Collins’ Crypt: Peter Weller Is Great, In Case You Needed A Reminder

He doesn't make a ton of horror/sci-fi films, but when he does show up in one you best pay attention.

I don't think anyone in the world will try to argue that either of the RoboCop sequels are better than the original*, but they do have their fans and those fans will be very happy with the new Blu-ray releases, as they come with commentaries, retrospective documentaries, and behind the scenes looks at the films' respective FX scenes. I myself hadn't seen either of them since they first came to VHS, and while I can't imagine finding time to bother with the third film again, I was eager to give RoboCop 2 another look and see if 37-year-old me would appreciate it more than ten-year-old me did. I couldn't remember WHY I was less than thrilled with the movie when I rented it back around Christmas of 1990, but after popping in the Blu-ray it didn't take long for me to pinpoint my exact issue: Robocop is barely in the damn thing. I mean, I'm not going to take out a stopwatch (or do a Minute by Minute), but it seemed like our hero was only on-screen for about a third of the just-under two-hour movie, which was annoying enough now as an adult, let alone as a kid who just wanted to see the hero doing his thing like he did in the earlier film. 

Naturally, this results in a far bigger problem: Peter Weller doesn't get to be in it enough! Besides its PG-13 rating, the biggest reason no one wanted to give the third film a chance is because Weller was replaced with another actor (Robert John Burke, who is actually a solid character actor and didn't deserve to be Lazenby'd), but you can practically apply that same argument to this film. The highlight comes somewhere in the middle, when he is reprogrammed by OCP with dozens of new directives, turning him into a peace-loving lame-o who is mocked by kids and says things like "Bad language makes for bad feelings!". It can be seen as some kind of clairvoyant meta gag to show how awful a family friendly Robocop would be, as the franchise would be watered down after this film (the remake was also PG-13), but like about a half dozen other things in the movie it ultimately goes nowhere and seems like a stray idea leftover from one of the project's several scripts. However, you can at least enjoy Weller's game performance in these scenes, as well as the ones before it where he is trashed by the villains and left looking like Bishop in Alien 3. Weller's head jerks around, his eyes roll back and forth... it's incredibly impressive physical acting from the actor.

Seeing these scenes is what got me thinking how lucky the genre is to have an actor like him giving us his time/performances when he sees fit. He mostly directs these days (and he also has a PhD in art history, teaching at Syracuse), but every now and then he will show up in something horror or sci-fi related, and it's always a huge benefit to the film or show. Star Trek Into Darkness is probably the best example; it's no one's favorite Trek film (it's a decent enough summer blockbuster, sure, but as a Star Trek... oof) but few ever had anything bad to say about his performance, which fit right into his wheelhouse. Weller excels at playing villains with a conscience or good guys who turn out to be bad, which has served him well throughout his career. Regardless of the films' quality or lack thereof, he's at his best when there's a certain quirk to the character - even in RoboCop 2, when constricted by the suit and erratic script, you can see him really sinking his teeth into the "reprogrammed" section of the film, whereas throughout most of the rest it might as well just be a stunt guy wearing the thing.

And he had a knack for finding such roles even at the beginning of his career. After years of theater and bit parts, he got his first lead in a feature with Of Unknown Origin, a favorite of mine that cast Weller in what might be his most "normal" role ever: Bart Hughes, a New York banker and loving family man who is pretty happy with his life until a rat starts destroying his gorgeous home. The family goes on vacation early on, so except for the work scenes and the building's handyman the movie is pretty much a one-man show, with Weller completely falling apart as he battles this (large, but not monstrously-sized rat) who has seemingly taken personal interest in destroying his life. When the film starts Bart is a perfectionist who will pick a stray piece of lint from a coworker's clothes, but by the end he's decked out in poor man's makeshift armor, looking like total shit, and screaming at a rat - and it's glorious. It's the kind of role that you can see some actors passing on because they might look stupid getting outsmarted by a rodent, or would be played for the cheap seats by some comedic actor like Kevin James, but Weller makes it believable. It gets intentionally funny at times (his response to the rat chewing out his electricity is legendary), but the actor manages to maintain a sense of class, allowing the film to actually be scary when necessary, but also wholly believable that a seemingly simple problem would drive a normal man insane.

It's this skill that probably helped him get the role of Robocop. After all, it's not the most dignified thing in the world for an actor to be outfitted in a bulky suit for the majority of their screentime, but when they decided they needed someone rather thin (if you recall, Alex Murphy's body was almost completely destroyed, so while Weller had to fit inside of it in reality, in the world of the film the Robocop suit was all machine, not a human body inside of one) they actually lucked out - their "crutch" turned out to be the very thing that would lead them to Weller, as opposed to traditional "superhero" type actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger or traditional leading men like Tom Berenger (allegedly someone who talked to Verhoeven about taking the role). That he had an expressive face was also a nice boon, since his jaw was pretty much all you'd see of him throughout the film yet you're always sure that it's him in the suit (poor RoboCop 3; it SHOULD have been an easy role to recast, but alas). 

This role cemented his legacy in the horror/sci-fi genre, and to this day it's a big deal for filmmakers/showrunners to have him appear in theirs. He'd follow up RoboCop 2 with Naked Lunch, working with one of the genre's true masters (David Cronenberg) and - always the risk taker - starring in an adaptation of an "unfilmable" novel (some people still agreed after watching it). Doing this film was part of why he sat out RoboCop 3, so in hindsight he lucked out - neither film was a box office success, but looking back I'm sure he has no regrets over choosing to work with David Cronenberg over putting on the Robosuit again. It should be noted that he turned down the role in person to director Fred Dekker instead of letting his agent handle it; Weller's had some altercations over his career on account of being very method (he apparently once grabbed a co-star by the neck for complimenting his performance, as he was still "in character" and it messed with his process), so hearing things like that provides some balance. He also played a pair of traditional heroes in horror/sci-fi blends that would remind audiences of Alien: 1989's underwater ripoff Leviathan (from Of Unknown Origin director George P. Cosmatos) and Screamers, which had a Dan O'Bannon script (based on a Philip K. Dick story). In both films he'd manage to be the only memorable thing about them, giving some dimension to the kind of roles that probably could have been played by anyone who wanted the paycheck. In Leviathan he's amusingly playing a character who was thrust into a leadership role he wasn't really prepared for, which looks sillier than the movie's monster when the character is played by a guy who just commands your attention no matter what (probably why he played so many cops and other law enforcement types). As for Screamers, the movie somewhat over-relies on his ability to elevate mediocre projects, and there's only so much he can do. Still, he has a few nice moments, like when he yells at a bug that looks like a rock ("If you're gonna be a rock, be a rock!"), and the ending has an unusual way of depicting the usual hero's sacrifice you expect from these things. 

But lately he's been playing villains more often than not, such as in the aforementioned Star Trek film and his arc on Dexter, saving most of his hero roles for voiceover work (he even got to play Batman in one of the animated films). He's also done most of his work in television as of late, appearing only in the occasional film (he also directs episodic television quite a bit, even if he's not an actor on the show). There are too many examples to highlight individually, but one in particular I'd like to give special mention to is the "White Tulip" episode of Fringe from its second season. His character was only in that one episode, but he was more memorable than some of the season-long villains, and the installment is frequently noted as one of the (way underrated) series' best. Weller played Alistair Peck, an MIT professor who has seemingly just wiped out a train car full of innocent people - but his method is what catches our heroes' attention, as the victims appear to have been completely drained of life... as were their cell phones and laptops. 

It doesn't take long for the team to discover that Peck has found a way to travel through time, and that his victims' life energy was the fuel that got it to work. His device is not a DeLorean or a phone booth, but a Faraday Cage that he's constructed in/around his own body, making Weller look like something that might have appeared in, well, a David Cronenberg movie. It's one of the most grotesque things I've ever seen on a network show, and given his history with heavy makeup jobs (the Robocop suit took nearly eleven hours to apply), it's almost shocking they got him to agree to it. But it was the script that attracted him to the one-off role, as he got to have a lengthy conversation about God with the series' best character (Walter Bishop, played by John Noble), and like his best villains, had some humanity built into his reasoning - he wanted to travel back in time to save his fiancee from a car crash. The ending was legitimately touching (spoiler: he doesn't prevent the crash, but instead gets in the car and dies with her**, therefore undoing whatever harm he did in the present day), and while its final moments (referencing the episode's title) come back in later episodes, it largely works as a completely standalone affair, making it a good episode to show someone who is curious as to what the show is all about. And, it goes without saying, is a must watch for Weller fans who may not have even realized it exists.

Long story short, the genre is lucky to have a guy like Peter Weller popping up in "our" stuff every now and then. He has said in the past that he's not a big fan of gore and takes on roles if they interest him, regardless of what section of the video story they'll end up being stocked, so for the most part his presence in something is a sign of quality, as opposed to other solid actors (like Lance Henriksen, who was often up for the same roles Weller was in the '80s, including RoboCop) who tarnish their cred by taking paychecks (Lance was in the DTV Screamers sequel, natch). Sure, not every movie has been a classic on par with RoboCop or Buckaroo Banzai, but there are precious few downright stinkers on his resume, either. He takes his jobs seriously and always gives a great performance, and can play heroes as easily as villains, making him an ideal actor to have floating around in the back of casting folks' minds when putting together a genre project. And as the makers of the RoboCop sequels can attest, using him properly can be the difference between a good film or a bad one - having him around can and should entice the filmmakers to deliver the same A-game he always brings. 

*I have legitimately heard someone say that the RoboCop remake does indeed improve on the 1987 film, however.

** If the story of a man having difficulties with time travel when all he wants to do is save his love from a car crash, only to decide to simply get into the passenger seat and die along with her sounds familiar - it's because they seemingly swiped it from a concept album called Broken Bride by the band Ludo, right down to the accident occurring in May. The connection was picked up instantly by fans of the show, but as far as I can tell the show's writers have never commented on the glaring similarities.

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