ROBOCOP (1987): "Dead or Alive, You're Coming With Me"
It’s likely that even if you haven’t seen RoboCop, you feel like you already know it. Through 31 years of cultural osmosis, which saw two sequels, an animated Saturday morning cartoon, weirdly inappropriate toys and merchandise aimed at kids, a short-lived live-action TV show, a modern remake, and endless parodies in popular culture, it’s initial impact briefly faded, overtaken by the consumerist culture it raged against and a reputation for macho ultraviolence that characterized many similar films of its time. The story of Alex Murphy’s death and seeming resurrection into a robotic badass, a twisted Frankenstein riff and sci-fi Christ allegory all in one (no really), is ubiquitous to the point of common knowledge.
It wouldn’t be the first time such a fate would befall a classic. It’s hard to imagine any modern viewer approaching Psycho for the first time with no knowledge of its tricks, especially its famous twist ending and possibly the most parodied scene in cinema history (there’s even a documentary about it now). Another example: Saturday Night Fever, praised upon release, was and often continues to be a punchline for all its disco camp and the Travolta of it all; I myself was pleasantly surprised to find a much darker, grimmer character study when finally approaching it on its own terms. I’d urge modern viewers to likewise give RoboCop that fair assessment.
Paul Verhoeven’s film hasn’t just aged well, but possibly too well, as you could argue that the corporate hellscape depicted in the film has in many ways become our present day reality. Set in Delta City, a new corporately run metropolis that has effectively replaced Detroit, in the near-future, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is transferred to a new precinct, only to find himself up against the gang of the sadistic criminal kingpin Clarence Boddicker on his first day. They brutally gun him down, leaving him for dead. However, OmniCorp, the national mega-conglomerate that runs nearly every aspect of modern life in Delta City, if not America as a whole, finds his mangled body the perfect candidate to be assimilated into their newest product: the RoboCop.
Equipped with bulletproof armor, a computer in his head, digital vision, and a scarily effective pistol stored in his leg, RoboCop is an exceptionally efficient enforcer of the law. We get a wonderfully fun montage of his first deployment, swiftly disposing of a convenience store robber, two potential rapists (one by shooting his penis off…while aiming through the skirt worn by his human shield), and destructively, but effectively, defusing a hostage situation by pulling the terrorist through a wall.
The action, in one word, is nasty. In another, it’s awesome. Whether new viewers will still find its over-the-top carnage - infamously trimmed down in order to not receive an X-rating; this version is now readily available on Blu-Ray and streaming on Amazon Prime - may be hard to gauge today. Personally, I still find it simultaneously ridiculous, joyful, and horrifying. For all the extreme nature of violence in modern horror and action films, blood squibs have rarely been used so gratuitously and messily since; only Django Unchained, perhaps, comes close. But Verhoeven deploys it not as a means in and of itself, but as yet another razor-sharp satirical tool in his arsenal. The extreme violence does mirror similar action spectacle of the times, such as Commando, Predator, or one of the Rambo sequels, warping and distorting it to the point of excess. The heroes of those movies visited their violence on countless other nameless bad guys, and we cheer it on. Verhoeven instead inflicts the worst of his violence on our hero early on in an uncomfortably brutal and detailed sequence, curdling our ability to revel in it in the process. While much of the later violence becomes cathartic and just, our ability to fully, mindlessly consume it has been lessened.
Ed Neumeier &
But to say the only target RoboCop has is those specific kinds of films would be to only look so far. It’s extremism acts as an extension of the world Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier are depicting, yet another outlet of an inherently immoral and valueless society as a warped mirror image of the Reagan ‘80s. This nature of the larger world comes through in the morally vacuous entertainment with which its characters often stop to mindlessly amuse themselves, the most famous being the recurring “I’d buy that for a dollar!” sitcom schtick. But the looming cloud over all of the proceedings, from which all of the corruption comes, is the mega-corporation OmniCorp. Contrary to what the American government may say, corporations are not people, and they do not have any sense of morality, valuing profits over all else. RoboCop posits a future where unregulated capitalism has left this amorality unchecked, creating entities so large and powerful that they control nearly every facet of public life, up to and including local government. The list of things OmniCorp has privatized and swallowed whole include hospitals, the prison system, space exploration, the automotive industry, and the military industrial complex (does any of this sound familiar?). The list doesn’t have to be taken too far to go into full comedy territory, which 2014’s The LEGO Movie eventually did. And at the start of the film, they’re looking to dig their fingers even further into local law enforcement, offering robotic alternatives to human police officers, first with the ED-209 units, then with the RoboCop program.
The company has such an over-large presence and influence that they are able to relocated dozens upon dozens of officers to more dangerous precincts in order to maximize the possible success of their program. They eventually get lucky with Murphy, whose death provides the opportunity to move forward with the newest product. After his death, we are treated to a sequence of his conversion into RoboCop, as more and more modifications are introduced to be implemented onto his body, the scientists discussing details of the project in front of him. In one moment, the scientists debate whether they should amputate his left arm (the right one was blown off by Boddicker’s gang) in favor of a robotic one; the scientists note that he signed the terms and services for his precinct, and is dead, therefore they can do whatever they want with him. Murphy’s humanity has, in every way, been stripped from him, and he is now considered an object, literally when the drunken guests of a New Year’s party condescendingly goad his nonresponsive body and kiss him.
Verhoeven does not forget what little is left of his humanity, however, shooting the whole sequence from Murphy’s, now RoboCop’s perspective. As the narrative progresses, pieces of Murphy’s life bleed into RoboCop’s consciousness, setting him on a course of self-rediscovery and revenge. Unlike most films, his quest does not enable him to fully reclaim his former life, a mistake the later remake would dive straight into. A visit to his former home finds it decrepit, his family gone, never to be seen again. His memories of his previous life exist more as faulty program that keep him from moving on rather than signs of an inner life. He is not Murphy anymore, and he never will be again, and whatever he is able to reclaim of himself is little more than a knowledge of who he once was and how he got where he is.
The final seconds of the film on its face would treat this as enough of a victory; as the CEO of OmniCorp asks him what his name is, he replies “Murphy” with a smile. But other than satisfying the loose ends of revenge, little has actually been accomplished in affecting change for himself and the world around him. RoboCop is still a commodity, owned and controlled by OmniCorp. The city is still racked with violence, crime, and poverty, much of which likely being the direct result of OmniCorp’s influence. And the company still controls everything, and is likely still manipulating conditions to create more RoboCops. Nothing indicates that they will do anything other than what they have done the whole movie: treating its citizens as either potential consumers or commodities to exploit, dead or alive. It’s one of those endings that stings the absolute most; for as good as it made you feel watching it, it leaves you tasting acid.
RoboCop is currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime, and is available to rent on iTunes and other VOD platforms. It is also available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.