I’m an unabashed geek. If you review any of the essays and reviews on this site, that should be plainly obvious. As the title of this essay suggest, I’m looking at Robocop, one of the gems of 1980s science fiction. A film that epitomizes the phrase “dark satire”, Robocop (and I’m referring to the first film only, not the sequels or the remake) has lost none of its excellent story beats in the intervening 20+ years since its release.
As a kid, I loved violent movies. My mother was more concerned with sex in films than she was violent content. For us, it was make-believe violence. We knew nobody was actually being shot or dismembered (although she didn’t let us watch many hyper-violent films like Robocop after she became born-again). The violence of Robocop is a selling point for a pre-teen or teenage boy, at least one in the 80s. Both the original film and the Director’s Cut are ludicrously (even gleefully) over-the-top, almost to the point that it becomes an example and a parody of the action movies released in that decade. Paul Verhoeven makes use of the violence to show the world this story is set in. To borrow a trope from tvtropes.org, it’s a crapsack world. Within the first half an hour of the film, two different characters are gunned down in what can only be described as overkill shootings. The world of Robocop is just an evil dictatorship away from being dystopian. Verhoeven wisely chose to not shy away from how needlessly and hopelessly violent this world is. It gives the movie a firm standing as a fallen world, needing some type of rescue from a savior.
It’s not a stretch to call Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy a Christ-like figure. The quintessential idea behind the story is what makes us human. That question is wrapped up in a science fiction story dealing with cybernetics and machinery. With nothing but his face left of his original body, Murphy is reborn after death in a stronger, more powerful form. He has transcended death but the film teases the audience with the possibility that there is enough left over in the machine to be human. Murphy’s role as a savior is not pre-ordained so much as arranged. The arrangement of circumstances ties into the other aspect at play in the film, corporate ownership. He’s just an employee that is transferred to the most violent police district because he fits a profile his employers need for a special project. It’s here that some of the cyberpunk elements enter the storyline.
A hallmark of the cyberpunk genre is the mega-corporation, an entity that can be considered a modern-day empire. Rather than a king or emperor there are stockholders and a board of directors. Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, fills that role, taking over the Old Detroit police department as a new business venture. OCP’s inclusion and the facets revealed in the movie seem almost prescient now. Dick Jones, the corrupt second in charge of OCP, talks about how the company has expanded into ventures like prisons which were not considered potentially profitable. For such an organization, cops like Murphy are not really people, just pieces to be moved about to increase profit margins. It isn’t subtle in any way but it doesn’t need to be. OCP stands in as a monolithic entity representing human avarice, greed trumping everything, even the lives of other humans.
As an adult, the satirical elements are now my favorite parts of the film. An example would be the ED-209, a massive project to create robotic enforcement droids for urban pacification. This invention speaks to the sometimes remarkably lack of foresight of corporate creative minds when you realize the planners of the project gave this mechanical beastie impressive armaments but forgot to think about how it would navigate stairs or recognize that a suspect has discarded a weapon. The funny bits for me, though, are the snippets of television, advertisements, and newscasts shown throughout the film. These little pieces serve almost as a Greek Chorus for the film, filling the audience in on larger social and political matters not directly addressed by the main plot. The TV show with the catchphrase “I’d buy that for a dollar!” shows the dumbing down of the public. The newscasters are smiling mouthpieces talking about tragic events as if they were reporting sunny weather for the next five days. The advertisements, especially the one for the 6000 SUX automobile, skewer the vacuous consumer culture of the 1980s in much the same way American Psycho would do a few years later in print.
The brilliance of the film is the ending. Verhoeven and the writers don’t present easy solutions. Sure the bad guys are dead and Murphy has regained his humanity. The mega-corp responsible for putting him in harm’s way and transforming him into a caricature of humanity is still in charge. There is no resolution for the decaying state of Old Detroit, which by indications through the newscasts, is a microcosm of how deeply this fictional world has fallen. Murphy is not a savior of the world, only himself, and even then not completely. I don’t view it as a downer ending but it certainly isn’t a happy one either. That level of ambiguity is lost in science fiction films now. The resurrection of Murphy is not the resurrection of the fallen world around him. That world remains as it is, a hyperbolic version of how messy our world tends to be.