Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Robocop (1987)

Country: USA

With a remake in the pipeline for 2013 I decided to return to the dystopian Detroit of Robocop and attempt to discover just exactly why this particular narrative has persisted over the last 23 years. The philistines among us would probably say it is entirely a matter of economics, but romantics such as myself would like to think there is something more going on. With sequels appearing in 1990 and 1993, video games appearing in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 2003, and a television mini series in 2000 Officer Alex Murphy and his Cyborg counterpart have become iconic figures in the science-fiction landscape. From a personal perspective Robocop is an important film in my cinematic education. It was the first 18 certificated film I was permitted to see by my parents, and the resultant video shop nostalgia is strong when I think of this film. But unlike other films I was allowed to see at this time Robocop has stayed with me, and it is always a delight when I screen it every couple of years.

It has led me to explore other films by the controversial Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, and one significant difference it seems to have over his other films is an essential humanity. There is an emotional core to Robocop, a sense of right and wrong, and a strong ethics of morality. Earlier Verhoeven films such as Turkish Delight (1973), The Fourth Man (1983) and Flesh+Blood (1985) are full of preening egoists, selfish and horribly self aware, these protagonists lack the moral centre to function in the world as emotionally developed human beings. But Verhoeven and actor Peter Weller somehow manage to convey a depth to a Cyborg character that isn’t even human in the strictest sense. Weller achieves much of this through the lower part of his face, the occasional shots of his eye under the visor and in his posture and movement. It is an incredible performance made all the more impressive by the fact that Murphy seems to be intentionally portrayed as dull and lacking in dimension. Murphy truly comes alive after his cybernetic baptism. The snippets of memory, the dreams of his past life, and Robocop’s emotional confusion add a moving philosophical layer to the proceedings, and it is no surprise that his first thought is vengeance against those who have shot him to pieces.

In addition to the philosophical underpinnings of the narrative Robocop is also an effective social and political satire. The Detroit police department is in such a state that it has become privatised and is now run by a corporation entitled Omni Consumer Products (OCP). The result of this privatisation is an increase in violent crime, numerous dead cops, and a police force on the verge of striking. It doesn’t help that the crime lord of old Detroit Clarence J. Boddicker (a brilliantly sadistic Kurtwood Smith) is in cahoots with OCP’s No 2 Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox). Jones recognises that a city without crime is an economic disaster zone and uses Boddicker in order to further his own ambitions to get his latest law enforcement machine ED209 onto the streets and then into the military. Unfortunately ED209’s maiden demonstration ends in a tragically hilarious fashion. In steps coke snorting Bob Morton (a typically sleazy Miguel Ferrer) with his own prototype law enforcement programme - and Alex Murphy’s life will never be the same again.

The satirical edge of the film extends to the numerous news updates which filter into the narrative - offering us visions of a world on the brink of nuclear destruction, and various advertisements (my favourite is the board game Nuke ’Em!) and the whole effect is a world of superficiality, nobody means what they say in this nightmare vision of capitalism gone mad. Verhoeven’s outsider status and European sensibility seems to pick apart the threads of a corporate and consumer driven society, and the result is total anarchy. But Verhoeven’s sensibility also brings a carnivalesque and almost cartoonish approach to the material. The violence for example is absurdly exaggerated and characters (other than Murphy/Robocop) are mere one dimensional ciphers. But the representations are keenly developed so that the subversive credentials of the film are impossible too ignore. But if there is one thing that stands shoulders above the rest in this film it is the special make up effects by Rob Bottin. Bottin had previously provided the grotesque effects in John Carpenters The Thing (1982) and the werewolf transformations of Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981). But this time he is dealing with synthetic materials instead of mutating flesh and blood. The fusion of flesh and metal, man and machine, echoes the body horror of David Cronenberg and Robocop works through some of those themes, if in a slightly less sophisticated way. Robocop is both brutally sadistic and oddly meditative in its consideration of what makes us human - for the majority of the characters in this film material wealth is the index of humanity, but for Murphy/Robocop it is placement in a chaotic and ever evolving universe.


  1. This is one of the big ones for me, I mean, this movie was a huge part of my childhood and one of the films that made me fall in love with films. I like the city in chaos angle, it was very well developed. The police station alone looks like hell! Everybody hates everybody, everybody thinks only of themselves.

    Robocop is just one cool looking creation. Im very curious to see how they will bring this one into the new millenium. I only hope they dont water Robocop down!

  2. You're right about the sadism; it was one of the first films to really disturb me when the gang gleefully shot up Weller. Watching it as an adult the satire comes through, but still and all, I think I prefer him in Naked Lunch.

  3. An excellent 80's action sci fi movie, and it is one of my all time favorites Paul Verhoeven is at his best in this movie. Some of the violent death scenes in the Robocop still rock me even now, it is the sort of film that on first viewing will cause your jaw to drop to the floor and stay there.

    I am looking forward to seeing the remark.


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