We’ll start alphabetically, but this is the big tie. They’re such different movies, and I like them both for such different reasons — herein is where the quantitative value of the list breaks down (only at the end, never before). But time and again have I wracked my brain, though I must say that on occasion it’ll hit me, I’ll just be driving along or in bed, and I’ll think: Jesus Christ, The Matrix is such a perfect movie. Goddamn it. There is nothing wrong with it, and it’s so good, just so goddamn good. But Robocop is like my bro. It’s been there forever, and I know that it’ll never leave me. So which one’s better? Spoilers: I didn’t decide.
We’ve looked at the two sequels, which are both great, but this is where it began. “It,” being arguably unconnected to the “this.” The Matrix is the story of hacker Neo, who feels out of place at his 90s software company. He’s always on the computer, not going to clubs, dealing drugs or something. Turns out, this schmo is a prophesied warrior in an alternate universe — that universe? OUR REALITY.
For scifi fans, this is nothing new. We just saw Dark City, we’re looking forward to eXistenZ and Avalon — The Matrix is part of a tradition of scifi extrapolations of the Allegory of the Cave. Add in Hong Kong gun fu, anime stylisms, and cyberpunk atmosphere, we get a fun pastiche of the things we all like.
What elevates The Matrix is its very construction. Perhaps this stems from its multiple origins, that a universal story center could be reached beyond the usual mono-myth, and as we see, the movie is a lightspeed jump from Bound, closer to the narrative confidence of Cloud Atlas for the Wachowskis.
In terms of action pacing, there is none better. Not even #2 on this list, not even Robocop. The final thirty minutes are a sequence of mounting action scenes, from the lobby shootout in true John Woo form to the rooftop encounter with the Agent that gave us the iconic bullet time moment to the rescue of Morpheus which is dramatically cathartic to Morpheus hanging off the helicopter to Neo saving Trinity and the helicopter hits the building and explodes!
And then — Neo faces Agent Smith in the subway. Why isn’t he turning around? The culmination of his character arc was the helicopter thing, this is the application, and it’s so satisfying that such a thing is expressed in a precise martial arts scene. It’s cinematic storytelling at its finest — each narrative beat is character resonant, and composes a grand set piece.
And the subway scene, which ends in ‘my name is Neo,’ isn’t even the ending! Then it’s the chase scene from Ghost in the Shell, albeit with role reversal. No, the watermelons don’t shoot people and explode them, but the Agent takes the Batou role here. Regardless, Neo gets chased, and shot — I don’t have to recount the ending of The Matrix, it’s just crazy that even afterward, there’s still stuff that happens!
The action in The Matrix is forever. The ideas and visuals are so strong, but in scifi, there’s plenty to rival it. What makes the movie an absolute classic is the script, and the directors’ execution of it. This is what visionaries look like. The Matrix looks like this on storyboards, and I must imagine it’s just the same in the Wachowskis’ heads.
Similar to The Matrix, Robocop is also a perfectly paced story. The action is bloody and Verhoeven. The science-fiction story is satisfying and enlightening. It’s a great formula, but what gives Robocop that extra added punch boils down to Clarence Boddicker, who represents not just a character, but an attitude. A way of life, maybe.
There’s an edge to Robocop that was doubtlessly born of the screenwriters’ studying of corporate and Hollywood culture. The villains aren’t faceless, the big robots even, are multipurpose — ED-209 isn’t just a heartless killing machine, he can’t walk down stairs. There’s a lot going on here that’s uncharacteristic for the genre. Science-fiction is never funny like this, not even in scifi comedies like Galaxy Quest or Men in Black.
It’s funny in a way that you almost think they didn’t know what they were doing. It’s that 80s thing. But it’s a movie of such technical skill, despite the budget, that he had to know. And for the satire, Verhoeven was held back just enough from making Starship Troopers.
The story is still human, it isn’t preoccupied by poking fun at something. Although that still exists, in the news segments and the brutal OCP politics, what’s more in focus here is Alex Murphy, part-man, part-machine, you know him. This is the story of a good guy who’s turned into a product, but exercises his humanity in a cathartic and visceral way.
It really can’t be missed. This movie is so special to me — beyond all the garbage I spoke in the very first episode of the podcast, what gave it such legs with the nerds these days is its unusual manner, its Clarence Boddicker, and all the exploding bodies a young soul could ask for.