind when I think of him. His next four American films, Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997), all bolstered his reputation as a European artist who relished picking at America’s puritanical scabs, and this photo seemed to capture that. But he was probably just miming what he wanted the model to do in the scene, a precursor to the way actor Andy Serkis would be motion-captured for his roles in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings pictures (and his way-underrated remake of King Kong) a generation later.
Serkis’ performances in those films have an emotional sophistication that actor-unassisted computer animation hasn’t yet managed to replicate. But Tippett achieved something close to it when he transformed ED-209 from a scary-looking statue into a character. Watching RoboCop these days, you can see it was a penny-pinching production even its in time, which was, least we forget, back when people bought their music on cassette tapes. When ED-209 trundles onscreen to menace our tin-plated hero, it doesn’t look realistic. It just looks alive.
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